Life in the Circus

“Life is but a rehearsal for the Great Performance to come. You’ll come to know that one day,” Arturo said.

“The public think that circus people are odd-balls, freaks who can’t or plain refuse to live a normal, everyday life: forever on the move, without roots, aloof, outsiders with their own language, strange traditions and of course the secrets of their trade.

But they, the public that is, know very little about the real life of a circus performer. They judge from their own narrow, particular point of view, and so can never be fully right. They only consider the surface. They can’t perceive the heart and soul; they can’t feel the loving kinship that binds us; they know next to nothing of the trials, the sweat and tears; and they do not even wish to understand our pursuit of the elusive perfect performance.”

Before the role had passed to his son Jakob, a clown in the classical tradition, Arturo was the leader of the circus, its ring-master. Now he was the guide, tutor and confidant of the next in line: Dimitri, his grandson. That’s how it worked. That’s how it was passed down through the generations. Each ring-master, when the time for his retirement came, passed on the role and title to his son, taking on instead the duty of readying his son’s son to take up the onerous task when the hour of his time duly arrived.

In this way the teacher’s voice was the voice of experience, tried and tested in the light and heat of the ring. It was not the voice of the aspirant, full of inner doubt in his own abilities to fulfil the daunting task. Nor was it the voice of the new-comer, still somewhat buffeted by the forces, in the throes of a challenging performance, full of urgent endeavour and singleness of aim. No, it was one of broad and calm authority, of inner certainty in the proven wisdom of the ancient ways, demonstrated time and time again through season after season of twice-daily performances.

Arturo continued: “The many different kinds of men need many different kinds of experiences in life. Every town, every factory, every field and yard, every shop, church and concert hall, every office and barracks hold their lessons. Every stockman, every labourer, every scholar, every financier, every doctor, baker and blacksmith learns the lessons of his trade as best he can – just as we do.

They flock to our shows because we offer them a brief respite from the often hard – nay, the very hard lessons of their workaday world. Full of expectation they – saints and sinners alike – queue at the door with their pennies in hand. And as they enter in it’s they who are now the outsiders; and it’s our domain that now holds sway.

For a while at least their world melts away. For a few brief hours it is ours that counts. They see what they see, and they feel what they feel; they occupy another world to the one in which they normally live, a normality to which almost all will again return at the end of the performance. And then, for nearly all, ours will melt away again, as if it never was.

You and I, Dimitri, and indeed all of our circus kin if they are so minded, are well placed to understand the many kinds of men. We travel from busy town to busy town, from drowsy village to drowsy village. Each time we set up the tent it fills with a different crowd. We see every kind of man in all his colours, bright and dim, pouring through or standing eager at the gate.

We see the happy child, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked; we see the superstitious, the beetle-browed cynic sneering from the wings, and the envious nursing his resentment; we see the humble and the conceited, the sly and the sincere; we see the rebel and we see the keeper of the law; we see hubris and all its tragic consequences. We see the beautiful within and the beautiful without. We see softly smiling eyes, men with frozen hearts, and those ablaze with passion; we see the restless and the poised, the loquacious and the silent; we see the innocent soul ensnared; and too, though rare, we see all-conquering love dissolving hate in its all-consuming flames.

We see them all, shining forth or glowering before us twice a day. Like the stars that send their many coloured rays from within the deeps of night, we see every colour, every tint and shade of all the kinds of men. In one way or another, Dimitri, the ringmaster must know them all. Yet all the experience in the world will count for nought if he fails to know thereby the inwardness of law.

It is not our place to judge them; for that belongs to another. Ours is to inspire them. Ours is to fill the tent with life, with joy and wide-eyed wonder. Ours is to warm the hearts of every man, woman and child, to bring laughter to their lips and happiness in the twinkle of their eye. Ours is to unfold within their minds the golden memories of better times; and awaken within their hearts the long-slumbering hopes and dreams of the best still yet to come. Ours is to bring forth spring amid the frozen hearts of wintertime. Ours is to bring a light into the darkness. For ours, Dimitri, is the message of the flaming dawn, when all the flowers of the meadow lift up their dewy heads to send forth their paeans to the Lord, as throughout the woods the golden-throated singers mount the bough of song.

If this is to happen, if the magic is to work as it should, as it must, two performances a day, day after day, whatever else might happen on the road or in the wings, the ring-master must do his job well. On the one hand he must recognise whatever the moment demands; but on the other, he must comprehend the essence of the unchanging ways passed down to him through the generations from his forefathers. He must also be granted inspiration; but even if this is so, he cannot truly succeed without the ability to apply what he has received to the here and now of the material world.”

