The word “vocation” comes to us from the Latin vocare, which means “to call.” Keller and Alsdorf point out that calling indicates a caller – and that caller is God. In their 2012 book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work To God’s Work (New York, NY: Riverhead Books), Keller and Alsdorf say that vocation is simply “God’s assignment to serve others” (p. 55). They go on to say, “We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor” (p. 57).
But what if you’re just a silly little juggler? What if that happens to be the thing I love to do the most in terms of work and art? Can I actually serve God and others through the ridiculousness of tossing and catching things in the air and inviting others to watch along?
It turns out that there is an instructional tale about this very topic from the Medieval period. You see, the organized Church did not always look very highly upon jugglers. Early Church writers, leaders, and pastors would dismiss the juggler as a worthless street beggar who conjured in evil practices.
I’ll give you just one example, coming from the writings of the beloved saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who was comparing the foolishness of Christians to the real-world “foolishness” of jugglers…
“Upon the eyes of all we produce the effect of jugglers and tumblers…but our foolish game has nothing boyish in it, nothing of the spectacle at the theatre, which represents low actions and with effeminate and corrupt gestures and bendings provoke the passions.”
-Bernard of Clairvaux. Some Letters of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux. 1904. Translated by Dr. Eales. Preface by Francis Aidan Gasquet. London, England: John Hodges, p. 107.
But the tale of the Juggler of Notre Dame tells a different story for the juggler. This story is originally found in a poem from the 13th Century and was rediscovered and brought to widespread attention by a French historian in the late 19th Century.
The story goes like this: a traveling minstrel/performer (often depicted as a juggler/tumbler in various versions of the story) goes from town to town, performing their tricks for whomever will watch. But after many years, the performer grows old and tired. They find refuge in a monastery, but feel worthless in that context because they feel they have nothing “spiritual” to offer in worship to God. All the other monks have skills and talents appropriate and suitable as an offering to the Lord (like writing manuscripts, singing worship songs, and tending to the gardens). But then the performer sneaks into a chamber of the monastery where there is a statue of the Virgin Mother holding the infant Jesus. The juggler performs and entertains for the statue, much to the disgust of the spying monks, but then the statue comes to life and offers a blessing in thanks to the performance of the juggler.
This story has come in various forms over the years, but the message is generally the same: even the “lowly” juggler has something special to offer in worship to God. The work and art of the juggler is an acceptable act of worship unto the Lord. God is pleased with the sacrifice of the minstrel.
Dumbarton Oaks in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC currently has an excellent exhibit all about this particular story and its impact in culture over the years. Below is a book I picked up that is a facsimile of an early 20th Century version of the story with notes from the curating scholar of the exhibit, Jan M. Ziolkowski of Harvard University.
As a juggler, this is such a meaningful story. I go through life having to explain to people what I do for a living and most people just look at me and say, “Oh, I’ve never met a full-time juggler before!” They have a look in their eye as if they’re trying so hard to confirm to me that what I do for a living has some sort of utilitarian value to this life. Perhaps I’m reading too much into those looks. But even I struggle with a sense of purpose and value with my work sometimes. But when I stop and remember that I really do believe God has gifted me with these abilities and that He has called me to use them to bring joy, laughter, and a message of truth to others, then I am content and grateful that this is my vocation in life.
Whatever your vocation and work may be, I pray that God would reveal to you how He is using you to serve others and bring glory to Him through that work.
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” – 1 Peter 4:10