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Clowns and Faith

by Agnès Adeline-Schaeffer

translated by Sara MacVane

 

Clowns and Faith are two words which hardly seem to belong together. Clowns are fun! Faith is something serious! Don’t we talk about `clowning around’? And don’t we say ‘as serious as a pope’? [1]

 

So, clowns and faith, how do they fit together or are they (maybe) really incompatible? Should we be mocking God and the saints? A pretty good question, given the times we live in! Can a priest or pastor “play” the clown? What about clothes of bright colors, a hat too big or too small, and a red nose, can we accept them as a reasonable change from the usual church garb of preacher’s tabs or alb-and-stole?

 

There was certainly some clowning around at the creation, so why can’t we have clown-pastors today? Can we find a connection between clowns and faith? Well, maybe. But only if we know what we are talking about when we say “clown”; and indeed when we say “faith”, since we often replace substitute “religion” for “faith”……..

 

What’s behind the words clown and faith?

 

For the definition of clown, let’s take a look at the dictionary; and for faith, we’ll take the Christian faith, faith in the God of Jesus Christ as the Gospels give it to us.

 

The French dictionary Larousse gives us the following definition: Clown: a comic artist, grotesquely dressed up, who does farcical pantomimes and sometimes acrobatic tricks in the circus to make people laugh. A clown is someone who tries to be noticed by telling jokes and fooling around.

 

So, clowns are anything but serious and dignified. They are jokers, fools, show-offs. That sounds pretty negative. But clowns are also very sensitive; they cry easily. They make us laugh, but also irritate us, make us uneasy. They titillate our conscience, whether for good or bad. And when we laugh at them, we are really laughing at ourselves, laughing from the other side of our mouths…..

 

Until 1970s, clowns belonged to the circus world, the world of children who delight at his spontaneity and blunders or even in the dramatic situations which end in laughter.

 

Clowns were part and parcel of a particular setting, the circus, and you wouldn’t have found them anywhere else. In daily life, we put up with “clowning” so long as it involved kids and so long as it didn’t spill over into school. Of course, there was to be no clowning at the dinner table and it was out of the question to play the fool at school.

 

In the early 1980s, the idea of clowning became more complicated, thanks to some developments in English speaking countries. We began to speak not just about traditional circus clowns, but also about contemporary clowns. We moved from the older definition of clown to a more intimate individual sphere. The clown is no longer the exterior person whom we go to see at the circus or invite to put on a show at our child’s party. The clown is rather someone who resembles each one of us. It was hard for this clown to become visible, because we are often repressed by an idea of decorum or by social mores. The clown awaits the right moment and a good place to come into the light. But often he or she is blocked by different obstructions.

 

Today, we have a new generation of clowns, connected to personal development, inspired by Gestalt and by behavior therapy, especially in Germany and in England. At the same time, clown-theaters have sprung up in France and have given rise to new clown-schools. So there are special places where anyone can go and let out the clown within. There are all sorts of training sessions for clowns, as we all know. It’s the fashion and with good reason.

 

But, it’s not at all easy. Even though the clown is there within us, our clown doesn’t want to come out. If we dare to let our clown out, that means letting her interior gifts become visible; there’s nothing automatic about it. We may often play the clown without realizing it, but to do it consciously in front of others, no one goes for that, even in a special setting.

 

What holds the clown back?

 

Experiencing our clown lets us into ourselves, into a dimension unknown to others or even to us. Fear, embarrassment, automatic reactions, and especially the self-censure we have learned hold the clown back.

 

And then, if we really want to do a course in clowning, the initial experience is quite frustrating, because we only get a chance to be a clown at the end of the course. To get to that stage of freedom, we have to pass through some rather narrow doors, which some of us will feel unable to cross. We may have to do physical exercises like playing with balloons, walking around a room together, breathing, looking at ourselves, relaxing, dancing in front of other people, holding hands. The idea is to find our inner simplicity and to gain the confidence of another and our own confidence in another so that we can touch. Above all we have to discover how to play like a child, so that we can relax and rediscover something very disagreeable …. our own bad side and that we spoil the game, for whatever reason. We might discover that we didn’t listen to directions, or find out that we have understood things the wrong way round.

 

To be a clown also means that we live with our body. As we grow older, we are less comfortable with our bodies which are full of aches and pains or weigh on us. The different games and the relaxation that we learn let loose a lot of joy and heaps of creativity, even before we know it. The objective is to find the awkward, spontaneous child within us, to let ourselves be non-judgmental. We are not there to learn certain techniques, but to find pleasure in the game and in the group.

