ONE day last autumn, in a break from lockdown, I went foraging with a friend in north Wales. We parked on the grass verge and started walking up a hillside covered in gorse and heather. Some way up, I saw in the distance a tree that seemed to call to me.
When I got there, I sat under it, facing down the hill. Below, there was a flat area of grass; from my vantage point, I could see a clear spiral shape. I walked down to stand in the middle of it. The spiral was shallow, and not discernible from that perspective: I felt as though the tree had shown it to me. I had a sense of being on holy ground, and took off my walking boots and socks to stand in the centre of the spiral in my bare feet.
I let go, and opened myself. A powerful flow of energy came into me, and I began to cry. What I actually experienced was a sense that I had made a connection with the earth, and that she was crying through me. Terrible wailing came out of me, which gradually subsided into the sobs of a baby.
AT THE time, I was in the middle of rehearsing to film All Creation Waits, a dance- theatre piece that I had made with other artists, including Malcolm Guite (who wrote the script), to engage the story of St Francis and St Clare with the contemporary world. We were inspired by the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’.
Francis and Clare lived at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries. Both were children of wealthy families in Assisi. After a dissolute youth, Francis underwent a deep transformation of life, after a period in prison. He began giving away his clothes and belongings to the poor, and keeping the company of lepers and outcasts. At a time when the Church was in need of renewal, his witness provided new life and vision, and people were drawn to his preaching. A group of men gathered around him, becoming the first Franciscans.
Clare was also drawn to Francis. She fled her wealthy family to join him, and he admitted her to his followers by cutting her hair. As a woman, however, she could not live with the men. She was sent to live separately, and other women drawn to the movement lived with her. Clare was their leader. The Church eventually insisted that the women be enclosed.
THE Church’s need to control Clare — literally, to lock her up — felt symbolic to me of what is going wrong in our relationship with nature and the earth, a relationship that has led to the climate emergency.
Human beings have tried to control nature, to lock her up within our own limited framework, and to use her for our own purposes rather than develop an equal and respectful relationship with her. As I began to think in these terms, a form of relationship between Francis and Clare grew in my imagining: Francis, a symbol of humanity seeking reconnection with the earth, and Clare, a symbol of the earth herself.
When Clare arrives, far from being delighted to see her, Francis feels threatened and disorientated by her presence. The story becomes one of negotiating difference while seeking shared space and common purpose.
IN 2011, I lived for a month in a Romany caravan in Aberdaron, on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It was a difficult moment in my life: I was recovering from a relationship break-up, and the loss of a child through miscarriage. I needed solitude and peace. I met Verena Schiller, a hermit living in the village, who had previously occupied a cottage at the tip of the peninsula, and Fraser Paterson, an artist and plantsman (and the cottage’s current resident), who became my first Francis.
On Sunday afternoons, I attended evening prayer at a tiny church near the sea. On all the Sundays I was there, I was the only member of the congregation. The service was conducted in Welsh by a kindly but taciturn local man. Over the weeks, he slowly let me in, first reading the lessons in English instead of Welsh, and then inviting me to read them. We were an odd pair, but it was one of the most prayerful experiences of my life.
When I came to think about Francis and Clare, this slow movement towards mutual recognition and respect became for me a model of their relationship. And so it was that my contemporary story of Francis and Clare was set in Aberdaron, in the little church, in the Romany caravan, and in the cottage at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula.
WHEN my experience on the hill occurred, Ian Bysh (Francis no. 2) and I were in the middle of rehearsing to make the film. Images kept flowing through my mind, particularly numbers intertwined with patterns, like a complex dance structure. I asked Bysh — an engineer by training — whether I could try to explain the numbers to him. I wrote them down on big pieces of paper. “It’s the Fibonacci sequence,” he said: the mathematical series that describes a spiral.
I don’t know the meaning of this experience, except that it tells me that we are not separate from nature or the earth, but part of a single, living entity — the earth’s consciousness, perhaps? I am reminded of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the
grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from
It gathers to a greatness, like the
ooze of oil
Claire Henderson Davis is a dancer/choreographer and theologian.
The tour of All Creation Waits coincides with the COP26 conference in Glasgow, and is at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh (5 November), Chester Cathedral (6 November), and St Anne’s, Soho, in London (11 November); further details at: clairehendersondavis.com