Today my three children underwent one of life's most important rites of passage. An experience that marks a human life forever. A moment that divides a child's life into Before and After. A sacred, solemn, irreversible ritual. A trial of courage and virtue and strength of heart. A transition from the age of innocence to the age of wisdom and understanding and the fear of the Lord. I am referring, of course, to the circus. For today – I record this so the date will never be forgotten – my children went to the circus.
It all started innocently enough. It was a hot day, and they had gone out for ice cream with their grandmother. Driving down the main highway, they saw rising up in the distance the great tent, big as a mountain, bright as sunrise, gleaming beneath golden spires and billowing flags, solitary and immaculate amid the wild debris of cages and cars and caravans, a giant pinned to the earth by quivering ropes, smiling madly with that cavernous black maw while the people stood nervously all in line and the one-eyed man by the ticket stand muttered prophecies thick with Russian and rum, casting secretive sideways glances at the wisecracking monkey on his shoulder. That is how, an hour later, my three defenceless children found themselves seated ringside, wide-eyed, beside their grandmother, gripping their seats with joy, as the jugglers hurled knives and the boys swallowed fire and the gymnast danced on the rolling globe and the sparkling trapeze artists flung themselves through space like falling stars.
The circus – that institution of joy, that spectacle of ecumenism, that tent of democracy, that circle of sobornost, that festive assemblage of man and beast, sensuality and austerity, laughter and terror, life and death – the circus: is it not one of the great enduring signs of humanity in a world grown bloodless, inhuman, and cold? In a world ruled by the Machine, does not the circus maintain its raucous witness to the joy of Life? In a world ruled by Work, does not the circus uphold the true doctrine of the primacy of Play? In a world ruled by Death, does not the circus proclaim the happy gospel of death's defeat?
It's intriguing to note that some of the most imaginative theologians of recent times have found particular spiritual significance in the circus. Henri Nouwen had a deep attachment to the circus. He likened Christ's followers to clowns – "he who is called to be a minister is called to be a clown". He was spellbound by a German trapeze troupe and followed them from place to place until he had befriended them. Eventually they even let him practise the trapeze himself. Watching the trapeze artists, he said, taught him all he needed to know about the way trust conquers fear. He wrote a book about "clowning", and, in his later years, hoped to write a book on the spirituality of the trapeze – though he never lived to do it.
The lay theologian William Stringfellow had an even deeper obsession with the circus. He compared the circus to the kingdom of God, and argued that the church would be more faithful if it were less like a religious institution and more like a circus. "Biblical people, like circus folk, live typically as sojourners, interrupting time, with few possessions, and in tents, in this world." Like Nouwen, Stringfellow thought the circus exemplified a Christian vision of Christ's triumph over the fear of death. The circus ridicules death, and so becomes a parable of the coming kingdom: "In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly ... death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death, which exposes this world as it truly is while it pioneers the Kingdom."
Stringfellow filled his home with circus memorabilia. He subscribed to circus magazines. He spent an entire summer – it was the high-point of his life – travelling from town to town with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, until he had blended imperceptibly with the rest of that caravan of prophets, fools, and dreamers. As a popular itinerant lecturer, he used to plan his speaking schedule around circus routes. When asked how often he attended the circus, he once replied: "Not often. About twenty times a year." Stringfellow always planned to write a full-blown theology of the circus – though, like Nouwen, he died before ever completing that great piece of intellectual clowning. During a long illness, he built a huge scale model of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. And when he died, they played circus music at his funeral. (A collection of Stringfellow's writings on the circus can be downloaded as a free pamphlet.) The parallels between Nouwen and Stringfellow are extremely striking. Both possessed by a boundless love of the circus, both homosexual in orientation, both committed to living in community, both privileging Christian practice over theory, both turning their backs on academic prestige to live among the poor, both developing quirky autobiographical styles of theology, both dying before they could write their theological treatises on the circus.
And think for a moment of the desert fathers and mothers, those Christian ascetics who took to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries. You could make a strong case that the desert fathers and mothers were really just a motley crew of wandering circus performers. Half-deranged spiritual clowns dressed in rags, poking fun at worldly wealth and power. Ascetic trapeze artists performing their reckless feats atop high columns. Lonely hermits taming the wild beasts as a sign of creation made new. Contemplative acrobats ascending the rungs of their interior ladders while the world looked on, breathless with suspense. Rejoicing clownlike even in sorrow, they renounced the whole wide world as a solemn witness to life and a gigantic joke against death and the devil.
Today as my children swayed in their seats, clutching their hot dogs for dear life, gazing up into the mighty vault of the Big Top while the fearless liturgy spun its circle high above them, I wonder if they heard distant echoes of another performance, another time and place where weary souls drag themselves in from the dust and heat and huddle in a circle, scared and hopeful, hardly believing their eyes and ears when a clownish figure lifts bread and wine like a juggler and bellows out the great joke that is the exhilarating, momentous, stupendously funny secret at the heart of the universe: "Christ is risen!"