I WAS at a circus near Dublin recently, with an English television producer who was talent-spotting for clowns. The ringmaster solemnly informed his audience, mostly young children, that Fosset's circus was an integral part of Irish culture.
The future citizens of the Republic did not all know what the word "integral" meant, but they got the general idea. My television colleague found the statement to be profound and intriguing.
Over dinner in the Abbey Tavern, he recalled that his fellow Englishman, G. K. Chesterton, had once described Ireland as the "Buffeted Christ." Maybe Ireland was a clown after all, the Clown Prince of Europe?
Personally, I was reminded of the Clown Christ. I had first seen him some years ago in a controversial Roualt painting on display in Nlaynooth College. He was white-faced and hlotched in a stained glass effect of blood and pain. Yet he had a Byzantine hauteur and was still humility personified. He was smiling at grief, before Pilate, and projected a tremendous sense of the All Powerful. Ile was Christ the Clown, shortly to be buffeted, spat upon and jeered at by the special soldiery, who would in due course crown him with thorns and scourge him with a hail of griefs and nail him naked before men on a tree. These thoughts have been echoed for me since in the words from a current musical, based on the love and foolishness of the characters in Ingmar Bergman's Swedish film "Sounds of a Summer Night." In the finale of the musical version "A Little Night Music" Jean Simmons sings:
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns, Don't bother, there here.
In the end, I suppose, we are indeed the clowns. Until the circus is over we are the Grimaldis and the Petrushkas on this earth. NVe are of the medieval world of Our Lady's Tumbler, the world of Rahere, the jester to the court of Henry the First, who became the monk-founder of Saint Bartholomew's priory and hospital — not a stone's throw from the Catholic Herald offices in ( harterhouse Street.
The projection of the thought of Christ the Clown has been mirrored in my mind in recent times, in the now famous Press photograph taken at the trial of the late Cardinal Mindszenty. The world's Press featured him white-faced and hollow-eyed, his hands on his knees, his guard at his side, looking up at his Soviet prosecutor.
The photograph was meant to make a public spectacle of a Prince of the Church, but, on the contrary, it exposed the showtrial for the diabolical mockery it really was.
We are told by the late Hungarian Primate, in his autobiography, that part of the preparation for his public exhibition was to dress him up in clown's clothes in his prison cell where he was reviled, and then chased around and finally beaten insensible by his Marxist interrogator.
Cardinal Mindszenty survived torture and torment and drugs to he able to smile again, although exiled from his native land, and to die with an unbroken mind.
Like Mindszenty, the great Hungarian prelate, there must be many Clown Christs in prisons today in the Church of Silence, where they may seem to have lost the good fight, in wordly terms, but, where in reality, they have
beaten their captors and interrogators.
They have done so because they have found the key to Christianity, the paradox that failure is success, that life is death and death is life — that Christ died once, but no more, that he is risen, that he lives now, that he is present wherever one or two are gathered in his name.
De face of the Clown Christ has behind its white mask, the smile and the certainty of the laughter of the Risen Christ which all the specialist troops and police torturers in the political prisons of the world must find impossible to defeat and almost impossible to understand.
The Christ Clowns of today, the prisoners of conscience, are always from the world of .the
minority, like many of the characters in the novels of Heinrich Roll, who fail to conform to the authority of the totalitarian system, who fear, who are made to suffer, but who are washed in the blood of the Lamb.
To the secular world looking at the Holy Father or the cardinals, or the bishops of the Church, in mitres and copes, and carrying bejewelled croziers on ceremonial occasions, it must look mighty like a super pantomime with an infinite variety of clowns in conical hats.
If those beneath the hats have preserved the laughter and the smile of the Clown Christ, they have preserved that integral part of our cultural life, so that they, and we, cannot he fooled by falsehood, so that Christ becomes our life here and now, and every day, in the Real Presence, so that we can truly say that in him we live and have our being.
The Risen Christ, the Good News in our life, is the happiest of things, and essentially a message of great joy.
The Real Presence can fill our lives daily with that joyousness and humour so that we can afford to laugh at evil because we know we have it eternally licked, and the jesters and the tumblers and the fooling clowns can all reflect that God is not mocked, and that, in the final analysis, Christ the Clown prevails over the Prince of Darkness and his torturers and inquisitors.