It's often good to have a donkey with you when you pray. They provide a natural antidote to excessive piety. Take my recent retreat day at the Jonah House Catholic Worker community in Baltimore. Since 1992, the members of Jonah House have served as caretakers for a 20-acre Catholic cemetery that had been abandoned since the 1980s. Bit by bit the community is reclaiming the graveyard from the underbrush and overgrowth. It’s bordered by the Emanuel Tire Co. reclamation plant, a Section-8 housing complex, and the Maryland National Guard.
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On All Saints Day I visited Jonah House to quietly pray the litany of the saints while surrounded by that "great cloud of witnesses" -- both living and dead. It was a stunning autumn morning. Sunlight filtered through the red oaks. However, while walking the quarter-mile track around the graves and headstones, I was unceremoniously shoved from behind -- hard.
This was my introduction to Vinnie the 3-year-old donkey. Despite the name, Vinnie actually is female. (The president of the St. Peter's Cemetery Foundation demanded that the next animal adopted into the community be named after him. What can you do?) And she's very strong. After I completed a few more circuits of the prayer walk -- with Vinnie doing heavy prodding and me jabbing back hard between "amens" -- we reached a rapprochement. I walked with a handful of grass in my left hand and Vinnie sauntered easily beside me, nibbling as we went. I felt like St. Francis. A victorious achievement in sacred cross-species communion.
It was all going so well, until Vinnie called her friends.
After a loud whinny, down the track came trotting Micah the llama, Paz the miniature donkey, Killian and Seamus the Nubian goats, and a flock of guinea fowl. All of whom had decided I was harmless enough for them to join the pilgrimage. You get the picture. "Saints Benedict and Scholastica," I sang out. (Whinny, snort, squawk.) "Pray for us." And so we continued along the way.
In the book of Numbers there's another donkey story, known famously in children's Sunday school circles as "Balaam and the Ass." The antics of the donkey who can see the angel of God while Balaam remains blind lend themselves to classic comedy.
In fact, it is the donkey who's actually the prophet in the story, not Balaam. God speaks through her to correct Balaam. She obeys God. She does everything in her power to keep Balaam on the path of righteousness. She submits to unjustified violence when Balaam beats her. And she speaks the words of God honestly. Eventually, Balaam realizes his blindness and -- after careful consultation with God -- decides not to curse the Israelites (as the king of Moab was paying him handsomely to do), but instead to bless them. God stuffs Balaam's mouth with poems of blessing for Israel, which he then spews over the gathered army. In this instance, Moab's king acknowledges defeat and withdraws his forces. The battle is won with a donkey, poetry, and not a single death. Filipino priest and activist Karl Gaspar would say this story exemplifies the "weapons of the weak." The slave animal acts with honor and the war is won with weapons of beauty.
Jonah House is also a place where animals act with honor and prophets spew blessings; a place where Christianity is practiced -- over and over again. The animal members clear the vines from the headstones, keep the grass trimmed, eat the wood ticks, and guard the property from wild dogs that roam the abandoned places of the city. The trees and plants provide oxygen in a soot-filled cement-scape. The human members tend a large vegetable garden and fruit trees (see Jeremiah 29:5-7), the produce from which is shared with neighbors in need. They make room for the homeless, pray the psalms, and bear Christian witness against war in all its forms.
As I said, it's good to have a donkey with you when you pray.
Rose Marie Berger, author of the new book Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (available at store.sojo.net), is a Sojourners associate editor.