A lovely Christmas picture book I used to read to my children was “The Donkey’s Dream,” written and illustrated by Barbara Helen Berger. In it, the little gray donkey carries on his back the Virgin Mary, on the Holy Family’s arduous journey to Bethlehem. I remembered this book with its beautiful illustrations when I was thinking about Christmas and prayer.
Wait — who has time to pray during the Christmas rush? We are busy baking and shopping, hanging lights and trimming the tree. We have presents to wrap and people to see. But if we are people of faith, we want to find moments for prayer.
St. Ignatius of Loyola taught his early followers, the Jesuits, to “find God in all things.” Ignatian spirituality encourages us modern-day people to pray in the midst of living our daily lives. “The Donkey’s Dream” demonstrates a contemplative prayer St. Ignatius called meditatio, because the book invites the reader’s imagination into the donkey’s experience. St. Ignatius suggested that, when we read a biblical passage, such as the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew or Luke, it is helpful, in our thoughts, to place ourselves in the scene. Imagining ourselves as one of the characters, we can enter into the sights and sounds, the smells and sensations of the world we would encounter in that setting. We picture ourselves interacting and conversing with the other characters present. For example, what if you were a shepherd that night, faced with the bright star and the choir of angels and the unlikely sight of a baby in a manger? Perhaps you would be curious, or afraid, or both. Perhaps you’d be filled with reverence for a world that is so much bigger than just your sheep, or gain the insight that God’s grace applies to you, too.
What new mother hasn’t imagined herself in Mary’s place, having to travel far from home and give birth under tricky circumstances, but falling instantly in love with her new baby, even as she hardly understands the impact of the Incarnation on the world? Picture yourself as Mary in this story, the smells of hay and cow manure and sheepskin, the feel of the starry night air, the sound of an infant’s healthy cry, the sense of relief and joy at the blessing of new life, the certainty that love conquers all. In this way, perhaps we discover a deeper, more prayerful relationship to Mary, mother to mother.
What would it be like to be Joseph, strong and mostly silent, not the male lead in this story, but a supporting player to this unconventional birth? Do we see ourselves in him as he follows the will of God, even though it is contrary to the customs of his culture? Perhaps we have been faced with a dilemma in which we suspect God’s quiet voice is calling us to do something that seems, on the surface, like nothing we are "supposed" to do. Perhaps we know quite well what it felt like to be Joseph.
Or what might we learn about our own selfish instincts by imagining ourselves in the shoes of the innkeepers, shutting the door in the face of Mary and Joseph’s predicament? Perhaps we neglect to help others in obvious need, justifying our inaction because there is “no room.” Do we take good care only of those we love?
Do we ever find ourselves acting like Herod, jealously guarding our own power and position? Perhaps we too are fearful of anything new that might detract from our comfort or wealth. Perhaps we too are ruled by suspicion, or allow fear to close our mind.
Or can we imagine what might compel us to act like the wise men from the east, dropping everything in their own lives to follow a star to the promise of greater enlightenment? Perhaps a star shines insistently in the night sky for us, leading us to a future that seems crazy to others. Perhaps our faith is beckoning us to a spiritual journey to a faraway land.
“Come,” Mary says to the donkey, in “The Donkey’s Dream,” after she has given birth to Jesus. “See what we have carried all this way, you and I.” If a little donkey has a part in charting the course of salvation history, we know that, with God, anything is possible. Putting ourselves in the Christmas story might lend us some perspective on what truly matters in this holy season. Where do we find God? Who are we this Christmas?