Sunday approaches and brings its thoughts of church.
Not long ago, bells would toll and villagers would gather and mumble the ritual words of which they knew little and clerics would spout words even less understood and the village would then rest for another week of the same. Today we've said God is dead, we've entered the post-Christian era; some think that a strike of lightning, divine or clerical, is what we need to fuel a new fire in us.
Indeed, in Joseph Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity," he opens by telling the state of the Christian story in the manner of a fable.
"Anyone who tries today to talk about the question of Christian faith in the presence of people who are not thoroughly at home with [the] ecclesiastical," Ratzinger writes, finds himself in the position of a traveling clown who, as he approaches a new village, sees a fire breaking out in the countryside not far from it.
The clown is a stranger in this country and does not speak the language, but he is concerned that, given the lush vegetation, the fire will spread rapidly and overwhelm the village. He arrives in a state of agitation and tries to gesture to the villagers that they are in danger, but the villagers laugh at him, thinking his anxious mime is part of his act.
A priest with whom I spoke about this Ratzingerian fable added that it's worse. He said that in the contemporary age there aren't traveling clowns any more and that, if one appeared, no one would pay attention even to laugh. Then he sighed sadly and shook his head at the folly of our contemporaries.
But there's another take.
There was once a clown whose entire troupe had been laid off, as no one came to the circus any more, preferring to go to film theaters, watch television or play games on a computer or handheld device. The clown was articulate, he knew the art of costume, he understood mime, he was a fine actor. He could have made at least a decent living working in a Hollywood studio or on Broadway or in a school or college teaching his arts.
Yet he preferred to travel from village to village, complaining to himself that no one valued his ancient and venerable craft any more.
He lived poor as a church mouse and called it a sign of his virtuous dedication to his calling as a clown. Truth be told, he felt otherwise: he had no boss, if he did something wrong he could go to another village where they wouldn't know about his misdeeds, and he didn't need much since he didn't have the burden of a nagging wife and greedy children.
One day, tramping through fields in a foreign country, the sky turned dark and full of thunder. Hail pelted him. As he ran for shelter, he saw and heard the flash and crack of lightning striking a tree not six feet from him. In an instant, the tree was a smoldering cinder, hissing as rain and hail soaked it wet and cold.
But what if it had caught fire? What if he alone were to see a fire start in the fields? What if he were to run to the village and warn the hamlet's dwellers? Wouldn't he then cease to be an ignored clown and be a hero instead, crowned with laurel, dressed in purple robes, hailed as lord of the realm and savior of his people?
In a flash, he decided he would rush to convince the village that there was a fire.
But, of course, there was no fire. He was still just a clown. A few children who looked up from their handheld game consoles laughed at the oddly dressed foreigner. The village as a whole ignored him.