It seems age brings an increase in flashbacks to childhood. My most recent childhood memory was that of the annual county fair during the hot and humid days of August, just before the beginning of the new school year. It was a favorite time: walking through the barns, checking out the champion milk cows and pigs, marveling at the size of corn this year, soldiering on despite an ever-present (and usually unmedicated back in those days) ragweed allergies.
As kids, our real destination was the carnival adjacent to the fairgrounds. In retrospect, there was something melancholy about it. The workers were tough, dirty, and unapproachable, and we had to be careful about carnie cheats (“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do….”). Our parents permitted us to play the carnival games with our newspaper route earnings, but we were never permitted to enter the freak shows with the bearded lady, the 1,000-pound man, or the wild man who bit the heads off of chickens. Only raucous and usually inebriated young men spent their factory wages on the freak shows.
Today carnival freak shows are a distant memory, from an ancient and almost unrecognizable era, but the memory leaves a residual sense of sadness in otherwise happy childhood recollections of carnival festivities with cotton candy, bumper cars, and tilt-o-wheels.
Ironically this flashback was sparked by Gospel readings in which Jesus tells his disciples that if they love Him, they will keep his commandments.
Early in my priesthood, the school authorities separated the 8th-grade boys from the girls and I was told to speak to the nervous boys about the 6th and 9th Commandments. Frankly, I was about as nervous as they were. So I asked them to tell me what they expected from the class. One of them, who reminded me of a Muppet Show character, stood up and said, “Father, we just want to be normal.” Exactly! His response saved me from uneasy stumbling and I framed the teachings of the Church on human sexuality with his desire to be normal. Jesus wants us to be virtuous and to be virtuous is to be normal.
But 25 years later, it must be admitted the culture discourages every aspiration to be “normal.” The word itself is rarely used except in weather reports and medical tests. (Even economists speak of a “new normal.”) As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what “normal” human behavior is.
The aspiration to be normal has been displaced by calls for “celebrating diversity” and demands for “inclusion” with warnings never to “bully” anyone. In a “multi-cultural” society, who are we to define the norm? The kernel of truth in these demands puts us immediately on the defensive.
Who can deny the diversity of ethnic groups and the desirability of breaking down the barriers of harmful prejudice? And who can deny the necessity of Christian charity expressed in personal kindness? Who wants to be known as “judgmental” or even a “bigot”? Nobody should be considered “freakish” and the age of freak shows is long gone.
Alas, these objections are mere diversions. The “celebrate diversity” vanguards are not really talking about accepting natural physical or ethnic differences. They’re talking human behavior and morality. The popular use of those words puts us on notice that we dare not “judge” the moral behavior of those who violate the 6th Commandment. Even the word “normal” is emptied of its meaning-—effectively a forbidden word-—when it comes to the new morality. The “diversity” replacement words have become code, justifying truly freakish morality and behavior. We cannot escape a news cycle without another example. (The real aim of the “diversity” mongers is something quite unlike the diversity making up the Mystical Body of Christ.)
Still Jesus wants us to be normal. He teaches us to love Him by living his Commandments. He has come into the world and has “become flesh” to teach us about ourselves. In the memorable phrase of the Second Vatican Council, Christ “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
We all have difficulty identifying and living a normal life in Christ. The child needs to be taught to be normal. The adolescent often panics because he is beginning to sense the urgency of being normal and the great difficulty in its pursuit. To mature means to grow up physically, emotionally and spiritually: to be normal. And except for our tired bodies, we never quite get there as we become very deft in cleverly disguising our immaturities as adults.
Few of us can claim with Saint Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20). But with God’s grace, try we must if we want to be normal.
The truth is that only Christ Himself is normal. This is the reason He wants us to love Him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.” (Jn. 15-18). It takes a lifetime of encountering Him in prayer and the Sacraments to be configured in his likeness, to live in his love.
I suppose there are still carnival freak shows here and there. But the only freak shows I’ve seen of late are moral and spiritual ones in which people deliberately disfigure their souls according to the demands of a corrupt culture. The new freak shows are even sadder than the spectacle of bearded ladies and wild men who bite off the heads of chickens. The truth is, hell is the ultimate moral freak show.
Considering the stakes, we need not be embarrassed by the teachings of Christ as we strive with his grace to live his truths, even as we fail time and again. Young or old, if we want to be mature, virtuous —in a word, normal —we must begin with an honest acceptance of the commands of Christ.
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