The Donkey -a poem by G.K. Chesterton
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.
Story of St. Patrick
This characterization of Patrick is a good place to start. Like all myth, it has lost much of its subtlety and depth through oversimplification. What was once a multi-layered and complex story about the Irish people has become a buffoonish event which celebrates drunkenness and mayhem.
This is a talk about why people leave/return and why some, those we call prophets and saints, come to be. But it is also about each one of us.
Patrick’s legend is remarkably like the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ re-entry, often called the Triumphal Entry, into Jerusalem, a city he had visited many times, and where he had celebrated Passover even as a child.
One feature of the story that provides endless fascination as well as illumination for me is the fact that, at least according to the gospel reports, Jesus specified a donkey as his mode of transportation. (Others say a colt). This could not have been accidental, whether the man known as Jesus or the writers of the gospels created it.
It would have been a symbolic statement, as well as a political one, as Marcus Borg writes “a virtual parody of the prevailing ideas of kingship.” Think anti-Popemobile! Peace v. War.
Donkeys had been excoriated as common, brutish, and inferior animals even by Jesus’ times. Like many prophets of our time and times past, they have been without honor, their braying lambasted, or at best tolerated.
Jesus was nothing if not a prophet. He came armed with truths and he came with the soul of a rebel who sought to overturn the established order, one he saw as built upon greed, power, and violence.
No less a prophet was Patrick in his times, whose greatest asset according to one writer, was love. Patrick “loved everything under the sun, the flowers, the birds, the clouds, the day, the night. And he loved the Irish people….”
Nor Martin Luther King, who said (now famously): If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for peace. Say I was a drum major for justice.” His murdered body was brought back into Atlanta in a humble wooden cart.
Nor Wendell Berry, our Kentucky prophet who also “came back,” after fourteen years’ study and wandering, with both affection and loving judgment. He writes in Renewing Husbandry, “Perhaps because I was a returned traveler intending to stay, I now saw the place more clearly than before. I saw it critically too.”
None of these were received with a hero’s welcome, with the possible exception of Jesus, whose Sunday welcome didn’t last long and turned to crucifixion by Friday.
We comprehend the longing to leave home: be it for learning, expanding our horizons, for enlarging our perspective. Those who flee only to escape may never follow this well-trod path of exile and return. But many of us do.
Most of us deeply understand the longing to go home. We resonate with Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put that humans have an instinct for home that he calls devotion: “I suspect that most human achievements worth admiring are the result of such devotion.”
DEVOTION… implies more than fondness or nostalgia. It implies that, once home, one will endeavor to bring what she has learned home, for good.
Berry is talking about both home and marriage when he writes: “Two human possibilities of the highest order come within reach: what one wants can become the same as what one has, and knowledge can cause respect for what one knows.”
Now, after fifty years of speaking to us through his fiction, poems, and essays, Wendell Berry is beginning to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be heeded (by other than sustainability nuts and UU ministers). Thus it ever has been with prophets. Those once seen as braying donkeys are finally heard, often long after they are gone. Berry will deliver the Jefferson Lecture in Washington DC’s Kennedy Center this month as the recipient of the Nation’s highest honor in the Humanities. “To our national disgrace, he has been a prophet without honor in his homeland.” (Rod Dreher) At least we didn’t kill him first before he saw his honor.
But you and I know that Wendell doesn’t care for or about honors and accolades any more than did King, or the apocryphal Patrick or Jesus. Some of these stories are fact, some are fiction, some are fantasy, but they are “true” whether they are factual or not. It is human nature to return. It is also human nature to want to improve, oneself and that which one loves. And it is human to refuse to hear the truth, though it be told us again and again. In the case of these four individuals the truth was based in love, devotion, justice and peace.
That ought to be enough for us to contemplate between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.