 

To learn to be a clown means to play with our bodies and our emotions, which has nothing to do with mockery, derision or mystification. It is above all an art of bodily expression that allows us to enter into a relationship with ourselves and with others, humorously, authentically, and spontaneously.

 

What’s the connection with a person of faith?

 

Of course (praise the Lord) you don’t need to be a person of faith in order to be a clown. But for those who do believe, clowning can connect us to our faith, as we can see in the Bible. The Bible tells us about the creative word, while clowning shows us a creative eye.

 

What the eye sees:

 

To be a clown means that we let the eye see, and the same holds for a person of faith. And the ability to see and be seen allows us to enter into a relationship. We look and let ourselves be seen; we meet and let ourselves be met; and then we look again from another point of view.

 

Let’s hand the discussion over to a trainee: Clowns are “nude” and in order to exist at all they must look at others and let others look at them. Clowns don’t play a role; they aren’t comedians. There is no script. Once a clown is dressed and has put on his red nose, he doesn’t look in the mirror to see what effect he makes. She goes on stage and let’s herself be seen, without knowing who she really is. The public takes an active part under the stage lights and enters into a relationship with this “new personality” who doesn’t know himself. All eyes are on the clown while the spectators concentrate. They notice the clown’s smallest movements and they react to any miss-step or to the least loss of control or patience. For their part, clowns are also very attentive to the public. They “get it” thanks to the audience and they amplify the reactions of the audience too. There is a give-and-take which feeds the clown, who isn’t at all worried about his next move, but gives in to the relationship. The lack of fixed points is the very source of her creativity. As for clowning, there are no losers, everything is part of the game.[2]

 

The clown says: YES.

 

Clowns consent – they say YES. That’s it; they plunge in; it’s total immersion. There is no half-way, no risk of failure, or of death. Clowns take on whatever they’re offered, without deciding how worthwhile it is. It isn’t good or bad in the usual meaning of the word; it just IS. Clowns’ roles aren’t hitched up to something that has to be done or produced. Instead, clowns understand what the game does for them and are nourished by it. Things which might seem negative, like hesitations, unexpected events, fatigue, and indeed all our emotions come into play for clowns, and/or for the public, and they feed the clowns. A comedian tries to avoid these things and runs away from them, but clowns develop them, amplify them, and rebound, even more than might seem possible. And they may even let them pass by. They may “suspend” all action, stop in mid-stream to take on the audience’s reaction and let that feed them.

 

Finally, clowns are a put-on, confident, free from stop signs or fear of death. They exist for an instant and forever. They agree with whatever comes up in the here and now, right here and right now.

 

It is in this sense that clowning is a spiritual pathway, and so we may see a possible connection between clowns and believers, clowns and disciples, Christ’s disciples in any case. Clowns are completely available to other people; they are the clowns’ entourage. The clown brings the audience to life. We might notice how Jesus was available to everyone he met, how Jesus gives life to those around him.

 

And isn’t faith the discovery that to love means first of all to receive before it means to give? We can only give what we have received. We can’t possibly give away anything that we haven’t already received, can we?

 

Clowns are in this dimension exactly. Everyone else is a precious pearl for them, a special treasure. For clowns, others are an inspiration. In order to do their acts, clowns build on what others give them. They literally receive everything from others. And then they give everything back because they know that what you don’t give away is lost, according to an Indian proverb. And the game is the space that allows the clown to grow.

 

Clowns and play:

 

The word “play” includes the idea of freedom. According to Philippe Rousseaux:

There are many expressions that point out how “play” includes the idea of movement. So we say: to play up an injury, a handicap, an illness, or we notice that the chair-leg plays (is loose) in the socket and makes the chair unsteady, or we want to see how the different parts of a machine play together (work one with another). We note that the “play” involved in these expressions depends on movement. If there were no play, it would mean things were jammed, blocked, locked up, closed. There would be no freedom. Sometimes freedom of movement isn’t such a good idea, certainly not if we are talking about a loose chair-leg. Other times though freedom means things are in working order, which may also means the working order of social relationships. That seems to mean that the freedom of God’s children necessarily includes play. Only those who play can really be called people of faith. Play is not incompatible with being serious, but it is incompatible with taking ourselves too seriously. The world isn’t divided between those who are clowns and those who aren’t, but between those who know they are clowns and those who don’t. If you know you are a clown, you don’t have to take yourself too seriously, and so you can take God seriously, and the mission he has entrusted to us as people of faith. The mission is simple: say YES to the life that we have been given[3].

