Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Lights at the circus

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published February 20, 2014

Last week I was invited to celebrate Mass with the workers of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, who were performing at the Gwinnett Arena. It was the fifth year I was asked, and it has always been a real joy for me.

We celebrated Mass in a small alcove in the back stage area. On my way to say the Mass, I had to walk a considerable distance through the staging areas that wind behind the show floor. I could hear the roar of the crowd as the second of three shows that day was winding down. I passed the elephants, which were lined up, waiting with their trainers to be led into the arena. I had never been that close to elephants before and was astounded as to their size.

As I walked along, performers passed me—clowns, acrobats, animal handlers, stagehand crews, vendors, cyclists, trapeze artists. Most were in costumes, brightly colored, all beautifully made. They all nodded at me in greeting, with smiles or a wave. The circus is a very friendly and welcoming place. There is something special about it.

All of this was on my mind as I arrived at the spot where the Mass was to be held. A small group was there, waiting for me. They helped me set up whatever I needed for the Mass. I recognized some of the faces from last year.

A young girl came up and introduced herself to me. She looked to be about 12 years old and wore a Beatles shirt, the faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo printed on its front. I asked her where she was from. She smiled and said, “Russia.” We chatted for a bit and I told her that I had been following the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. She seemed to take that comment in stride. Then I told her that I saw the Beatles in 1965, in Shea Stadium, and she squealed with delight. I had the sense that I had just cemented a lasting friendship.

The gathering was small and international. The Russian girl sat next to a little girl from Mexico. There were two clowns—one from Houston and the other from Nashville. There was a woman from Baton Rouge. A religious sister was there, and she was from Mexico. Several people were from South America, and a woman from China sat quietly, waiting for the Mass to begin.

The Gospel told of Jesus telling his disciples to let their light shine. I felt so much light all around me and within me. And I so wanted to find the right words to tell them that, to tell them what a joy it was to be with them and to encourage them in the work that they do, the happiness that they bring to thousands of people every day and on that day, there were three shows. Three huge gifts of light and happiness.

I shared with them that at the monastery, we use a lot of words to seek and hold onto God. But there are other ways to do the same thing.

Jesus speaks of light—a wordless yet powerful transport of grace, of divine life. And it is given to everybody. It is not given to be kept. It is given to shine, to be shared.

I confessed to them that I love photography and that maybe one of the reasons I like it so much is because it is wordless. Kind of like a circus. It is said that a photo says more than words. So, I said, their light, too, speaks immeasurable volumes every time they make a child laugh, or a parent beam with joy and pride, or when their show gives a needed reprieve from the tedium that so many people suffer in life.

Life is a burden, but there are moments when we can help each other lighten the load. A circus is one such place, one such moment. In many ways, it is the Greatest Show on Earth. And I think that God shines through the people who make Ringling Brothers the magic that it is.

The Mass came to an end and I told the little group to go in peace. The show was about to begin. It was nearing the time to shine their light and let God make His way into the arena.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at