Monday, November 6, 2017

When Santa Clara came marching in, followed by her cats

The lives of the saints bear 
close scrutiny—or none at all

Hagiographies are tough to fact-check: Religious fervor and the fact most saints lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago conspire against definite answers.

And so it is, I found, with Santa Clara (St. Clare in English), who lived nearly eight hundred years ago in Assisi, Italy, a contemporary of Francis, the town's most famous citizen and one of the most prominent figures in the vast Roman Catholic roster of saints.

Et tu, Clara?

Cynics in fact have suggested that Francisco and Clara were close—really close—but I wouldn't propound such a disrespectful rumor. But who knows?

When we bought our ranch in Mexico we needed a name for it, even though at seven and one-half acres it's more like a ranchito or a ranchette, rather than a hacienda with its name over the main gate.

Stew remembered my hometown in Cuba was Santa Clara, an otherwise forgettable place except for its being a provincial capital and the location of a monumentally ugly mausoleum—even more so than Lenin's in Red Square—that houses the immortal bits and pieces of Ché Guevara recovered after he was killed in Bolivia.

The name Rancho Santa Clara stuck but I had no idea who she was, so some quick and dirty Internet research was in order. I found she is quite an important figure in her own right, credited with an almost impossibly chaste and saintly life, and a number of miracles.

One of the alleged miracles was her relationship with cats. Some have said she trained or sweet-talked some felines to do tricks, such as fetching a skein of knitting yarn when she dropped it on the floor.

Forget raising the dead or curing the lame, I thought. Teaching a cat to do anything must be the most awesome of miracles plus a good bit of yarn in itself.

When we built the house the architect had left a three-foot-wide hole on the eastern wall of the living room so we commissioned a small stained glass window of Santa Clara holding a cat to fill the hole. 

We hired Gustavo, a local ironworker, who had spent a few undocumented years working at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, on the western edge of Chicago, repairing the famous architect's stained glass windows, to make one of Santa Clara. 

We gave him an Internet picture of Santa Clara, sporting a habit and a halo, and holding a fat black cat. Santa Clara has a hint of a smile, almost like the Mona Lisa's, though she seems middle-aged and not a great beauty.

Our Santa Clara and we're standing by her. 
What Gustavo came back with, though, looks more like a twenty-something tart dressed up as a nun, with a white, obese cat in her arms. I guess we underestimated the difficulty of capturing Clara's subtle saintliness in stained glass, but it was a good story to tell people who came to visit.

Stew and I became so smitten with Santa Clara that during a recent trip to Italy we drove up to  Assisi to check out first-hand the story of Francisco, Clara and the cats.

Assisi is a beautiful mountain top town, first settled by Etruscans centuries before Christ, and was the highlight of our trip. We visited the huge two-level church where San Francisco is buried and a smaller church, housing the remains of Santa Clara.

Near Santa Clara's church, at a gift shop with a million tchotchkes honoring her and Francisco, I asked for a mug, ceramic tile or anything showing Santa Clara with a cat. The woman understood some English but not my question. I tried again, using my embryonic command of Italian embellished with some gestures and even cat sounds.

"Santa Chiara? Gatti? Meow?" The sales clerk laughed at me incredulously.

Could our cat story be some Italian baloney?

Puzzled, we went on to the Santa Clara church and found an ancient nun sitting behind a small desk to the right of the main altar, set up as question-and-answer booth about all things Santa Clara.

I tried my Italian again but she didn't have a clue what I was saying so she summoned a young guy who spoke English and transmitted my question about Santa Clara and cats.

The somber nun broke into uproarious, toothless laughter. My inquiry must have been the funniest or most ridiculous one of the day, maybe the week. Standing a few feet away Stew giggled.

We went downstairs to the chapel with Santa Clara's tomb. The chapel was beautiful but dimly lit. I checked every corner for a sign, a picture, an inscription— anything with a cat—but found nothing.

But to people who come to visit our place I'll keep peddling the story about Santa Clara and her cats.  They don't need to know the truth, whatever it is.   

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