Her father took her to the circus

A few days ago one of my community reminded me about a 1960s Peggy Lee song later covered by Chaka Khan, called Is that all there is? It is a song full of disappointment and jadedness, in which, no matter how huge or significant the event, the narrator ends up asking Is that all there is? I'm told it's existentialist, but as what little I ever knew about this philosophy came from reading Camus for French A Level,  I will leave learned comment to others. All I know is that the delivery of the songs gives the lyrics a power and a breathless excitement which I find dissonant with their tone of world-weary disillusion.

The song begins with a small child being scooped up by her father and rescued from a house fire. Instead of being terrified, reassured or even excited she simply watches the fire thinking Is that all there is to a fire? Later verses give a similar reaction to falling in love and to life itself, and whatever might lie beyond.

We were not having this conversation out of any deep or abiding love of Chaka Khan, but because of our genuine deep and abiding love for Prue Wilson, a Sacred Heart sister who died recently. Prue was a larger than life character, a charming, delightful, funny, loving and lovable woman with a huge zest for life and an equally huge capacity for friendship and for relating to all sorts of people. She died only ten days after celebrating her ninetieth birthday with family and friends, and will be missed by so many.

Almost thirty years ago, in her early sixties, Prue wrote her memoirs and reflections on religious life in a book published by DLT entitled My father took me to the circus. This referred to an incident when she was a tiny child: having sobbed her way through a noisy religious service in a huge marquee, she panicked when, a few days later her father took her to the circus, and she saw the tent and heard the band. Then a sense of complete trust swept over her as her father scooped her up into his arms and reassured her. This was the circus, not church; all would be well and she would enjoy it... and she did!

Interestingly, the second verse of the Chaka Khan song begins And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth... But having described the marvellous spectacle in detail the narrator says she found something missing and asked herself Is that all there is to a circus?

Two visits to the circus, two different experiences, two different outcomes. For one, delusion and disappointment; for the other, an enduring memory, which became a rich metaphor for God. Prue wrote of the incident: the ecstasy that followed remains profoundly of God, who was and is my father, and a circus. He is always the one who carries me to a joy I never knew existed.

Is that all there is?... this phrase would never have had a place in Prue's vocabulary! Life was too rich, too full, for world-weariness; she was someone who relished each encounter, each new experience, her enthusiasm undimmed by age and frailty. She was no Pollyanna, of course; she knew pain and suffering, but her overwhelming, enduring experience was of a loving God, carrying her to unimagined joy.

I will leave the final word to Prue: an extract from the prologue to her book, in which she expands on the image of circus. May it help us to know a God who longs to carry us all to a joy we never knew existed...

So the image of the circus is important to me. It is archetypal and flamboyant; behind it is the memory of childhood, and in it every human person has a star part... I shall imitate Jesus and say 'The kingdom of heaven is like this: it is a great gathering of people, each one a performer and each one rejoicing in the performance. It is a show on the road, and its stage is a circle of light in which each discovers what it means to be uniquely, miraculously gifted. The night sky vision of the universe is its big top. What parts will be taken up by whom will never be written on the programme, but the whole of the living world will be caught into the joy and magic and skill of the performance, and every act will show us something more about freedom and interdependence and trust.