“When you visit Paris, you must see the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre”, I was told. But on a cold winter day when I trudged up the hillock leading to Montmartre, I wondered: “I am not a Christian, heck, I am not even religious, there is no earthly reason I should be here!” But I climbed on.
A vibrant Christmas Carnival was on when I entered the compound. There were food shops, trinket hawkers, souvenir peddlers, street musicians and wannabe artists, all competing for attention. Subconsciously, I was drawn to a smiling street juggler and I could not take my eyes of him. Why, I wondered– he was not even half as good as the one I saw at Moulin Rouge the previous night. Then it hit me: he reminded me of a story I had read in my youth – Anatole France’s ‘The Juggler of Notre Dame’. (not to be confused with the more famous Victor Hugo opus, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’). It was such simple story that one almost missed the point:
There is a juggler, who makes a living by singing bawdy songs and performing clever tricks on the streets of Paris. This time, the winter is severe and collections are dangerously negligible. Then, there is a chance meeting with a monk who admonishes him to give up his ‘ungodly’ ways and join the church. The juggler agrees, more to run away from hunger rather than to reach God. They reach the Notre Dame church and the juggler is overwhelmed by the inspiring environment. It is Christmas time and every priest is preparing a noble offering to Mother Mary. One is composing a cantata praising the Mother, another is transcribing the scriptures with rich calligraphy, and the abbot is painting a lovely portrait of Mary. The juggler despairs his worthless impotence to offer anything valuable– until there is a realization of what he must do: he must make an offering of street entertainment, the only thing he could call his very own. He spreads his dirty rug in front of the altar; he juggles the pins and balls, all the while singing his bawdy verses. When the monks see this, they are outraged by the sacrilege. Just as they are about to throw him out, a strange thing happens. The hand of Mother Mary moves to wipe the sweat of the juggler’s brow.
The point of the story was (and is) that all the sophistication of the head is no match for the sincerity of the heart. That was the message of the Juggler of Notre Dame. Perhaps that was the signal from the Juggler of Montmartre too. Surely, the reason I was there, was to receive that signal. I dropped a small coin into the juggler’s (my juggler’s) cap. A vulgarly low sum for a precious life-lesson. Now I saw the imposing structure of Sacred Heart Basilica in all its glory!