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from issue no. 07 - 2003

An article by Albino Luciani in the Messaggero di Sant'Antonio

Our Lady and the tumbler

A welcome summer guest at the monastery of the Servants of Mary at the Marian shrine of Pietralba in Alto Adige, Patriarch Albino Luciani often found himself in the monks’ library. Browsing through a French anthology, he came across a story by Anatole France he confessed to have first read fifty years earlier as a boy. He then got it reprinted with his commentary in the Messaggero di Sant’Antonio in December 1976.

by Albino Luciani

Saint Luke had already remarked that Mary could take to the Temple «only a pair of doves, the offering of the poor» (Luke 2,23). That then the poor have always felt privileged with her appears from many prayers, the core of which is: “Intercede with God for me; I have right to your intercession just because I’m poor”. A prayer of this kind runs through the centuries and, parallel to it, goes a tale about Mary’s poor supplicants. It appeared in France in the 13th century, and repeated by popular preachers, it was transcribed by the writer Anatole France with the title: Le jongleur de Notre-Dame.
Barnabas of Compiègne was a tumbler who went from town to town performing feats of great dexterity. But often, during the winter, he found no work and went hungry. Devoted to Our Lady, he prayed to her thus: «Lady, look after my life until it please God I die and when I die let me have the joy of Paradise». On a freezing rainy night he met a monk on the road, and conversing with him decided to leave the craft that had made him famous, to sing, as a monk, the praises to the Virgin. But once in the monastery he noticed that the monks competed in honoring Our Lady, and found himself immediately awkward because of his ignorance. He said to himself: «Well, the prior composes treatises on the Virgin Mary; Friar Macrobius binds them in the finest vellum, that Friar Alexander then adorns with enchanting illuminations. Other compose hymns or carves statues in her honor. I, instead, know how to do nothing, nothing». «I am most unlucky, my Lady,» he told her, «not to have edifying sermons, no fine paintings, nor smooth and elegant verses with which to serve you. Unhappily I have nothing». And he sank into despond. But one morn he arose all content, ran to the chapel and stayed there for more than an hour, returning there again after lunch. From then on he went there every day and was no longer sad. «Why does Barnabas spend all this time in the chapel?» the monks began to wonder. So the prior decided to go and see what he was doing, and through the crack of the door saw Barnabas, in front of Our Lady’s altar, standing on his head and doing his juggling feats with the six copper balls and the twelve knives that he used in the public squares. He thought he had gone mad and, howling sacrilege, was ready to drag him out of the chapel by force, when he saw Our Lady descend the steps of the altar, approach Barnabas and with an edge of her mantle wipe the sweat falling from her tumbler’s brow. The good prior prostrated himself on the ground and murmured: «Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall see God».
The fable offers us a Mary who doesn’t clean the prior’s pen but wipes the sweat off poor Barnabas: it’s for him, poor tumbler, tired, sweating, on the floor, that she descends from her throne and stoops to ease him with the edge of her blue mantle. Precisely because we are poor supplicants Our Lady helps us now and in the hour of our death. Anybody who wants to retell Anatole France’s little fable today, when people are thirsty for genuine simplicity, should stress how it corresponds with the truest image of Mary who says in her canticle: «God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and raised up the humble».

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