Umbrian Wonderland

It was late afternoon when I reached Assisi last year. A slanting rain was pouring down, ensuring a thorough drenching.

The town was all gray stone, and the only person I saw outside was a policeman swathed in a plastic poncho. This scene wasn't exactly what I had in mind upon setting out, but then it was April in Umbria. I should have done the math.

Then the inn I thought would surely have a room did not. The person at the desk told me of an apartment nearby that was rented by the night or week. It was the best I could do at that point, so I went for it. The unit turned out to be pleasant and modern, with a kitchenette and TV. The latter would come in handy in case it never stopped raining, I thought.

A nearby trattoria welcomed me for an early dinner (anything before 8:30 is early in Italy) and, at last, dry and fed, I bought a paper to read and was asleep by 10.

Awaking about 6 the next morning, I decided to see where I was, as well as to get coffee and a cornetto (croissant). When I got downstairs I heard a gentle church bell, so I followed its sound down a narrow, winding street only to find myself in a wide clearing. A pale sun lit a vast church façade. Mass was just beginning. I joined the few local people inside as a sweet sound of praise came from behind a grille.

The Clarisse (Cla-REE-say) — the Poor Clares — were greeting God as morning came to Assisi.

How blessed I was. I was living right next to the Basilica of St. Clare (in Italian, Santa Chiara: kee-AH-rah), on a level of Assisi below the main Franciscan complex. Mass was the perfect start to a new day. And I did indeed welcome St. Francis's Brother Sun.

Parts of the church, including the crypt, would be closed until 9, and so I bought a book about the basilica from a newsstand and found a caffe nearby for a cappuccino. Appropriate to drink one here, I thought, as the name refers to the brown color of the Capuchin Franciscan Order.

I spent the early morning walking about the town, enjoying the flowers that were starting to color the hills beyond the Basilica of St. Francis above. Assisi has a quiet charm — and a mystical beauty — out of season.

When Francis and Clare lived here, however, they saw an ostentatious town and bloody wars — mainly town against town — as part of daily life. Both Francis and Clare had had to renounce family and friends to reach the state of holiness they achieved.

Clare of Assisi (1193-1253; feast day Aug. 11) exemplified her name, which means clarity, enlightenment. As the daughter of the noble Favarone di Offreduccio, she could have lived a life of ease and privilege. Instead, she reached for something more beautiful.

Her kind and generous mother, Ortolana, made sure that Clare had a good Christian education. But then Clare's fascination with Francis, with his rebellion and fanatical devotion to the poor, went beyond her family's comfort zone.

Clare's illumination, however, was already changing her daily life. After a time of reflection and talks with Francis, Clare showed amazing courage one night. The eve of Palm Sunday was her night of escape from her family and old life. She went off alone into the woods to the tiny chapel of the Portiuncula, where Francis gave her the habit of penance at the altar of the Virgin Mary of the Angels.

That night, the Franciscan brothers took Clare to a Benedictine monastery, where she was protected by the Church against her family's taking her back. Later, at another monastery, she was joined by her sister Caterina, who became Sister Agnes and proved a great comfort to Clare.

St. Clare's letters to Agnes are very moving, and show her thought as she was creating the Order of Poor Clares. Some of her early, simple words inspire even today:

“What you hold, may you always hold. What you do, may you always do.”

And …

“Gaze upon the Lord;

Gaze upon his face;

Gaze upon the One who holds you in his embrace;

Gaze upon his life;

Gaze upon his love;

Gaze upon his coming poor from heaven above.”

Lesser Sister

Pope Gregory IX approved Clare's wish that the order forming around her would live renouncing private property, unlike many of the convents of the day.

The daily life of the Poor Clares, as they became known, was similar to that of the Franciscans. Close to the Friars Minor, they were known as the Lesser Sisters. Their cloister at San Damiano (which can be seen today) was a place for them to gather the spiritual strength to go out during the day, evangelizing the nearby towns and working for their keep.

Clare's accomplishments are all the more amazing when we realize that her health was almost always poor. Francis also was often ill. When he, in his later life, became blind, he lived just outside San Damiano, where the Poor Clares were, and there he wrote his Canticles.

He directed his last will to her and the sisters, and his funeral cortege stopped at San Damiano for a final farewell in 1226.

Among Clare's miracles was that of saving San Damiano from invading Saracens. She did so by praying with and holding up the holy Eucharist in a small ciborium.

As her health failed, she begged Pope Innocent IV — who came in person to visit her — to approve her rule, patterned after St. Francis's own rule for monastic living. This he finally did before she died. Soon afterward she was canonized.

When I revisited her cathedral, built in 1260, I could appreciate the ceiling frescoes representing her heroic life.

To my surprise I saw, in the Chapel of the Crucifix, the very famous colorful crucifix that spoke with St. Francis in San Damiano. I had assumed that it was in the Franciscan basilica in Assisi.

Another joy at St. Clare's is to see her tunic and cloak and some of her hair. Next to that are the breviary and tunic of St. Francis and the shirt she embroidered for him.

The Chapel of the Santissimo is adorned with marvelous fragments of Giotto's school, especially a beautiful nativity scene. On one Christmas Eve, Clare, though still ill in her cot, miraculously participated, it's said, in the Christmas Eve celebration held by St. Francis. This “virtual reality” experience led to her being named the patron saint of television.

St. Clare's mortal remains were discovered in 1850 in a stone sarcophagus under the high altar. Her relics were placed in an urn, which can be seen from the circular staircase at the crypt.

As you kneel in the church to pray, remember Clare's closing to a letter to Sister Agnes:

“Before I say farewell, there is one thing that I must add: that you cling with all your heart to the One who is our life. Whose love inflames our love, whose beauty all admire, whose gentleness is peace. Our gracious Lord.”

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.

Planning Your Visit

St. Clare's feast day is Aug. 11, but Assisi seems in perpetual adoration of its saints. Spring and fall are usually the best seasons, although you might want to bring a foldaway umbrella. At Christmas there are many festivities in Assisi and in nearby Gubbio, celebrating the Nativity. It was St. Francis who created the first crèche, using live animals, and it played an important role in Clare's life.

Getting There

Assisi is one of many steep hilltowns in Umbria, in central Italy, and getting there without a car can be challenging. Sometimes a national bus line that goes directly to Assisi is the best bet. The website has helpful information