When the first student said it, I was taken back. “I want to be like Ortolana, Clare’s mother.” I often ask undergraduates in the theology course on Clare of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola at Santa Clara University what each will take from the class. At least one woman will say, “I want to be like Ortolana.” Why Clare’s mother? After all, we had been discussing two spiritual giants, St. Clare and St. Ignatius. But these young women, coming of age, caught another light.
In Assisi, winding cobbled lanes lead past old houses of pink stone hewn from the nearby Mt. Subasio to the piazza of the Cattedrale di San Rufino di Assisi. In one of the buildings on this square, the girl who was to become St. Clare was born in 1193 and lived until age eighteen, when she ran away to join Francis and the brothers.
Clare was the child of Ortolana and Favarone of the Offreduccio house, whose marriage would have been arranged by their noble families to strengthen the power and wealth of each at a time of political and economic turmoil. Clare’s uncle, Monaldo, was probably the eldest of the Offreduccio family, followed by Favarone and the other brothers, each of whom had his own estate, wife and children, and servants. From 1198 to 1210, the landed aristocracy in Assisi was under siege by the growing alliance of merchants and artisans, peasants and commoners.
The historical record tells little of Favarone, so researchers have concluded that he was often absent from home. It appears Ortolana played a dominant role in the household, managing the residence, three daughters, servants and domestic life. She was respected among the women who had houses in the piazza, and enjoyed a circle of friendships that were to endure through her entire life.
Ortolana means “gardener” in Italian, and it suited Clare’s mother. She nurtured in her daughters the values of courtly culture and holiness, expressed in courage, fervent prayer and mercy to the poor. In The Legend of St. C/are (completed in 1255), Clare’s early biographer writes of Ortolana, “The richness of the divine generosity preceded in the root, so that an abundance of holiness would follow in the branch.”
Two months after Clare’s death, Pope Innocent IV, who wanted to gather evidence for her sainthood, commissioned the bishop of Spoleto to interview, under oath, sisters in the San Damiano Monastery and citizens in Assisi who knew Clare as a child or knew of her miracles. This compilation, The Acts in the Process of Canonization (1253), contains first-person accounts of women and men who knew the living Clare.
Ortolana’s importance in the life of her daughter caught the attention of my students as they investigated this extraordinary document. They read of the two pilgrimages that Ortolana undertook, most likely with her servants, friends and women who had houses in the same piazza of San Rufino. According to her companion, Lady Pacifica, she traveled “beyond the sea for reasons of prayer and devotion” to the Holy Land. Not long after, while pregnant, she walked some 200 miles from Assisi to the shrine of St. Michael at Mt. Gargano, on Italy’s eastern shore, again with Lady Pacifica.
The undergraduates recognized the courage of this medieval lady who took leave of her husband’s household to set out on a pilgrimage; they were impressed by her arduous journey on foot, particularly when expecting a child. But when some students read of another experience of Ortolana’s, which took place in a church (and was later recounted in testimony by two of the sisters of San Damiano Monastery), they were absolutely stunned.
“Standing before the cross and actually praying for God to help and protect her during the danger of childbirth, she said she heard a voice telling her, ‘You will give birth to a light that will shine brilliantly in the world,’” Sister Filippa testified. Sister Cecilia affirmed that Ortolana had also told her of this voice and its message. Ortolana went on to name her newborn daughter Chiara, the clear or bright one. Clare.
Lately I have come to realize that ever since I started teaching Clare’s story, one of my students invariably chooses the relationship between Ortolana and Clare as a research topic. For whatever reason, these young women of the twenty-first century are drawn to these two women, mother and daughter, who lived eight hundred years ago. As one student put it, “Ortolana’s life of faith and love, her pilgrimages and deep connection with her daughter shaped who Clare became.”
“Though I’ve learned about the miracles Clare performed, the privilege of poverty she chose, the fasting she undertook and community of mutual love she built, I became interested in a completely different, but not any less meaningful, aspect of Clare’s life,” wrote Natassia, “ I found myself wondering how Clare and Ortolana’s relationship affected each other’s lives.”
“The communication skills and experiences in relationships one has as a child affect and shape the relationships one forms as an adult,” still another student, Melissa, wrote. “A prime example of this theory can be seen in Ortolana and Clare. Within her womb, Ortolana was able to communicate with Clare in such a way that the child exited Ortolana’s womb already full of grace.”
“The unconditional love that Ortolana gave to Clare as a child,” wrote Natassia, “helped to shape the relationships that Clare had in her life, and Clare helped to perfect her mother’s relationship with God.”
