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.
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.