top of page

What Br. Juniper and St. Thomas Aquinas Teach Us About Intellectual Disability, by Christy Wilkens

The best beloved picture book in our house is a hard-to-find gem called Brother Juniper by Diane Gibfried, one I stumbled across on a shelf at Goodwill over a decade ago. I’d never heard of this Servant of God, but I grabbed it anyway because it prominently featured Franciscan friars.

This book never, never gets old. My children (of all ages) love to hear it, and I love to read it. The climax of the charming story, when Brother Juniper is found “standing naked in an empty hole,” never fails to elicit glee and giggles.

Why is he standing there? The reason -- the very thing that has made Brother Juniper a Servant of God, endlessly frustrated his fellow brothers, and caused his spiritual father St. Francis to remark, “I wish I had a whole forest of these Junipers” -- is his generosity.

Juniper’s is a generosity that springs directly from love, uncomplicated by overthinking. In fact, one of the only things we know about Juniper is that he was intellectually disabled. His fellow brothers believe he gives things away, everything from the chalice to the very doors and walls of their church, because he doesn’t understand that he isn’t supposed to.

In fact, Juniper gives things away because he does understand that he is supposed to, in a way that the other brothers cannot. Their intellect and judgment complicate and obscure their connection to divine love. Juniper’s reckless love is intimately tied to Franciscan spirituality at its best -- an abandonment of absolutely every last thing to the providence of God.

This book, and Juniper’s life, are a great gift to us, an illustration of the truth that intellectual aptitude does not correlate with spiritual and moral aptitude. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that there is a kind of wisdom which comes from proper reasoning through intellect, but the Wisdom that is the gift of the Holy Spirit allows us to judge “connaturally” according to Divine norms, without rational thought (ST II-II 45.2). The severely intellectually disabled can intuit and cooperate with Wisdom and other divine graces, as Juniper freely does.

Aquinas’ feast day (January 28) and Juniper’s (January 29) are back-to-back, a telling juxtaposition. Although he is recognized now as one of the greatest intellectual giants in all of human history -- his Summa Theologica is an unparalleled example of precise, analytical religious thought -- St. Thomas Aquinas was himself once ridiculed and pitied as a simpleton. In school, he was so large and so silent that he was referred to as the “Dumb Ox,” where “dumb” carried an implicit dual connotation of muteness and stupidity.

Just like Juniper, Aquinas’s gifts were misunderstood at first. In both men, their peers failed to recognize what they could do, blinded instead by what they couldn’t. Juniper’s lack of intellect caused his peers to misinterpret his acts of charity as irrational carelessness.

Aquinas’ reticent speech caused his peers to doubt his intellect, keeping him in the lowest class at school, receiving extra tutoring, until his voice and his vocation were revealed in a manner and time chosen by God and not humans.

As parents of disabled children, we are very used to our children’s gifts being shortchanged, misconstrued, and even outright dismissed by others around them. We are used to discerning development that unfolds slowly and idiosyncratically, rather than “normally” or “typically.”

In the spiritual models of Juniper and Aquinas -- one on his way to sainthood in spite of his likely intellectual disability, and one a saint largely because of it despite unusual beginnings -- we can take comfort that God knows our children perfectly. He has a plan and a path to heaven for each of us.

Achievement and accolades on the human scale and timeline are no measure of the worth and graces of the soul.

Christy Wilkens, is wife to a tremendously patient and tender husband, Todd, and the mother of six tireless (no, seriously–tireless) children. They live in a tumbledown farmhouse on five unkempt acres. She drives a 12 passenger van and her family lives and breathes audiobooks. We fulfill every stereotype you have about orthodox Catholic homeschoolers. She blogs at Faithful, Not Successful.