The Donkey Rider

“Jesus enters Jerusalem,” vintage engraved illustration, colorized. From the book Paintings in sacred and Church history: the Greatest holidays of Orthodoxy. St. Petersburg, 1876.

I love to visit the Mount of Olives, a constant haven during meditative walks. When the sun shines, the olive leaves shimmer with soft shades of green. The view overlooking Jerusalem satisfies all longing to be a part of something grand. The solitude is like a luxurious, private bath. The peace is like the feeling one gets having finally returned home after a poorly chosen route.

A few weeks ago, while strolling back down from the sacred Mount, I found myself stuck behind a frenzied crowd singing praises to a ragged peasant. He rode cheerfully on a gaudily draped donkey, which tread on cloaks and leafy branches.

I wondered what the fuss might be, but not enough to keep from turning on the road that led to my simple villa. I tried to relax on the back porch with a cup of water, but images of desperate yet devoted faces strained in my mind, faces that lavished adoration on a man of no consequence and no power. To counter my agitation, I closed my eyes, breathed deeply to quiet myself, and sought to trust in things unseen—to trust the mystery that has no name—the mystery who has a thousand names.

“In repentance and rest is our salvation, in quietness and trust our strength.”

An ancient prophet first spoke these words; my Jewish neighbor shared them with me. I cannot read, but I can memorize, and of the countless words that strive to capture my attention, these speak the clearest. To name and release hard feelings is to receive a healing inner grace. To learn to quiet our fears and worries—to trust that a goodness awaits us—is to rise daily with a creative energy. My studious neighbor thrived on devoting time to the Hebrew scriptures. One evening he helped me home. Though stumbling in a drunken stupor, I still caught his words of wisdom.

I am a lonely, though lucky, orphan: my father a hapless Roman soldier and my mother lost to a neglectful era. A peasant family housed me in a shed in a village just outside of Nazareth. They labored daily for precious little and made me work for even less. At 16, I thanked them for keeping me alive, but feeling no fondness for their ways due to lack of warmth and kindness, I left for the center of the world: Jerusalem.

With a knack for carpentry, I managed to find enough work to keep a room. In the evenings, I took to drinking frequently and sitting in corners listening to music. Occasionally, I would rage at man and moon, but mostly, I just stumbled home—despondent. The timely hand given by my Jewish friend set me on a course that led to inner places I had never dreamed existed.

“Mount of Olives, seen from the valley of Jerusalem,” vintage engraved illustration, colorized. Trousset encyclopedia (1886–1891).

A few days later, while strolling through the marketplace, a crowd compelled me to listen to the donkey rider tell stories from his own lively imagination: like the unlikely Samaritan who tended to a stranger, and the unlikely father who took his wayward son back into his otherwise peaceful home. Folks insisted this thoughtful, forgiving (yet uneducated and non-ordained) preacher was the long-awaited Messiah. I was impressed by what he had to say and the manner in which he said it, but left thinking, why a savior? Healing comes to those who trust that a goodness already awaits them—that a goodness already dwells within.

A week later, I happened again to hear this captivating fellow preach in the Temple: a place for the proven and powerful. Such arrogance. Such courage. It was said he was a carpenter from Nazareth, as was I, so I waited for an opportunity to meet him and share my story. But he was a busy and tired man who rushed off immediately with his close-knit group to rest for their next engagement. I respected this commitment to self-care, but still walked away disappointed at the lost opportunity to share my story with a like-minded person who might have become a close friend.

I know self-care. I know how to come home after a long day of pounding nails and lie down on the cool couch to relax every muscle in my body, to wait for the stresses of the day to subside, and to rise refreshed to fulfill my chores or take the neighbor’s children to the park. I know how to sit and be still, to remain present in the midst of strife. I know how to refrain from wine, to occupy myself with healthy hobbies. I know as well as anyone, healing comes to those who trust that a goodness permeates our being. But unfortunately, there are few with whom to share this joy—this light.

And now, I see why there was all the fuss  when a peasant carpenter from Nazareth rode into Jerusalem as though he were a conquering king. I see why he did not flee though his life was clearly in danger. A good friend is always present, whether in person or in spirit.

After a few more weeks, sad news for the followers of the donkey rider spread throughout the harried city. This peasant who spoke for love of all, who spoke for love of self, who spoke for the truth above personal gain had been executed by the embroiled authorities for fear he would disrupt the peace—a man who spoke of nothing but peace!

Surprisingly, word slowly spread among the subdued but revived believers that their beloved leader and friend had been raised back to life. A couple followers tried to win my allegiance. They even came to my front door. I politely declined, grabbed my jacket, and headed for my beloved Mount of Olives to sit on a rock, bathe in solitude, and appreciate the scenery.

I wish I could write a peaceful ending, but forces of fear never rest. My Jewish neighbor was soon arrested for worshiping with the new, enthusiastic sect. His weighty status had also shaken the foundations of power.

Neglecting to consider my own safety, I rushed to visit my cherished friend . . . but was too late. No one would inform me of the details, and I could not even tend to his broken body.

Now, I sit in a dark corner detained for suspected connections. And now, I see why there was all the fuss when a peasant carpenter from Nazareth rode into Jerusalem as though he were a conquering king. I see why he did not flee though his life was clearly in danger. A good friend is always present, whether in person or in spirit.

Charles Bunner

Charles “Buck” Bunner is a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind. He graduated from Earlham School of Religion in 1997 and served a Friends meeting in Indianapolis for 14 years. He returned to Richmond and has helped blind students in the public school system for the last eight years.

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