Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee…
JEAN (the Juggler):
What a sudden ray of light,
And in my heart what joy.
He is right, the Virgin is not proud.
The shepherd, the juggler, in her eyes, par the King.
Virgin, mother of love, Virgin goodness supreme,
As on the shepherd’s tune smiled the God-Child,
If the juggler dared honor you the same,
Deign to smile from the sill of Heaven.
from Act II of Jules Massenet’s opera Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, lyrics by Maurice Lena, English translation by Jeffrey A. Klingfuss
“Le Jongleur de Notre Dame” is a legend included by Gautier de Coincy (1177–1236), a French abbot, in his collection, Les Miracles de Notre Dame. It is the story of a juggler who becomes a monk. Concerned that he has nothing to lay at the feet of the monastery’s statue of the Virgin Mary, and knowing his talents are viewed with suspicion by his fellow monks, he decides nonetheless to do what he does best for her. So he creeps in to the chapel in the dead of night, and, by moonlight, juggles before the statue to the point of exhaustion. Alas, he is discovered, but—just as the other monks are about to seize him and carry him away for blasphemy—a miracle! The Virgin steps down from her pedestal and wipes his brow with a handkerchief (for juggling is hard work). He dies, and is taken up to heaven, and the monks know they were in the presence of a saint.
De Coincy, a rather fascinating man, had an agenda. His stories champion outcasts and ne’er-do-wells and pursuits which, then and now, may not seem weighty to us. Jugglers still do not get the Nobel Prize. But in De Coincy’s world, as Marina Warner observes, the more raffish a character is, the better Our Lady likes him, or her. “Through her the whole gay crew of wanton, loving, weak humanity finds its way to Paradise…” (from Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, 1976.) His Christianity was a soft-hearted, humorous, merciful, tolerant faith, and his Mary stood in gentle opposition to the more absolutist kind of morality that we still tend to uphold (and not only in Christian circles).
You may have the kind of talents our society values. But then again, you may not. If your talents are not considered weighty, pursue them nonetheless!
They were given to you by God.
You cannot give what you don’t have. (And Peter had something much better than silver and gold…) So don’t be concerned about the things you can’t give.
Instead, give what you have!
The beautiful poster for the 1902 Paris premiere of Massenet’s opera, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, which was based on the short story by Anatole France, itself based, in turn, on the 13th century legend by Gautier de Coincy.