 

Preachers, those on mission, men and women of faith, all have to carry the good-news. Clowns do that and it does them good.

 

Play is the key to happiness and joy. In playing, we also make a gift of ourselves. In their playing, clowns serve the public; making the audience come alive is more important than anything they do for themselves. Clowns accept themselves. They discover how vulnerable they are because they aren’t the people they might wish to be. Once they have accepted this, their vulnerability becomes a strength. Clowns live life to the full and the audience benefits.

 

Clowns as an Easter experience

 

To be a clown means to say YES, to allow ourselves to be shaped by the unexpected, from one moment to the next. It means that we recognize we are not in charge of anything, but accept whatever comes along, together with our audience, our companion, ourselves. If we say yes, we are consenting to relationships, to change places, to be put off balance. Yes means allowing ourselves to be torn-up. And this tearing leads towards weakness and exposure. Christ torn apart is exposed. He gives over his image as the almighty son of God and takes on an image of weakness.

 

To be a clown means to give up the image we have of ourselves, to go well beyond our prejudices. Clowns offer themselves to others; they die to the self, and that means that they give up considering themselves the origin of their own being. Clowns fail; they have limits. They always need others, especially at strategic moments. That speaks to our own limits. In contrast to the clown, we human beings do everything we can to hide the fact that without other people, we’re lost. Even when we fail, we still want to be in charge. Clowns don’t do that; they cry out “Come, help me”. It is the same cry we hear in the Psalms and from Jesus on the cross.

 

It is also the cry of monks and nuns at prayer, in all times and of all persuasions. It is a devastating cry, when it is authentic. We feel ourselves taken up by something greater than ourselves; we are emptied of that determination that we are the best of all. We experience a sort of emptiness with regard to ourselves (Philippians 2.7). The cry lifts clowns up; in every instant of their miserable lives on the stage they experience death and resurrection. Their own death and resurrection. In this sense, the Easter experience is good news.

 

Clowns accept failure and cry for help. People of faith, especially sinners, teachers, those in need, also accept failure and cry out for help – and that means letting God do his work.

 

But why a clown?

 

I’d like to share three answers:

 

Philippe Rouseaux:

Clowns stand apart, entranced by the world, happy with little. They love themselves and present themselves as they are, human, fragile, awkward, and so approachable, beautiful, sincere, free, generous, and ready for any daring gesture. Their simplicity, confidence, and game play, mean that any obstacle represents a chance for them, an occasion to start over again at any moment. Playing the clown means re-finding the youthful fragility of our childhood, where we can have fun, be open and available, inventive, over-flowing with fantasy and energy, where our only guide is our desire to exist. (Philippe Rousseaux in Le Dictionaire du corps, CNRS, 2006)

 

Yves Patenotre, Archbishop of Sens-Auxerre:

Clowns look like the whole human condition. They are each one of us. Clowns share our suffering and our misery. The misery that comes to them is our own misery. They join us in our poverty, as Christ does during his passion (and indeed during the whole of his ministry, since it belongs to his incarnation). We can find similarities between the figure of Christ and that of the clown. Christ calls us to be “happy” in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5. 1-12)[4], but we can only really be happy if we accept the poverty of our nature. (http://clownparfoi.cabanova.com/objectifs-et-contenus.html – the internet site of the association “clownparfoi”)

 

Etienne Grieu:

Clowns keep us out of a hell where each one of us thinks we have the truth, a little truth, just for ourself. In a single blow clowns can open the door wide and undo all our iron corsets, shatter it all. They chuck it all out and take on any sort of insult, so in the end there’s nothing left of all our prisons. The crowd is at the side of the track, laughing as though they were on vacation, right on the edge of coming down themselves into the ring, where after the elephants have passed by, someone we don’t know has waged a strange battle against our own shadows. As for me, I would have found it difficult to understand the truth of Christ in any way other than that of a clown. For, very delicately, he shows us something more beautiful and much funnier than all the little truths we tinker with. It is a truth which is never imposed, never tries to teach us anything. It is fragile and waits on our willingness to un-clench our teeth and open our hands. Really, Jesus is an exceptional clown, for he brings into the ring those who were in the audience, so that they can play with him and carry on his show. (from Dieu, tu connais?, Editions le Sénevé, Paris, 2005, p 76-78 in the chapter “La vérité du clown”.)

