Friday, August 12, 2022

The Cultural Legacy of Saint Clare

Simone Martini, “Saint Clare of Assisi,” ca. 1322–1326

An eighteen-year-old young woman by the name of Chiara Offreduccio (1194-1253) heard St. Francis of Assisi preach during a Lenten service and was forever changed. Renouncing her powerful father’s plans for her to marry, she left home on the evening of Palm Sunday and, in St. Francis’ chapel of the Portiuncula, had her long, beautiful hair cut and her rich grown replaced with a plain robe and veil. Clare of Assisi, as she was now known, went on to found the Order of Poor Ladies and write their Rule of Life, the first women in Church history to do so. After her death, the order changed its name to the Order of Saint Clare, aka the Clarisses or Poor Clares.

Clare and her sisters lived a highly ascetical life, but that does not mean that this holy woman had no craving for a good dinner companion. Repeatedly she asked St. Francis if they could sup together. Each time Francis denied her request, but he finally relented at the urging of his disciples. Francis had the table set on the bare ground, which was his custom. The two saints sat down along with several of their companions. As the first course was being served, Francis began speaking of God so sweetly and profoundly that the entire group went into a rapture. Meanwhile, it appeared to the residents of Assisi that Francis’ church (St. Mary of the Angels) and the entire forest around it were on fire. Grabbing their extinguishers and buckets of water, they raced to where the group was dining, only to find them safe and sound, rapt in contemplation. The Little Flowers reports: “Then they knew for sure that it had been a heavenly and not a material fire that God had miraculously shown them to symbolize the fire of divine love which was burning in the souls of those holy friars and nuns.” Happy and relieved, they withdrew. But did Clare actually get to dine with St. Francis, or did the dinner grow cold while the mystical fire raged hot?

Clare suffered from chronic poor health, but she made good use of a bad situation. She is a patroness of embroiderers and related fields (needle workers, laundry workers, gilders, and goldsmiths) because she spent her years of illness making ornate vestments for the Mass. And thanks to Pope Pius XII in 1958, Clare is the patron saint of television and television actors, workers, and writers because from her sick bed she saw and heard a Christmas Mass miraculously projected onto the wall of her room. St. Clare is also a patroness of eye problems, sore eyes in particular, either because of all those hours embroidering or all those hours watching TV.
Clare of Assisi is also a patroness of good weather, perhaps for no other reason than that her name means “clear.” Filipino Catholics bribe the saint with eggs wrapped in colorful cellophane paper so that they will have clear skies on their wedding day and other important occasions. Why eggs? Perhaps because egg whites are called claras in Spanish.

Speaking of eggs, rompope is a Mexican vanilla liqueur made with yolk, sugar, milk, cinnamon, and cane alcohol. According to legend, the Poor Clares in the Mexican city of Puebla de los Angeles used hundreds of egg whites to shellac the sacred images in their church. Not wishing to be wasteful, they took the yolks and invented Rompope. Today Rompope can be made at home, but it is also produced commercially under several labels including Santa Clara Rompope (which features an image of Saint Clare on the bottle).

The Santa Clara convent in Puebla de Los Angeles, incidentally, has also given us Tortitas de Santa Clara, Santa Clara cookies. This popular Mexican treat is like a shortbread made with a pumpkin seed glaze.

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