We are beloved companions on a mystic journey, sharing our solitude and holding the world in the divine prayer of love.

"Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory. Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance. And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation."
- from St. Clare's third letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Clare in Smoke and Lavender

Sometimes things happen, visions arrive, even years before you have the capacity to take them in. This year on the feast commemorating Clare of Assisi—Chiara, to whom this house is dedicated—smoke hung in the sky like old lace. It was August 11th. Lightning tore through lace and let loose rolling thunder. At my feet the transplanted lavender had turned a ghostly white. Well, I thought, you can’t just pull such fragility up from the darkness of its chosen ground, even if the roots remain intact, and expect it to survive. Something torn like that ...

In the crypt below the cathedral in Assisi that honors her, Clare’s body lies entombed. Four years ago I walked slowly in a line of other pilgrims past the waxed effigy and reached with my soul towards whatever remained of her actual beauty and her loveliness. She had expanded far beyond this small space, this gated garden, this darkness under wax. Despite knowing that, my heart shook, torn loose by a something larger than the mind that tries to make meaning of things too fragile, that tries to find images in smoke.

At the back of the crypt, behind glass, hangs a garment made of lace. Its length is out of proportion to the rest of it, like the train of a wedding gown. The threads are barely thicker than spider webs. With what tool did Clare weave this lace? What desire drew her on? What yearning kept her alive, planted as she was in a space so small with only a cloister yard for her feet to feel the earth and a bird or two to bring down the sky? Lace like smoke, became my answer this year to the yearning. She wove an alb for her beloved Francis, who for her embodied all the contradictions of Divinity in human form. She must have woven like the sister of those seven brothers in the fairy tale who had been turned into birds, frantic to restore them to humanity before they flew forever away. Because she hadn’t the alacrity to finish his shirt in time, one brother was left with a wing for an arm

We are flawed.

We can’t quite get the garment finished enough to hold us. Her alb hangs behind Italian glass. Francis flew into eternity a bird made of smoke. She is planted like lavender. The lace alb tells the story of her yearning for something beloved and forever out of reach.

Another woman enclosed by cloister walls found better words for it than I:

 It is the homelessness of the soul in the body sown;
It is the loneliness of Mystery;
of seeing oneself a leaf,  inexplicable and unknown,
cast from an unimaginable tree;
of knowing one’s life to be a brief wind blown
 down a fissure of time in the rock of eternity.
The artist weeps to wrench this grief from stone;
he pushes his hands through the tangled vines of music,
but he cannot set it free.

It is the pain of the mystic suddenly thrown
back from the noon of God to the night of his own humanity.
It is his grief; it is the grief of all those praying
in finite words to an Infinity
Whom, if they saw, they could not comprehend;
                Whom they cannot see.

                                -Jessica Powers

I’d intended to blog on Clare’s feast, but smoke and lavender prevented me for reasons I couldn’t name. I still can’t quite write it as I want to write. The metaphors won’t come together. The metaphors are threads still unwoven. Unable to write or honor her in any other way, John and I resorted to a cultural tradition: mid-afternoon we went out to eat. We’d just sat down when a woman at the bar who had her smart phone in hand said in a loud voice. “Robin Williams is dead of a suspected suicide.”

What?! I pushed back my chair and went to her. It was the contradiction, the irony of laughter meeting death that moved me. A homelessness linked Clare and Robin to an incomprehensible Mystery.  It was thunder. It was lightning rending the dry ground. It was smoke--torn lace.  It was laughter as prayer flung almost recklessly into the Unknown. It was humanity’s face in wax that melts and changes, melts and changes, trying to take the form of what is beyond all form. It was the torn lace. It was lavender turned white.

It was Clare, barefoot in lavender, letting loose a one-winged robin into a smoky sky.