Today’s young adults are growing up in a very different culture than that of twelfth-century Assisi in the Umbrian valley. What is it about these two women, mother and daughter, that resonates with them? Part of the answer may lie in what they found in the poem “The Gardener” by Sister Kate Martin, OSC, of the Monastery of St. Clare in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In the garden, when they sat spinning, and the coarse wool slipped through their fluent fingers, did she tell her oldest girl about the courage women call on when they hear the sound of horses stamping in the courtyard, the clank of heavy armor, as men ride out to war and violence? Did she comb and comb her daughter’s golden hair and talk of past journeys, to exotic ports where the sun blazed on minarets and fiery voices cried out prayers to God all-merciful? Did she ever try, choosing her words carefully, to tell this favored child the reason why she’d gone on pilgrimage — what made her set out, brave as any knight, for the unknown and its grace?
At the age of eighteen Clare fled undercover of night to join Francis and the brothers at the Portiuncula, and rejected the world for the love of Christ. What chaos must have erupted in the Offreduccio household when they found Clare was a runaway? Days later, her furious uncle Monaldo and his brothers stormed the Benedictine monastery where Clare was taking refuge, intending to take her home by force. What desperate fear must have gripped her mother, wondering how her daughter would fare with her uncles? Behind the pink stone walls in the house off the cathedral piazza, did Ortolana find comfort in the words she had heard at the shrine of St. Michael about the child she was to bear? Was it easier to let Clare go, knowing the message of the cross?
With Francis, Ortolana’s daughter founded the Poor Ladies at the small church of San Damiano. Women of Assisi and Perugia, including her two sisters, and then others “from many parts and provinces,” joined her. Over time they transformed themselves into “the polished collection of living stones for the restoration of the heavenly house,” according to Clare’s early biography The Legend of St. Clare.
At San Damiano, Clare learned with her sisters the spirituality of mutual respect and equality in which contemplation, loving service to one another and reconciliation were at the core. She clung tenaciously to this way of life. Defying enormous forces that tried for almost three decades to discourage her, she insisted before her sisters, the brothers and those in official positions of the church on the pursuit of the Gospel poverty inspired by Francis and on the dependence on the Lesser Brothers. Clare became the first woman in Christianity to write a Form of Life for women, the constitution of a religious community.
How might Ortolana’s interior passion, determination and trust in the Unknown have shaped Clare’s own pilgrimage? How might Ortolana’s cultivation of her daughters and of the friendships with the women of the piazza have influenced Clare’s concern for the women of San Damiano, for the brothers, and for the sick who came to the monastery for healing?
In her writings, Clare addresses the women in her community as “my daughters, my dearest sisters” and “my most beloved sisters.” For their part, the sisters of San Damiano referred to Clare in their testimonies in the Acts as “Lady Clare” or “holy mother Clare.” The daughter thus becomes a mother. Students find it quite amazing that even today, eight hundred years later 20,000 women in seventy- five countries who live this Form of Life continue to call Ortolana’s daughter “Mother Clare.”
At one point in class discussion, the theme of generativity between mothers and daughters took center stage. Students found in the concluding lines of Sister Kate’s poem echoes of Ortolana’s own courage in her daughter Clare.
Did Clare remember all her life those glimpses of her mother’s soul? Did the old stories in her mother’s voice rise within her as she sought strength for her own life’s course? Did she recall those sweet domestic hours and know herself to be, yes, the plant of Francis, but equally the flowering of Ortolana’s life?
“Ortolana’s strength and Clare’s, especially as women in the early medieval times, extend past generations,” wrote Melissa, another of last year’s students. “Learning about Clare gives me confidence in my own sense of strength. She went against all odds when protecting the monastery from the Saracens, just as I am going against some odds by being a mechanical engineer in a field where the majority of students are men.”
Natassia reflected, “My mother and I have been deeply connected since the day I was born. Much like Clare gained her mother’s holiness and calling to the poor, I gained my mother’s sarcastic wit and desire to serve.” Natassia, who has worked on several week-long immersion trips to Tijuana, explained: “While at home, volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens are the ways my mother and I strengthen our relationship with each other and with God. In every hungry child we feed, we see a glimpse of God. I attribute this to my mother, for if she did not get me involved in volunteering, I am not sure I would be so passionate about it.”
Young contemporary women reach back eight centuries to an era portrayed in our culture as populated by damsels in distress being rescued by knights in shining armor. But they discover both worldly and spiritual power in Ortolana, a mother who nurtured a saint.
The little we can learn about Ortolana and Clare from so long ago is enough to inspire seekers, artists, young women, daughters, and perhaps mothers. “The relationship between Ortolana and Clare,” wrote Mackenzie, another student, “depicts the incredible bond between a mother and daughter that can provide a light for the rest of the world”
Ortolana ultimately joined her daughter at San Damiano Monastery, most likely after her husband Favarone died. There, as a sister to her daughters and to other women and men, she prayed and served for the rest of her life.
By Jean Molesky-Poz PhD, teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. She received her PhD. from the Graduate Theological Union and is author of Contemporary Maya Spirituality (2006). She can be reached at: jmoleskypoz@scuedu. Additional poems by Sister Kate Martin, OSC, of the Monastery of St. Clare in Minneapolis, Minnesota, may be accessed at website: poorclaresminneapolis.org. [THE WAY OF ST. FRANCIS MAYJUNE 2013]