The Clown of God
Harcourt Brace, 1978
I’ve loved The Clown of God for a long, long time. I remember checking it out from the library over and over as a child. Before I had kids – and thus, before I had any sense about what a new mom might need – I always gave this book to friends with new babies. But I never really thought of it as “theological.” Then I read it to my daughter last week, and changed my mind, and am dying to share it with you.
Regular readers of this blog will know by now that we love Tomie de Paola. The Clown of God is a classic example of his work: a moving story, simply told and lovingly illustrated in his iconic style. I’ll never get enough of dePaola’s drawing. In this book, he manages to be warm, tender, and witty while evoking the austere beauty of early Renaissance Italy. Honestly – and this is rare for me – I’m happy to sit and turn the pages with a child on my lap, just taking in the pictures.
Giovanni is a small street urchin who has a talent for juggling. He begins performing with a traveling troupe, and his skill takes him up and down Italy, bringing delight to crowds, dukes, and even a prince or two. Along the way he meets two Franciscan friars, who tell him that since his juggling brings joy it glorifies God as well.
“If you say so!” said Giovanni, laughing.
As far as he’s concerned, the juggling is simply to make the crowds applaud and cheer.
But Giovanni ages, his juggling becomes an old and uninteresting act, and the applause turns to jeers. He takes off his clown costume and becomes a beggar again, just as he was when a child. Then one night, he stumbles into a church where people are bringing gifts to the Holy Child: and he realizes that he, too, has a gift to give.
I love the way this story suggests God’s delight in all of our offerings, when they’re given with love. Does an offering have to be “religious,” or serious, or quietly given in church? What about our skills, our talents, the ways in which we each bring beauty and joy into the world? Is it possible that God takes delight when we give others joy? And that he continues to take delight, even when our offerings don’t meet with the world’s approval?
I want my children to have generous, joyful imaginations; to see their very being as a delightful gift from God, to the world, and back to God; and to look with God’s eyes and take joy in the offerings of others. Spending some time with the Clown of God isn’t a bad way to start.