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Let “Prayer of the Donkey,” written for children, set the tone for the New Year


Cosmo_71 | CC BY ND 2.0

Anna O'Neil - published on 12/29/17

Another poem to teach your children. Maybe a little courage and gentleness could change everything.
The Prayer of the Donkey O God, who made me to trudge along the road always, to carry heavy loads always, and to be beaten always! Give me great courage and gentleness. One day let somebody understand me– that I may no longer want to weep because I can never say what I mean and they make fun of me. Let me find a juicy thistle– and make them give me time to pick it. And, Lord, one day, let me find again my little brother of the Christmas crib. Amen. –Carmen Bernos De Gasztold

Carmen Bernos De Gasztold’s little book, Prayers from the Ark was first discovered tucked away in a convent kitchen, 45 years ago. In it, Noah and more than 50 animals ask their little favors of God–but the Prayer of the Donkey stands out. The beast’s words, for better or worse, are more than relatable; they distill something about the human condition which a child understands just as well as an adult. More than that, the donkey’s attitude is a simple but powerful example of how we ought to approach this new year, looming before us.

O God, who made me
to trudge along the road
to carry heavy loads
and to be beaten

The donkey’s exhausted “always,” his description of his lot in life–it’s not exactly a complaint. After all, it’s God who gave him the life he has. He doesn’t ask for a break, for a soft bed or even a kind master. Instead, “Give me great courage and gentleness.” He isn’t asking for his circumstances to change, he’s asking that he will be able to endure them.

It’s the opposite of how we tend to feel, especially going into the new year. This year, we reassure ourselves, things will be different. We’ll leave behind our bad habits and vices, and besides, we say hopefully, this year has great surprises in store for us! And maybe it does, but there are some things that never change. Life never really leaves suffering behind for long. There is always some heavy load to carry, always something beating us down, as the donkey knows. There are joys too, but we are exiles from Eden, and this world is a vale of tears.

That’s why the donkey’s requests strike such a chord. Even if life doesn’t change, maybe a little courage and gentleness could change everything.

One day let somebody understand me–
That I may no longer want to weep
Because I can never say what I mean.

Who hasn’t felt this way? Parents know that the biggest frustration in a toddler’s life is his inability to express what’s in his mind. Children and teens face the same struggle. All of us do. No matter how eloquent we are, what is within us is too expansive and mysterious to ever be fully expressed to another. We can never totally bridge that divide. The donkey, who is referring to the ridiculous sound he makes, is all of us, longing for unity and connection. It’s a request that can never be completely satisfied in this world.

His next favor, though, is laughably down-to-earth. “Let me find a juicy thistle–and make them give me time to pick it.” Again, his humility is staggering. He’s not asking for a field of thistles, or to be the master of his own choices, but he also doesn’t mind asking for this little treat. Isn’t that what we’re told to ask for too? “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are creatures, and none of us are so holy as to transcend the needs of our bodies.

What keeps the donkey going? What accounts for his tremendous patience? He hasn’t described an easy life. He’s tired, burdened, and beaten, misunderstood, laughed at, and hungry. Why isn’t he bitter? What’s kept him from despairing? The answer becomes clear through his final request.

And Lord, one day, let me find again
my little brother of the Christmas crib.

He’s been searching, relentlessly, for that little baby whose mother he once carried to Bethlehem. In the memory of Christ’s face, the drudgery, and humiliation he endures doesn’t matter. He’s been too focused on that goal. He doesn’t ask for his hard work to end because he knows it will lead him back to the Christ child. He knows that all he needs is perseverance. His desire to be understood is part of his burning need to find Christ, the only one who can ever know us as well as we know ourselves. Christ can alleviate his loneliness, so that he will no longer want to weep. Even the thistle makes more sense now. He only needs a little sustenance to keep him going, till he can find the One who says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Let’s keep the donkey’s prayer in mind, through this new year. He’s shown us everything we really need, and laid out the whole purpose of our lives. Let us spend the year searching to find again our little brother of the Christmas crib.

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