Praise for Our Lady and Her Juggler
Such is the virtue of gratitude.
Among the most charming of tales to regale a child with, and one which can be told in less than 10 minutes, is the story of “Our Lady’s Juggler,” written over a century ago by Anatole France. A timeless tale, it manages to impart both pleasure and piety, a combination especially helpful to parents hard-pressed to find suitable stories to read to their children.
But why timeless? Because the story is about gratitude, a virtue in dangerously short supply these days, but one on which true happiness in this world and salvation in the next entirely depend. In the absence of gratitude, human life becomes brutish; people turn on one another and can find no reason to give thanks. Not to God, nor to anyone else. Atomization becomes their Absolute.
So, what’s this story about that teaches gratitude to kids and takes less than 10 minutes to tell? Well, it’s about a simple fellow named Barnabas, whose business is juggling balls and knives before small but appreciative audiences from city to city across the land.
“He was a good man,” the author tells us, “fearing God, and devout in his adoration of the Holy Virgin.”
In fact, anytime he went into a church, which was quite often, he would fall to his knees before an image of Our Lady, the Mother of God, beseeching her with pure and sincere heart:
My Lady, watch over my life until it shall please God that I die,
and when I am dead, see that I have the joys of Paradise.
In due course, he becomes a monk, and thus he remains ever near to his beloved Virgin. But unlike the other monks, who boast of many talents with which to augment their praise and worship of God and his Mother, he has none so grand as theirs. Seeing that he has so little to offer — “no edifying sermons, no fine treatises nicely prepared according to the rules, no beautiful paintings, no cunningly carved statues, and no verses counted off by feet and marching in measure!” — he falls into a great sadness before the fact of his ignorance and simplicity.
Alas, his only skill is that of a juggler, and of what use is that up against the prodigies of the other monks? And so, drawing upon the one talent he has, he decides to display it before the image of the Virgin, performing night after night while his brother monks lay fast asleep in their beds.
And so it happens that one night the other monks happen to witness his performance. They are, of course, appalled by the acrobatic antics of Brother Barnabas. For there he was, prostrate upon the floor, his feet high in the air, juggling with a half-dozen copper balls and twice the number of knives. Horrified by so scandalous a display, they rush forward to eject him from the chapel. At that very moment, however, they espy the holy Virgin herself, descending with majestic sweep from the altar and, with a fold of her blue mantle, gently wiping away the sweat upon the poor juggler’s brow.
Such is the virtue of gratitude.
I mean, what else would prompt so simple a soul to lavish the one skill he has upon the Virgin he loves? If no less an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas can exhort us, as he does in one of his Corpus Christi hymns, “to dare to do as much you can … giving due praise,” what else can a poor juggler do? Especially one whose devotion to Our Lady has become the defining experience of his life? When gratitude for all that she has done for him awakens night after night, why shouldn’t he dare to do as much as he can, showcasing his skill for the sake of the woman he loves?
As for her part, how else do we account for so generous and unexpected a gesture as the one on which the story concludes? Is it not gratitude as well? After all, here is Our Lady herself, the Mother of God, her statue mounted upon a marble altar, suddenly taking leave of her celestial perch to wipe an obscure monk’s forehead. How off-putting is that? It is, the fastidious will tell you, entirely too much. But not, of course, if one were a mother who loves her son and wants to show her gratitude for a deed well done. She, too, will have dared to do as much as she can.
In fact, what we’ve got here is really the most wonderful example of reciprocity among the children of men. For Mary, no less than the juggler, is a child of our race. She is not a goddess, and the author of the tale, the great Anatole France, is surely wrong to suggest that she be an object of worship. Adoration is owed only to God, while it is veneration that is Mary’s due. And so there they are, the two of them, caught in an act of mutual, loving exchange. Two people offering thanks for gifts neither one could possibly give, yet each is delighted to receive.
Mary may be God’s own Mother, Queen of the Angels and Saints, but she is no juggler. And so she is grateful to him for his gift. Which he, of course, need never have bestowed in the first place, yet was moved to do so out of an overflow of gratitude for her. Perhaps not the most sublime oblation possible in the sight of men, at least not compared with all the other monks. But it is the very best he can do and, more to the point, he is moved by a grateful heart to do it.
And her gift to him, what was that but the promised salvation of her Son, of which she, as Mediatrix of all graces, stands in unique and necessary relation to. She is the river to God’s people, along which course all the graces God longs to share. Graces for which the juggler, and all the children of men for whom he is our symbol, longs above all mortal things to receive.
Let us praise them both.