By Cliff Garvey
In the Mirror of Perfection, one of the ancient sources of insight and enlightenment about Saint Francis of Assisi and the early Franciscan communities, we read these words: “Saint Francis often said that a good Lesser Brother should possess and practice the virtues of these holy ones: Brother Bernard’s perfect faith and love of poverty; Brother Leo’s simplicity and purity; Brother Angelo’s courtesy, the first nobleman to enter the order; the gracious bearing and common sense of Brother Masseo; the constant prayer of Brother Rufino, who whether awake or asleep was always praying, his mind always fixed on God; the courage of Brother John; the charity of Brother Roger; the prudence of Brother Lucido, who would move from place to place saying ‘Our home is not here, our home is in heaven alone’; and the patience of Brother Juniper, who attained a state of perfect patience by keeping the truth of his lowliness always before him and whose supreme desire was to follow Christ on the way of the cross (85).”
Think for a few moments about this Brother Juniper. Very little is known about him. We do not know when or where he was born. We do not know much about his early life — whether he was raised among the nobility of with the common people. We do not know whether he was rich or poor, literate or illiterate. We do not know whether he was a farmer or laborer, craftsman or tradesman, merchant or lawyer, doctor or priest. What we do know is that in 1210, Brother Juniper was personally received into the Order of Friars Minor by Saint Francis. We know that as Saint Clare was dying, Brother Juniper sat at her bedside; he consoled her and prayed with her. We know that more than 800 years after Brother Juniper’s death, the Church recognizes him as a Servant of God, the first step on the road to canonization. We know that the worldwide Franciscan family celebrates his feast day each year on January 29th. And we know that Saint Francis once said: “I pray to God for a forest full of junipers.”
In the early years after his conversion, Saint Francis was surrounded by a fellowship of truly holy men and women. Among these, Brother Juniper stands out. Beneath the humor and whimsy of the tales still told about him, we find hard lessons about faith, humility, patience, and perseverance in the face of every trial, temptation, and tribulation. In his book, The Franciscan Saints, Robert Ellsberg explains that Brother Juniper “evidently attained such a degree of holiness that he was quite indifferent to the opinion or regard of others (29).” Ellsberg writes: “This was fortunate since he was considered stupid and foolish by those who did not know how perfect he was (29).”
In our time, something is perfect when it is completely good, true, and beautiful; free from flaw or defect. To be perfect is to be without fault. But Saint Francis did not see Brother Juniper in this way. Instead, Francis believed that Juniper was perfect in the sense that he was truly human: created by God and loved by God, but battered and broken just like you and me. He was a sinner, always in need of divine mercy. At the same time, Juniper was perfect in the sense that he had all of the necessary qualities to live the Gospel of Christ and to preach it in thought, word, and deed — in all of its truth, beauty, and wisdom. Juniper was as good as it is possible to be. By all accounts, Juniper achieved this state of perfection through prayer and patience.
Patience. It is easy to talk about. But we all know that it is not always easy to be patient. References to the virtue of patience are found in both the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. For example, in the Book of Proverbs, we read: “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an insult (19:11).” In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, we read: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22).” And in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, we read: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12).”
Although not a scripture scholar, I am interested in the history of words and how we use them. Our understanding of patience finds its linguistic origin in the Latin word patientia. It refers to the quality of being able to bear adversity; to calmly endure misfortune or suffering; and to accept and cope with hardship with humility and perhaps even joy.
During these difficult days, it is important for us to understand that Brother Juniper was a person who bore the little tyrannies of life without anger or anxiety. He was a truly holy man. He was perfect in the sense that he was as good as a person can be. And he practiced a sinner’s perfect patience. He somehow carried the crosses of adversity, desolation, and suffering with serenity and joy because of his close relationship with Christ. A close and intimate relationship that was forged and strengthened through good works and prayer. A relationship that was shared with compassion, generosity, and love. A relationship that was given life in ways that frustrated the wise, invited the scorn of the cynical, but nourished the poor and the simple.
It is not an accident that we call him Brother Juniper. In Assisi, in Italy, the juniper tree spreads across the land and it grows in the worst conditions. The juniper is like its cousin, the cypress, which is so often mentioned in the sacred scriptures. It remains evergreen. It gives shade to the weary and food to the hungry. It grows tall and withstands the strongest winds. Its fragrance lifts high even the lowest spirits.
May these things be said now about us. May we stand firm in faith. May our work together, may our prayer together, spread across the land. May we give food to the hungry, rest to the weary, and a warm welcome to every stranger. May our example lift up our families, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow parishioners, and our fellow citizens. And one day, from his place among the holy ones in heaven, may Saint Francis of Assisi say about us: “I pray to God for a forest full of junipers just like them.”
Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Brother Juniper, Servant of God, pray for us! Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us! Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us! Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to A Forest Full of Junipers. These audio recordings are produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Photo Credit: C. Phillip Brown | Dreamstime.com
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project and our upcoming opportunities for formation, prayer, and pilgrimage, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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