How St. Clare Followed Her Heart to Become a Nun — Not Once But Twice
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
She gave up her life to be with St. Francis. So did the actress who played her.
By Lisa Marie Bitel
Saints don’t fall in love, but their stories can be romantic. Legends have long paired male and female saints as intimate but chaste companions — St. Paul and St. Thekla proselytized together in first-century Syria, for instance, and St. Boniface and St. Leoba were buried together in the wilds of medieval Germany. Although those who recorded saints’ lives borrowed motifs from love stories, the romance of saints lay in their resistance to ordinary human pleasures.
One of the most celebrated saintly couples came from 12th century Tuscany. Medieval documents tell us that Francesco was a renegade son of a rich merchant. He left home without a penny, preferring to beg for a living. Chiara Offreduccio came from the aristocracy. One Sunday while sitting in church with her noble parents, Chiara made her decision. That night, as the rest of the household slept, she slipped out a back door and hurried to a secret meeting place where Francesco awaited her … with a pair of shears.
Francesco chopped off all of Chiara’s hair, then hustled her to a nearby convent. Her family rushed after her and cornered them in the convent’s church. Chiara’s father tried to drag her home, but she whipped off her hood to reveal her shorn head. She had already become a nun. Despairing, her family left. Chiara was triumphant. She knew it would be a tough and hungry life with Francesco, yet nothing mattered more to her than being with her beloved, to whom she pledged herself.
The year was 1212, the place was Assisi and the bridegroom was Jesus. Chiara Offreduccio is known to modern English speakers as St. Clare and Francesco is St. Francis of Assisi, the barefoot friar now so popular as a garden statue. Clare did not run away with Francis. She ran off to join his radical reform movement and embrace his life of scriptural poverty.
Francis eventually settled Clare with other women at the rebuilt church of San Damiano. After she was settled, Francis left, insisting that Clare remain inside the convent walls. He rarely visited San Damiano after that. He never mentioned her in his spare writings. Clare touched him just one time: when she tended his body before burial, a tender scene painted by Giotto on the walls of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Clare’s dramatic elopement to be with Francis has tantalized moviemakers since the days of silent film. Italian directors made three silent movies about the pair before 1920. Roberto Rossellini turned Francis into a holy fool who shares a mystical conversation with Clare. In Federico Fellini’s version, the two are happy flower children who contest with the older generation to help the dispossessed. A famous scene shows them running in slo-mo toward each other, arms outstretched, through a sunny field.
Hollywood also was interested in the romance of saints. The 1961 film Francis of Assisi, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bradford Dillman as Francis and Dolores Hart as Dona Clara, follows the same basic plot as medieval legends. Francis is the cheerful, feckless son of a merchant. Dona Clara is as beautiful as a statue and as forgiving as — well, a saint. When Francis deserts the army, she defends his pacifist position. She is patient with his strange visions. When he puts on a brown dress and starts pulling a cart of stones around town, she supports him. “Love has been a confused thing with me,” she sighs.
Dolores Hart was only 22 when she starred as Dona Clara, but she had already made it big, co-starring with Elvis Presley in Loving You (1957) and King Creole (1958). On set for Francis of Assisi, she met Pope Paul XXIII who exclaimed, “You are Clare!” She visited the preserved body of Clare in the Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi.
Dolores made more films after her role as Clara. She was prosperous, happy and engaged to an architect named Don Robinson. Yet two years after Francis of Assisi wrapped, Dolores gave it all up and entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, an enclosed convent of Benedictine nuns.
“Falling in love is falling in love,” says Wendy R. Wright, a professor emerita of theology at Creighton University. “And any commitment to religious life, especially the monastic life, has to be motivated and sustained by a deep love. Catholic spirituality is saturated with the language of love.” Nuns, for example, consider themselves brides of Christ.
In her autobiography, The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, Dolores denies that playing Clare provoked her decision. She simply discovered that she loved God more than her fiancé or her career. Just before entering the convent, she wrote in a letter to Him, “You want me for Yourself — this I know without any doubt.” In the Oscar-nominated 2011 documentary about her life, God Is the Bigger Elvis, Dolores echoes the Dona Clara she played on film. “How do you explain God?” she asks. “How do you explain love?” Dolores admits it is still easier for her to describe kissing Elvis than what she feels for God.
Yet Dolores’ passion is not the same as Clare’s love for God or for Francis. Dolores, like her character in the Curtiz film, distinguishes between religious and secular ways of loving, between Jesus and her fiancé. Although Robinson married another woman, he visited Dolores every year until he died. Dolores has said she never regretted her decision.
“I think that there’s a romantic love that exists between persons, and it’s not that you bring it to a beautiful friendship, you bring it to a transcendent level where you really do believe and know that you meet Christ in the other person,” Hart told Eternal Word Television Network in 2013. “I believe that Don brought to me that reality.”
- Lisa Marie Bitel, OZY Author Contact Lisa Marie Bitel