What a wonderful Christmas treat! Dad used to delight in taking us lads to the circus! He shared our excitement. There we would laugh at the crazy antics of the clowns, with their ridiculous make-up, and dressed in their baggy trousers and enormous shoes. We would marvel at the elegance of the horse-riding acrobats and the skill of the jugglers. In those days there were performing animals; nervously we would admire the courage of the lion tamers.
Thrill after thrill, building up to the climax -the trapeze artists. To the roll of drums a couple of swings and adjacent rope- ladders would be lowered from way up high, from the peak of the big-top tent. Up one ladder would climb a handsome, muscular young man; up the other a beautiful young lady. Gradually they started to move the swings on which they sat backwards and forwards, faster and faster. Then suddenly the young lady leapt from her swing towards the young man. As she flew through the air he reached out and grabbed her by her outstretched arms. What perfect timing for catcher and caught; what wonderful trust the flying lady showed him! One mistake and she would have crashed to the ground. We were excited, we were anxious; we were relieved. The applause was deafening when the couple safely descended to the ground!
Fast forward many years, to my life as a Dominican. We get people joining us from every walk of life. One of our brothers used to work in the circus and reached the top of his profession –literally. In fact he was catcher in a trapeze act which performed at the London Palladium. You can’t get any higher than that! Not surprisingly, he was immensely strong. Even so, he was a very gentle person.
Recently a reproduction of a painting by Seiger Kodor reminded me of my childhood visits to the circus and my trapeze artist Dominican brother. The painting had nothing to do with circuses. Instead, it depicted St. Peter sinking beneath the storm-tossed waves after Jesus had invited him to walk across the water. As long as Peter trusted Jesus he was able to do what was humanly impossible. But St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “…when he, Peter, noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him,” (Matt 14. 30-31).
While the background of Kodor’s painting of this Gospel incident shows some of the terrified disciples in their storm tossed-boat, in the foreground a hand stretches down to clasp Peter’s hand, reaching out from the turbulent seas. As they held onto each other’s hands Peter was saved. So, too, was the trapeze-lady as she and her catcher grasped each other’s wrists, preventing her crashing to her destruction.
For me that clasping of hands sums up God’s whole work of salvation. Like Jesus in this episode, God has heard us sinners cry for help, when we fear the burden of guilt is dragging us down to our destruction. But then the Psalmist reassures us, “He, the Lord, reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of the mighty waters,” ( Ps. 18.16).
Peter needed to recognize that he couldn’t cope alone; by himself he would certainly have sunk and perished. He needed to cry to Jesus for help, to trust Christ could help him and wanted to save him. So, too, in the trapeze act, as the young lady sprang from her swing and flew through the air, she needed absolute trust in the catcher and belief in his strength, his skill and his good will. If he’d ignored her or his grip had slipped she would have had a dreadful fall.
I’m sure God wants me to be like the trapeze artist, who had the courage to leap from her security -her swing. God wants me to share her trust that God, like the catcher, will not let me down. From the trapeze artists and from Jesus saving Peter from the waves He wants me to realize that salvation lies in our reaching out to each other and grasping each other…God reaching out to me and me to God. That is the only way we can meet God. I must confidently cling onto Him as He stretches out to save me. Certainly I will never meet Him, if, like Peter, I try to go it alone, without God’s help. Or if, like a foolish trapeze artist, I think I can fly through the air with no one there to catch and save me.
Isidore Clarke O.P.