Friday, April 7, 2017

The Donkey's Story

Palm Sunday 2017



Many years ago, at the beginning of my religious life, before I became a Benedictine, I was taught the Ignatian method of meditation.  Since I had grown up in an inner world rich in imagination, the part that appealed to me was the “composition of place” and what went with it:  imagining the scene of whatever biblical story the daily meditation book set before us, and then imagining myself into the story by “becoming” any character in the scene, just as I had imagined myself into a wide array of the cowboy stories and fairy tales and adventure sagas  I had once listened to on the radio or watched on TV or read.  The Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and Superman were my personal friends.  I carried stories in my head wherever I went, much to the dismay of some of my teachers.

However, as a new Sister-in-the-making I tried to be suitably restrained, focusing on the holy people in the gospel scenes and following the scripts they lived by.  I didn’t think my formation directors would have approved of my identifying with the star in the sky over Bethlehem reporting on what lay below (and what an interesting report it would be!) or one of the lilies of the field arrayed in scarlet and gold and smelling like my favorite lilies of the valley (I was still adjusting to an all-black wardrobe).

But I am older now.  I don’t use this exact method of prayer as such very often, but sometimes I still indulge in a little inner story telling based on the scriptures.  One day, I was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37),  well-worn and even worn out by years of reading commentaries, hearing homilies, and pondering from every possible angle and some that are impossible.  Having just about exhausted the imaginative possibilities of the poor man beaten and left for dead by robbers, the passing priest and Levite, and the admirable Samaritan himself, I began to notice the other characters in the story, the secondary players no one ever talks about.  There were the villains and the inn keeper, of course, but my wayward imagination turned to an even less likely character: the Samaritan’s donkey. 

Donkeys were very much a part of Jesus’ world.  They were your everyday beasts of burden, much more down to earth than the exotic camels who fared better in the desert than in town. When Jesus speaks about the gate too narrow to carry all our bits and pieces through, he mentions no donkeys, but I often conjure up a picture of one with fat panniers that simply will not go through that gate, leaving the owner in a painful pickle.  When Jesus argues with the Pharisees about healing on a Sabbath, he turns  to the common example of what happens when someone’s donkey falls into a pit—no one is expected to leave it there till the next day, poor thing.  And of course  what Christmas meditation would be complete without the donkeys:  the one we always assume Mary rode to Bethlehem—it would have been a long walk for a woman so heavily pregnant—and the one artistic tradition has made an indispensable feature of the nativity scene, despite the fact that the infancy narratives in the gospels make no mention of ox or ass?  (The Christian imagination seems to have borrowed them from God’s lament in Isaiah 1:2-3:  “Sons have I raised and reared, but they have rebelled against me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” In the stable they stand in mute counterpoint to God’s own children, who “have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2).  So ox and ass are a theological comment on the birth of Christ.  If only they would tell their story!

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the donkey is a willing silent partner in the Samaritan’s work of mercy.  Those of us whose daily lives don’t bring us into much contact with working animals might think that a common beast of burden had no choice but to collaborate with the owner's plan, but it isn’t so.  Surely you have seen, as I have, pictures of an over-laden donkey solving its problem by sitting down splat in the middle of the road and refusing to move.  And there is nothing quite as immovable as a donkey that has made a single-minded decision to quit!  The owner’s whip, the driver’s cudgel, the air blue with curses, all fail to move the beast.  Without bothering with words, it announces, “As soon as you lighten the load, I’ll get up.  Till then, good luck!” The Samaritan’s donkey must surely have been carrying at least saddle bags for its owner’s trip to wherever and perhaps it also bore some of his trade goods or purchases.  Although we can hope he lightened the load a bit before heaving a man who was all dead weight onto the creature’s back, the burden could hardly have been light, but the donkey went along with the idea, willingly doing what needed to be done.

We’ve all met him in other guises, of course.  Every household, every neighborhood, every workplace has bearers of burdens who shoulder whatever load the situation requires of them, unprotesting, unnoticed—and absolutely indispensable.  They claim no credit, make no demands for a lighter load, and, more often than not, are undeterred by the fact that no one thinks to thank them.  This story calls to mind the ones I live with and makes me grateful to them, sorry to have taken them for granted—and ashamed that I can't claim to be one of them.

So I think rather highly of the Samaritan’s donkey, and I hope the Samaritan gave him a big bag of oats once they got to the inn and the victim was unloaded. But I think the real reason he attracted my attention to begin with is that he reminded me of another donkey, one I first met in the era when the Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood played regularly across my mind’s screen during study period, though I should have been doing my homework.  I was probably eleven or twelve when Sister Stanislaus gave us this poem to read, around this time of year:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked 
   And figs grew upon thorn, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
   Then surely I was born. 

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil’s walking parody 
   On all four-footed things. 

The tattered outlaw of the earth, 
   Of ancient crooked will; 
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, 
   I keep my secret still. 

Fools! For I also had my hour; 
   One far fierce hour and sweet: 
There was a shout about my ears, 
   And palms before my feet. 

G.K. Chesterton

Riveted, I’ve never forgotten the poem, or the donkey.  It comes back to me every year on Palm Sunday especially, as  I “watch” on my inner screen the odd entry into Jerusalem, with the donkey bearing the Bearer. This time it is He who is choosing to carry the dead weight of our own sinful, beaten and broken humanity through the narrow gate into the light beyond, unprotesting, unnoticed by large portions of this world’s crowds—and absolutely indispensable.

Copyright 2017, Abbey of St. Walburga


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