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In France, in the 1100s or 1200s, when men were building the great cathedrals of Europe and lived in mud while doing so, the story of the juggler of God was very popular. Our century needs to be reminded of the story to glean its own wisdom from the tale.....

Once there was a juggler. He was a humble juggler, who performed for the children at the local village fairs. He had a dove that he "found" in the sleeves of the children, and a rabbit that he could make appear from sacks of grain, and a little dog that danced on its hind legs and a donkey that carried all the burdens and loyally accompanied the troupe wherever they went. The childrens' laughter was his best reward, for the peasant parents could not afford to give him gold or silver for his skills, and he was not so talented that he was invited to perform before kings or princes. A warm meal for himself and some hay and scraps for his animals was all he could expect and he was happy, for the children's laughter was gold in his heart.

As he grew older, his eyes became less keen, and his ears less alert, but more importantly his hands began to lose their skill and sometimes he dropped the balls and then the parents laughed instead of the children and he was sad and both he and his animals would go hungry. One day his little dog laid his head in the juggler's lap and died of oldage, and the juggler realized that he too was too old to train another dog. He thought how he could provide for his faithful creatures and for himself as well and said to himself, "I will ask at the monastery to become a brother for surely they can find something useful for a retired juggler to do." So he walked with his animals to the monastery and requested that they take them all in.

Now the monastery was supervised by Father Abbot. Father Abbot was from a noble house. He could read and sing and was considered very wise and merciful, but he seldom smiled, for running a monastery is a very demanding position. Brother Gatekeeper could not say yes to the juggler of his own authority, so he asked another monk, who asked another monk, and finally the request was laid before the abbot himself. And the abbot, who was wise and merciful, listened to the juggler's request, for he knew that the riches of the abbey belonged to the people who had given them to the monks for using in good works, and helping a retired juggler was appropriate in his mind, if not in the minds of Brother Cellar and others in the monastery who considered him only a mouth to feed, several mouths if you counted the animals.

So the dove was sent to live with the messenger doves of the monastery, and the rabbit was sent to the infirmary to entertain the invalids there, and the donkey was given space in the barn and he was used gently in the fields and to carry firewood from the woods to the kitchen ovens.

The juggler, on the other hand, was more difficult to place well. He was no good with the sheep, and he dug up the wrong plants when weeding and he could not sing or write. So eventually Father Abbot sent him to work with Brother Cook, who Father Abbot knew was the second wisest monk in the monastery, although not many of the other monks would have agreed with Father Abbot's opinion on that, but then that was why Father Abbot was the wisest person in the monastery. He knew that feeding a monastery took much wisdom of a humble kind. Food cooked in love nourished both body and soul, while food cooked in haste and anger would set one monk against another. Father Abbot valued Brother Cook immensely.

So the juggler worked in the kitchen chopping cabbages and peeling carrots and turnips. And Brother Cook saw to it that there were always a few spare scraps of carrots and turnip peelings for Brother Juggler to take to his animal friends when he visited them during the recreational hour. Brother Juggler would also juggle pieces of vegetable to amuse the kitchen staff, and carve the odd turnip or two with a smiling face before it went in the soup pot. Brother Cook ensured that the carved turnip ended up at the abbot's table, and that was his way of saying to the abbot he was taking good care of the juggler.

But Brother Busybody, who had also been sent to work in the kitchens in the hope that he would improve from his surroundings, did not approve of working with a junior monk who had been out in "the world" and had been in pubs and had kissed women and could find humour in turnips. Brother Busybody took pride in cutting his turnips in perfect cubes and peeling them with the minimum of waste.

Brother Juggler knew that his hands were not the best for peeling vegetables, for he always wanted to slice the next turnip in a different style from the one before. He knew that the monastery was keeping him mostly as a work of charity, but with love, for the abbot had ensured that no one would be allowed to treat the juggler with contempt. Father Abbot had said to his advisors, "There is no one in this monastery that has made as many people happy as this juggler has. We should be honoured to have him in our midst."

The juggler had always paid his way before, and as Brother Juggler he was sad, for he did not know of the Abbot's kind and wise words. His heart became lighter only when he visited his faithful animals at the recreation hour, or when he knelt in the Lady Chapel in front of a statue of Mary holding her infant son, where he thought back over the years of all the children he had amused.

Then Brother Cook noticed that his juggler assistant was slowly becoming happier. Even when his dove died peacefully in his hands, and then later his rabbit breathed its last in the lap of the oldest occupant of the infirmary, Brother Juggler seemed more and more content. Brother Cook rejoiced and his soups were even better than ever.

One Sunday Brother Busybody lined up to see Father Abbot during the appointed hour when any monk could approach the abbot in private. Brother Busybody was so bursting with joy, Father Abbot knew he must have some bad news to tell him. "Father Abbot," he said, "I hope I have your approval, for I found out that Brother Juggler has been taking the donkey into the Lady Chapel and I told him he should not bring animals into the church." Father Abbot sighed inwardly but he was a wise man so he said "I appreciate what you have done, but until I announce this to our brothers, you must say nothing to anybody about this." Well, Brother Busybody was very downcast at this, but he had no choice but to obey.

