I have always thought Anatole France’s story of the juggler to be one of enduring moral resonance. This is the arresting and affecting tale of the young monk who aspires to express his devotion to the Virgin Mary, having dejectedly reviewed, during his first week as a postulant at the monastery alongside Our Lady of Sorrows, the prodigies and gifts of his fellow monks. Oh, some sang like nightingales, others played their musical instruments as virtuosi, still others rhapsodized with the tongues of poets. But all that this young novice had learned in the way of special skills before entering the monastery was to entertain modestly as a juggler. And so, in the dead of night, driven by the mandate to serve, walking furtively lest he be seen and mocked by his brothers, he makes his ardent way to the altar with his sackful of wooden mallets and balls, and does his act for Our Lady.
This account of the struggle to express gratitude is unsurpassed in devotional literature. The apparent grotesquerie — honoring the mother of the Saviour of the universe, the vessel of salvation, with muscular gyrations designed to capture the momentary interest of six-year-olds — is inexpressibly beautiful in the mind’s eye. The act of propitiation; gratitude reified.
How to acknowledge one’s devotion, one’s patrimony, one’s heritage? Why, one juggles before the altar of God, if that is what one knows how to do. That Americans growing into citizenhood should be induced to acknowledge this patrimony and to demonstrate their gratitude, for it is the thesis of this exercise. By asking them to make sacrifices we are reminding them that they owe a debt, even as the juggler felt a debt to Our Lady. And reminding them that requital of a debt is the purest form of acknowledging that debt. The mind tends to turn to the alms-giver as one experiences the alms he has to give us. We are familiar with the debt an exonerated defendant feels toward the judicial system on which he suddenly found himself relying. The man truly hungry looks with a different eye on the person who feeds him. It is entirely possible to live out an entire life without experiencing the civic protections which can become so contingently vital to us at vital moments. Even if we never need the help of the courts, or of the policeman, or of the Bill of Rights, that they are there for us in the event of need distinguishes our society from others. To alert us to their presence, however dormant in our own lives, tends to ensure their survival. And tends also to encourage a citizenry alert to the privileges the individual might one day need. This enjoyment, this answering of needs, can make us proud of our country — and put us in its debt. In this essay on the theme of Gratitude, I postulate that we do owe something. To whom? The dead being beyond our reach, our debt can only be expressed to one another; but our gratitude is also a form of obeisance — yes, to the dead. The points I raise will disturb some “conservative” presumptions as also some commonly thought of as “liberal.” I have, in any event, the obligation to explore the social meaning of duty. Those who respond to religious guidelines will not be surprised, for example, by the Christian call to reinspect Divine commandments: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Although religious faith is not required to prompt attention to the nature of the injunction, the intensity of the concern of some Americans is sometimes best understood by the use of religious metaphors. Emile Durkheim wrote engrossingly on the question when he spoke of the “relation of a devoted child to his parents, of an ardent patriot to his fatherland, [of a] cosmopolitan to mankind, of a worker to his class, of a nobleman conscious of his rank to the aristocracy, of the vanquished to his conqueror, of the good soldier to his army.” “All these relations,” Durkheim concluded, “with their infinitely manifold contents can, indeed do, have a general tenor as far as their psychic aspect is concerned — which must be called a religious key.”