It was rare for his grandfather to speak so directly about what it meant to become a ring-master. From the very beginning he had established two rules: first, that his grandson was to learn, to the very best of his ability, a circus skill; and second, that as well as this he was to devote time to the study of one of the great arts or sciences. Almost all Arturo taught him was channelled or reflected by way of one or the other of these two occupations.

“Most of us have our own natural aptitudes”, he had said, “the gifts and talents placed within us before our birth. They lie where they lie, like seeds in the soil waiting to germinate. All we have to do is discover them, nurture them, create the right conditions for them to thrive; and if we are successful in doing so, we may learn a great many important things in the process.”

Dimitri – named in honour of a Greek friend of his father – was an apprentice juggler, but also a lover of poetry. Contrary to the public’s understanding of life in the circus he had not been disadvantaged by missing out on a normal state schooling. His education had been complete, indeed far more complete than that of any of the non-circus children he had encountered. He was now a young man, and had successfully graduated from his formal studies. He was eminently well prepared for life in general. However, learning never came to an end for circus folk; and this was particularly so for those earmarked for the responsibilities of ring-master.

In addition to mastering his performance specialism, a ring-master needed to know something of all the circus skills. And for this reason he spent, at his grandfather’s direction, as much time as he could with the other members of his extended circus family; and they, knowing his vocation, were more than ready to share with him their unique insights and singular discoveries.

However, more often than not these consummate performers did so obliquely. They used allusion, symbol and allegory to point in the desired direction. It was then Dimitri’s responsibility to uncover the deeper truths concealed beneath the coverings of their words.

This Arturo had explained was for safety’s sake. That which is hidden from us is so for good reason; and until the higher or inner meaning is realised within it is very much in our interests that it remains hidden as it is without. There are however certain instances in which under the right conditions a man can bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. In this way, through the power invested in symbol, higher truth can be made manifest in the here and now.

Arturo: “Not all are ready for these higher truths. We have to prepare ourselves for their reception. They also bring with them certain responsibilities few can bear. In order to access unmediated truth safely we must first make ourselves true.

The Father of All is unknown and invisible to the lesser and the greater eye alike, but his direct influence is present within the divine light of the eternal spaces. His symbols are upon the veiléd Earth. There are many grades of meaning between the illusions of the material world and the eternal truths of the divine regions.

For this reason each mind can access only that which is suited to its nature, its qualities and its experience. The unseasoned runaway who aspires to circus life, whatever his potential, is not yet ready for the rigours of the performance. The jugglers, tumblers, clowns and jesters, the high-flying trapeze artists, the trainers of beasts, the high wire troupes, and all the rest – even those who are masters of their art, those who know what is required of them in the heat and light of the ring – not even these, or but one in a million, are yet ready for the austerities that belong to the ring-master. So it is to be expected that each and all will draw from the journey only that which is needed for them to take their place and fulfil their purpose. And this, it must be clear, is not the work of a performance or two.

Dimitri cherished his time spent with Arturo. They discussed many topics, including many of the great works of poetry. However, he had long understood that poetry per se was not his teacher’s primary concern. Rather, Arturo thought that some of the things that poets say when they are inspired might help prepare his grandson for the time when the heavy burdens of the ring-master would be placed upon his as yet unready shoulders.

Dimitri knew that the real task was to know himself in a way and to a degree that very few are capable. He knew that nobody, not even his grandfather, could do that for him. It was his assignment and no one else’s.

“The illumination of the mind by the Minister of God is the only way to a complete understanding of ourselves”, Arturo explained. “This illumination together with the love of an expanded heart is what makes a ring-master. He must love his work. He must love each and every part, every circus skill, every performer, and every wide-eyed member of every audience. He must love the ring from its centre to its circumference.

But this love is a love that cannot be worn on any sleeve, however fine the cloth. It nourishes and brightens from within. It feeds the green meadow with a million splashing streams. Its light brings warmth to a million kindly thoughts.

It is not happiness, charity, goodwill or companionship; it is not service or selfless sacrifice; it is not the ripening force of wisdom’s seed; it is not strength or courage or endurance; it is not hope or faith, trust or sincerity; it is not the purifying radiance of any virtue; it is not freedom hard-won from sin, and nor is it compassion and mercy in the midst of the sinful; it is not reconciliation; it is not the birth of pure and new-born things, nor the release at last that takes the pilgrim home; it is not the sparkle in the poet’s eye, or the truth beneath his tongue; it is not an unforgotten holy song or a hymn sent forth in gratitude; it is not adoration; it is not the whispering of a prayer in the peace of a solitary cell; it is not the father’s justice or the word of correction offered to his son; and nor is it the mother’s smile that greets the waking child at the dawning of the day.

Nay, son of my son, it is none of these. And yet which of them – or all the countless other things that Good has caused to be – could live and breathe and flourish without the flame of love?”