End Notes: The Man on a Donkey

Among the many wise essays C. S. Lewis wrote is one called “Learning in Wartime,” in which he confronted the view that given the then-situation—he was writing at the beginning of World War II—such efforts as teaching and learning should be put in escrow until peace returned. