Most of us, even if we're not religious, may have heard of St Francis of Assisi.
You know who I'm talking about ... the 12/13th century Italian Catholic friar, mystic and preacher who is best known these days for being the Patron Saint of Animals because of his close association with nature and the natural environment and animals.
In addition, his 'Prayer of St Francis' ... Make Me a Channel of your Peace ... is now widely known as a Christian prayer for peace.
It was on this day - July 16th - in 1228, just two years after his death, that Francis was canonized by Pope Gregory IX .
But did you know that one of the first followers of Francis was a young woman called Clare, who was actually born on this day in 1194?
Clare, like Francis, hailed from the town of Assisi in central Italy and was from a rich and ancient Roman family whose homes included a palace in Assisi. Clare would have been brought up in the Roman Catholic faith and apparently was very devout even as a child. Although undoubtedly she would have been destined for a rich marriage, instead when she was what we would now call a 'teenager', Clare decided on a religious life.
She apparently heard Francis speak at a church service during Lent, the period running up to Easter, and was inspired to give her life completely to God. She was just 17 but on the evening of Palm Sunday, 20 March 1212, she left her father's house and, accompanied by her aunt Bianca and another companion, went to the chapel of the Porziuncula in Assisi to meet Francis.
There, so history tells us, Clare's hair was cut, she removed her rich clothing and instead took on a plain robe and veil, indicating that she was turning her back on her previous life of luxury and was committing herself to a life of poverty and service to humanity.
Her father was furious. He tracked her down at a convent in San Paulo near Bastia where she had been placed in the care of Benedictine nuns ... but she refused to return home, and continued to profess that she would have no other 'husband' but Jesus Christ. She implored Francis to send her to an even more secluded religious community - Sant' Angelo in Panzo - where she was soon joined by her sister Catarina, who changed her name to 'Agnes'. Both Clare and Agnes would eventually be canonized!
They remained with the Benedictines until a small dwelling was built for them next to the church of San Damiano near their hometown of Assisi. Here Clare and Agnes gathered other religious women around them, they lived a life of poverty and seclusion from the world and they became known as the "Poor Ladies of San Damiano". Later, ten years after Clare's death in August 1253, it would become known as the Order of Saint Clare. These days the contemplative order of nuns is in 75 countries across the world but it began with just one woman and a vision from God.
While the Franciscan friars travelled around the country to preach, Saint Clare's 'sisters' existed in isolation from the world, where they lived a life of manual labour and prayer. They were barefoot, slept on the ground, ate no meat and observed almost complete silence. At one point the Pope of the day, Gregory IX, offered Clare a 'dispensation' from the vow of strict poverty. She declined, and eventually the Pope instead granted them something called the 'Privilegium Pauperitatis' — a ruling that nobody could oblige the Clares to accept any possession.
It's hard to imagine these days, when we're so wrapped up in belongings and 'stuff' and 'freewill', that a live of solitude and austerity could be appealing ... but in fact Clare and her followers inspired many to join them, including more members of her own family.
Another sister, Beatrix, also joined the order and after their father's death, their mother Ortolana also entered the convent at San Damiano which followed the Franciscan monastic religious order. It was here that Clare would write their Rule of Life, which are believed to be the first set of monastic guidelines known to have been written by a woman.
Many words of wisdom have passed down the centuries from St Clare but I think one of my favourite thoughts from this wise Woman of God are those below.
It's such a profound thought, and could have been written for the 21st century.
I invite you today to read these words, and reflect, as I am doing.
What is it that I 'love'? What is shaping me?
Is it 'things', possessions, power, status, money?
Is that what is shaping our lives?
Or is it just simply ... love? Compassion for others? And maybe God?
It's a tough one ... and although it might not necessarily mean a life of seclusion and poverty, it might help us to think about what is important in our lives and what we hold dear!