The next day, Monday, just before recreational hour began, Father Abbot slipped out of his rooms and hid himself behind a pillar in the Lady Chapel. Shortly thereafter Brother Juggler came in, alone, and he did not see the abbot who stayed hidden. Instead he went straight to the statue of Mary and her son. As he drew near, the statue of the infant Jesus clapped its hands and said, "Where is your donkey today?" "Alas, my lord," replied the juggler, "I was told it was inappropriate to bring the donkey into church so I must leave him behind and I can no longer give you a ride. But I have brought the pieces of carrot and turnip that I will feed him later, and I thought today I would try juggling them for your amusement, though I fear my skill is gone." The Infant Jesus smiled and nodded, "That would be fun, for I find all these grownups very dull at times."

So the juggler juggled this way and that and then, horrors!, he dropped one of the pieces of turnip on the other side of the altar rail, the place where only the priests and not mere monks may go. The infant Jesus turned to his mother and said, "Mother, may I help this juggler who has been so kind to me?" and the statue of Mary nodded and smiled and set Him down on the floor where he toddled over to the turnip and picked it up and, standing on tip-toes, held it up so the juggler could reach over the rail and take it back. Now when the juggler looked up from picking up the turnip, he saw that Mary too was standing by the altar rail. "My dear son," she said, "would you like now to juggle forever in front of my son?" "My lady," he said, "I am of no use here, though they treat me very kindly, and I would love to do so, but who then will look after my donkey if I am gone?" Mary replied, "I promise you the abbot will look after the donkey equally lovingly as yourself, for you are not as useless as you think. The la ughter of all the children you have amused over the years is music to my son's ears and you are much loved by many."

So Brother Juggler bowed down before Our Lady and his soul went straight to heaven. The statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus stepped back onto the plinth and became a statue once again.

Father Abbot, who had seen everything, then came forth from behind the pillar and touched Brother Juggler's body to make sure he was not just unwell, and the smile on Brother Juggler's face stayed in Father Abbot's soul for the rest of his natural days. Then he bowed to the statue and said, "My Lady, I will honour the promise you have made on my behalf, and as a token I will take these pieces of turnip and carrot to the donkey right now." And so he did. Only Brother Cook noticed that each day for the rest of the week, the abbot would visit the kitchens both to see his old friend the cook and to "borrow" a few pieces of vegetable before slipping away. Being a wise man, Brother Cook did not ask why.

Brother Juggler's body was laid to rest on Tuesday and the whole monastery said prayers for him. Brother Cook mourned for him, and so did Father Abbot, for they were the two wisest monks, but the rest of the monks hardly noticed his absence, except Brother Busybody who felt very relieved that he had spoken out when he had. Father Abbot noticed everyone's reactions and held his own counsel until the appropriate time.

The following Sunday, during General Chapter, when all the monks met to hear the news for the week, Father Abbot got up and spoke to all the monks and related what had happened in the Lady Chapel; and all the other monks became a little wiser as they reflected how little they knew of what went on in the souls of others and how unloving their judgement had been. Even Brother Busybody was quiet for a time. And each Christmas time thereafter, Father Abbot requested the donkey be part of the Christmas crib scene in the church, for Saint Francis had encouraged this tradition recently and Father Abbot was very up-to-date on the latest news.

Usually this is where the story ends, but in fact it is not the end of the tale. For Father Abbot, no matter how busy he was, or how important his visitors, would every day visit the donkey and bring him some vegetable treats. To his surprise, Father Abbot found he could talk to the donkey about his problems and the donkey would wisely nod his head, for after a donkey has carried the infant Jesus on his back, no problem could be too weighty to be borne. Eventually the donkey too went to his reward.

Finally Father Abbot's time on earth was finished and as the monks knelt round him praying, Father Abbot drew his last breath and saw at the foot of his bed his guardian angel, and felt under his hand the rough fur of a donkey's head. And his guardian angel said to him, "Usually the guardian angel carries the soul of his charge to heaven, but this time the Lord has sent the donkey that carried him into Jerusalem to carry your soul to heaven." And the abbot breathed out in great gratitude and found himself in front of God's throne, with the donkey beside him. God's grandeur was so great the abbot wanted to throw himself down in awe, but the donkey butted his head under the abbot's arm and held him upright.

And God said to him, "Each soul that comes before me brings with him an intercessor to plead for mercy. Some bring riches and some bring good works and some bring their guardian angels to plead for them. But you have come with a donkey." And the Abbot, despite his wisdom, did not know what to say. Then his guardian angel stepped forth and whispered in his ear and the abbot smiled and brightened and knew how to reply.

"My Lord God," he said, "you blessed me with much wisdom and success when I was on earth, and I accomplished much by your grace, though not all that I should have. But this donkey led me closer to the love in your heart than any prayer or song or resolution I have made. So I now rely on your continuing love to overlook all the wrong things I have done. Just as I welcomed the juggler into the monastery in obedience to your loving commandments, even though my advisors said he was useless, so now I request you let me stay in your presence forever, even though I too am useless when compared to your glory."

And God smiled and said, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, for in aiding my poor juggler, you honoured Me and all the children that he amused. It will be held to your credit too. My heaven, and my earth, and my love, is big enough to hold jugglers and abbots and everyone else in-between."

And they all lived happily for ever after.

Ann Galvin-Garside is a chartered accountant living in Toronto. Illustrations by David Lloyd, an artist and father of three who lives in Angus, ON
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Author:Galvin-Garside, Ann
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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