A joyfully Franciscan view of Catholic life, inspired by St. Clare (Santa Chiara) of Assisi!

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Chiara Offreduccio (St. Clare) was born in 1194. It is said that when her mother had Chiara in her womb, an angel appeared to her and said, "your child will be a light that will illuminate the world!" Hence, her mother named the child Chiara, which means "light. As G.K. Chesterton put it, St. Clare was a romantic figure just like Juliet was. However, instead of running away from her family in order to be with an earthly man, Clare gave up everything and ran away from her family for the love of her Savior!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Review of "Candle in Umbria"

So the latest addition on my reading list was a book by Mother Mary Francis of the Poor Clare Colletines of Roswell, New Mexico called "Right to be Merry." It's actually the most famous book about the Poor Clare life. Well, in one of the chapters, she recounts how she wrote a play about St. Clare called "Candle in Umbria" for the 700th anniversary of her death. Incidentally, Mother Mary Francis had a professor from Notre Dame come to New Mexico in order to instruct her as to the ways of playwrighting. I was intruigued, of course, and was naturally delighted when I found a copy of the play in Hesburgh Library.

So, here is my opinion of the play....

The play is seperated into four main acts, each centering around a point in the life of Clare.

Act I features Clare's mother, Ortolana, being told by an angel that her child will be "a light that will illuminate the world!"

Act II involves Chiara leaving her family, running away in the night, and her investiture by the Seraphic Father

Act III features the story of the Saracens attacking San Damiano, and Clare holding up the monstrance in order to protect her cloistered sisters

Act IV shows Clare's death, and finally a scene in which twelve women dressed in modern garb come onto stage and sing the praises of Clare's legacy. I found this particular scene to be the highlight of the play:


"This light burned only, sent no fissured atom Shivering down some miles of naked space.
This light just flickered, faithful till the final
Sputter of yearning burst her drift of flesh.
She was a small light burning. All the arc lamps
Of noise are shattered, all the spotlights gone
Away to weep in their unhappy ruins,
But the Clare-candle whispers on and on.
Where was the famous dictum, where the flashing
Deed, the policy taken, history turned?
Who would remember Clare wrapped in her silence,
Once the bare feet were cold, the eyelids closed?
Fool of a woman! Laying down her shining
Hair for a wisp of a dream in a madman's heart!
Who will remember Clare, after the gentle
Hands are still, the kept heart only stone?
Ah, but the weary weary generations
Each after wach has flung it's noise away,
Broken its own too terrible searching arc lights
While the Clare-candle flickers on and on.
The light just burned, too small for any norice.
This light just let its pale, pure beam seem lost
In all the rocker flashes of a brilliant
And dreamless world as practical as hell.
And who shall wirness bear the very tender
Paradox, the irony of God-
That the small light has filled the earth and heavens
Past flame and torch and glare and beam, if not
The thousands strong who say no word, and lightly
Spurn the strange earth with their unslippered feet.
Who fling their gleaming hair away like laughter
And turn their faces toward a nameless spring.
(She kneels directly in front of St. Clare, her back to the audience)
And sing! because one small light flickered, faithful,
And the Clare-candle lights the weary world!"

- "Candle in Umbria: The Story of Saint Clare of Assisi," by A Poor Clare Nun in the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Roswell, New Mexico

Beautiful passage, no? It illustrates perfectly God's irony...in the world's eyes, Clare's life was but a flicker, but if you look at her life from a spiritual perspective, her way of life did indeed illuminate the entire world with love! I suppose we all have to keep that in mind whenever we feel that our action's "mean nothing."

I do have several critiques of this play, however...

At first, I was a bit underwhelmed by the way the play starts before Clare is born, and immediately skips to the point after which she has made her decision to join Francis. Then, the play fasts forward about a decade to when the Saracens are attacking Assisi, and finally concludes with the aged Clare in her deathbed. I will admit that I was expecting something a bit more chronological....Clare A to Z, if you will. However, think of the play's title...."CANDLE in Umbria." The fragmented storyline ultimately mirrors the life of a candle which flickers in and out of sight. Thus, Mary Francis brilliantly uses the imagery of a candle in the entire structure of her play.

Just as the case with the critique of the film "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," this play is more like a light-hearted poem....indeed, it uses flowery language, but does not delve deep into what really motivated Clare to do what she did. The omission of Clare's decision process that prompted her to leave the world behind probably is one of the play's greatest flaws. We don't see any internal struggle whatsoever.

That being said, I got the impression that the play was written for people who already have a devotion to Clare. Indeed, the play was orginally performed in a cloister. Thus, the intended audience, it is assumed, already understands the underpinnings of what caused Clare to leave her family and home for Lady Poverty and has no need to be taken through her decision making process. However, the absence of an internal struggle within Clare might very well leave those of us who have not completed a religious discernment process with a feeling of wanting something more from the play. For example, Ortolana, Clare's mother, touches upon the idea of how her daughter can be wealthy, but still live a very holy life by means of showing charity to the poor. After all, how can one help the poor when one has "nothing" in the way of material goods to give? Ortolana touches upon a very valid point. I suppose the answer would be that in being poor, you really are helping the poor by means of doing penance for and with them, and you also give them a wealth of spiritual goods through the power of prayer. However, in the play, Clare simply dismisses her mother's words by means of silence, leaving the audience to guess as to what her rebuttal would be.

Finally, the last critique of the play is that it tends to be a bit too hagiographic. Indeed, Clare is shown to be a very holy woman with a multitude of obstables to overcome, including her physical illness. However, the play tends to portray Clare as "Superwoman," if you will, and doesn't show how she must overcome spiritual struggles. In fact, the play doesn't really show her as having any spiritual struggles. And, in a conversation with my boyfriend from this morning, part of being a saint is the ability to go against your misgivings and instead do what you ought to do.

All in all, Mother Mary Francis gives a dazzlingly beautiful, clear, and crisp portrayal of the life of Saint Clare. However, the biggest flaw was that it needed to show Clare dealing with more internal struggles, so the audience could come to a better understanding of "what makes Clare tick." However, maybe I'm saying that because I'm a fan of dark, introspective independent movies.


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