Clare’s Noble Mother

Clare’s Noble Mother

by  Wendy Murray, author of Clare of Assisi: Gentle Warrior

No person informed Clare of Assisi's understanding of womanhood and devotion more so than her mother, Orlolana. As she grew under her mother's care, Ortolana taught her stories of great knights who undertook glorious battles under the banner of the Cross. At the same time, she modeled a steeled devotion that would later define the spiritual constancy of Clare herself.

​Ortolana’s family lineage arose from noble stock and she came of age under the terms of privilege and responsibility that such a lineage demanded. At the same timeshe was a woman of great faith and not in word only. She put shoe leather to her devotion and traveled devotedly to to various Christian holy sites on more than one pilgrimage, including sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem before they had been seized by the Saracens. Being married to a great knight, she had occasion to accompany him on some of his campaigns and especially on a Crusade -- (one writer notes, "the Crusading armies were habitually encumbered with crowds of non-combatants").  She rallied around the then-universal sentiment that the barbarity of the Saracen-usurped sacred sites of Christianity could not stand so long as there were believers willing to fight for their liberation.

​So there existed a significant symbiosis between the place of the pilgrimage and the impetus behind the Crusades.

​Ortolana believed in the spiritual power of the pilgrimage -- as Christians of that day generally did. The pilgrimage took the believer outside his or her own small world into the grand landscape of heroes of early Christianity. More than that even, however, the pilgrimage brought near and made tangible the human existence of their Beloved Savior. The pilgrimage, in the Middle Ages, was the primary expression of Christian devotion and routinely forged the souls of great saints, privileged nobles, and average peasants alike. So when these holy sites were violently seized and defiled by non-believing Saracens, Ortolana -- and all of Christian Europe -- responded with utter dismay and steeled resolve to reclaim these places under the name of Christ.  

 ​Going on a Crusade, both for the knights who raised the banner and the pilgrims who followed them, was considered "the most wonderful adventure in the world, which had the cross as its banner and its war-cry: Dieu le veut (God wills it)." The raised banner of the Cross was a summons to devoted Christians to liberate the captive holy land and to do so under the dictates of Christian chivalry. This is not how it always played out, but this was the feeling of the day and the sentiment was embraced by Ortolana as she herself went on pilgrimage even as her husband went to battle on a Crusade. 

Ortolana's Pilgrimage

For a brief period of time, peace was made in the Holy Land by the Muslim leader, Saladin, who opened the way for Christian pilgrims to come to the land he now occupied. Ortolana and a friend from another noble house of Assisi made this journey in 1192 since this was the only year Saladin allowed Christians to enter Jerusalem. The standard route for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land took them through Egypt, landing first in the sea town of Damietta -- the same port where Francis himself would travel some 30 years later. From there they would proceed first through Sinai, where they would climb the holy mountain where Moses received the law and where also reposed the remains of the beloved 4th-century martyr Catherine of Alexandria.

​The trip from Damietta to Sinai was a treacherous 15-day slog across a harsh desert with Arab guides who seldom could be trusted and without official “safe passage” granted by the sultan. One writer of that time, who had made the journey, said of it, "There is not in all the world a pilgrimage harder than the one to Mount Sinai.” They were under constant threat of armed Saracen bandits who lay in wait to assault them and who attacked without warning. During such skirmishes, the male pilgrims engaged in battle while the women prayed for the protection of Saint Catherine, also known as Catherine of the Wheel. 

​Catherine, for Christians, had become the guardian of the portion of the journey that traversed Mount Sinai, mainly because she was martyred in Alexandria, Egypt and her relics rested at the base of the mountain. As a young devout virgin of noble lineage, Catharine strongly protested the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius (d.312) and, after being imprisoned, influenced many to convert to Christianity, including the emperor’s wife. When she was brought before Maxentius, it is said she fearlessly attested, “I am Catherine, the daughter of the king, and I have abandoned all my riches in order to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.” She was ordered to be tortured and executed and was subsequently placed upon an excruciating implement of torture at that time, the spiked wheel. (The victim would be tied to the wheel, which had spikes around its perimeter, and then would be swung across fire or some other pain-inducing implement, so that the pain came from all directions.) Mercifully, in Catherine’s case, the wheel broke when she was placed upon it and she was instead beheaded. This form of torture has since been denoted as “the Catherine wheel.”

​Ortolana would have imparted the story of Catharine's martyrdom to her daughters, and more than that, she would have told the tales of the treacherous pilgrimage and how Catherine rendered needed help 

​Shortly after her return to Assisi after this journey, she was either pregnant or soon became pregnant with her first child, for whom she spent many hours before a crucifix in prayer where -- in the grand tradition of the Middle Ages -- she heard a word from the Lord: “Lady, do not fear, because you will bring forth a clear light that will illuminate the world.” This would be Clare, her firstborn, named “Chiara,” Italian for “light.”

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