 

And finally : clowns and faith, are they compatible ?

 

It is certainly true that to have faith is to live out the happiness and the joy offered to us in the Beatitudes for example (Matthew 5. 1-12). Clowns lead us to a spirituality of joy. Rejoice always …. Give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5; 16-18). It’s enough to be tuned in to the smallest things and to the life within, and to taste the Creation. For then we let loose a new joy for life and the desire to say thank-you to life, though we know its difficulties.

 

It is also true that if we admit to being people of faith, we live in the presence of others, of the Other, that is to say God, but also in the presence of other people. Clowns put us in touch with an essential something, suddenly and forcefully. They live by making themselves present every day. Walk in my presence (Genesis 17.1[5]) the Lord says to Abraham as he makes him a gift (and in English, as in French the two words present and gift are synonyms). With our Presence before the Other, we also make presents for others …. reciprocally.

 

And then, if we admit that we have faith, that is our decision. For clowns, everything is a sign of the Good News. Everything is grace. If you knew the gift of God (John 4. 10). Clowns accept the gift of abundant life (after John 10. 10). Clowns show us how to quench this thirst for abundance, how to live their simple life, where obstacles and difficulties can be a source of joy for them and for other people. Clowns tell us that our lives are a gift, that whatever is not given away is lost.

 

And again, if we admit to being people of faith, we experience freedom and encounter the truth that makes us free. This truth is not a dogma, but a person. Clowns gives us permission to be ourselves; the truth will make you free (John 8. 32). There is just one condition to this freedom: Do whatever he tells you (John 2. 5). The clowns’ freedom allows them to say aloud things we might not dare say, about life, love, death, our relationship to God.

 

If we admit to being people of faith, we accept the word of God, the kingdom of God, like a child. Clowns have found their childhood spirit, their innocence, their freedom to play and to laugh and to say what they want to say. To be a clown means that we can rediscover this little free child within and put it on stage for the good of others. Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18. 3).

 

If we admit that we are people of faith, we believe that life is stronger than death; for clowns, suffering and failure don’t have the last word, laughter does. Clowns win out; their song is a song of liberation and victory. They let us pick ourselves up and walk on. They help us to live happily, to accept and overcome misfortunes, poverty, fragility; they make our tribulations into a game, and in this way they act as a resurrection in our lives.

 

Certainly, if we are people of faith, we take humility and reconciliation into account in our lives. Clowns help us know ourselves better; they show us reality in another light and make us practice humility. They exorcise our fears about our limits and dissolve out anxieties. They give us interior peace and reconcile us to ourselves. So once again we are able to marvel that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139. 14). Through their knowledge of themselves and their ability to listen, through their relations to others and to the Other, through their presence in the everyday world and their childishness, their goodness, their humility and their patience, clowns lead us on the long, bright path of the fruits of the spirit (Galations 5. 22). We go home feeling lighter, more alive, and closer to God.

 

There is no immediate, evident, or automatic connection between clowns and faith, but clowns can help people in general and people of faith understand something about our humanity and about our Christian faith. Contemporary clowns testify to a desire for fullness, for freedom, for relationships. They say YES to life with a loud voice. They are examples of our desire to be happy. They give us access to our own consciences and to the world. The allow us to enter into ourselves and taste the flavor of existence.

 

Author’s note:

I have written this article with the precious help of notes I took during different courses and practice sessions: with Philippe Rouseaux in June and August 2009, as pastor and deacon of courses, in November 2010 and March 2012 as clown; with Christel Poher in February 2014, as clown; with the help of different written works ad testimony found on the websute of the association “Clown par foi”, http://lacroixvosgienne.jimdo.com/.

 

[1] The French expression is : serieux comme un pape. So far as I know we don’t have an expression quite like that in English. [translator’s note]

[2] Hervé Le Houréou, during a training session on clowns and faith led by Philippe Rousseaux in 2009.

[3] In English we don’t very often use the verb « play » in these expressions, but I have kept to the French. We do of course say “to give a rope play” and also use the verb “play” in connection with water moving out of a hose or in a fountain. [translator’s note]

[4] The word in Greek is μακαριος which is always translated as « happy » in French – so far as I know, but as « blessed » in English. This difference in the translations of the Beatitudes makes for a bit of confusion here. In Italian the word is translated “beati”, or blessed as in Engiish. In German the word used is “selig”, which certainly means a lot more than just “happy”. [translator’s note]

[5] In English the NRSV has: walk before me (translator’s note).

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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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