Imagine that you enter your church one day, at a time when no one else is likely to be there. You see a swift motion, one after the other, out of the corner of your eye. When you get closer, it becomes clearer: someone is juggling before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Son. Likely you would react indignantly, or maybe run to the parish rectory to find your pastor and alert him. Of all things, you would not expect the juggler’s actions to be meant for any good purpose.
But a good purpose – in fact, the best of them all – is the reason a circus performer was in that exact position in the folktale The Clown of God. I was gifted an edition of this story for my Baptism. As I got older, I realized more and more how ridiculous I would’ve found the scene. But that’s exactly the point of the story: to identify what it means to be a Holy Fool.
Foolishness for Christ is best defined as a willingness to defy expectations in order to follow God’s plan. The clown in the story certainly did not follow custom. But he used the gift he had in performance as a gift to Jesus and his Mother. While I don’t imagine most of us are talented in circus performance, we can understand ourselves through the story as people endowed by God in ways we can uniquely serve him, even if it doesn’t always make sense to those around us.
It’s easy to think of times when living out the Faith has required defying cultural and societal expectations. We know from our own experience that nothing reflected in our culture fully represents living out our Faith – no political party, no celebrity, no movement, no ideology. Being Catholic requires us to be nuanced already: to see the world for its good and to avoid its failures to love. In one way, that makes our foolishness for Christ easier.
But sometimes those expectations we are called to disrupt come from those within our own faith community. We are all human, after all, and our limited knowledge sometimes prevents us from seeing God working in someone or something for good. Countless instances throughout Church history reflect that reality: saints who were carrying out God’s will for their lives and were mocked, betrayed, or even kidnapped by their fellow Catholics. Perhaps you can think of a time when you felt called to serve in a particular way, but were rejected in the moment by those in your faith community.
As a child, I anxiously awaited third grade, the minimum age set by my pastor to become an altar server. But by the time I did, we had a new pastor, and he set the minimum at fourth grade. (Many tears were shed on the way home from church after that announcement). Some parishioners insisted on my behalf, and my pastor waived the requirement. I can only imagine the confusion of my pastor, seeing a diminutive seven-year-old so determined. It might have seemed, well, foolish.
But our calling demands our imitation of Christ Jesus Himself. St. Paul wrote that “we are fools on Christ’s account… we [are held] in disrepute”. Jesus was promised to be a “sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34). The Gospels are full of his rejection by society and by those in his faith community. His contradiction, his perceived foolishness, became our salvation. His death – the most embarrassing and painful of punishments – became our life.
Love creates, and is unique in its creation. God made you an inimitable person. He placed in you desires, talents, and vision. Your existence already defies narratives. There will be times in your life where you are called to thwart expectations, in imitation of Christ himself. Remember, then, that you are not alone in becoming the fool. You instead join a tradition of people whose foolishness in the eyes of the world is true wisdom and courage in the eyes of God.
Think of your own talents, gifts, and experiences. Then think of the needs around you, in your home, parish, and community. How are you called to give of yourself today?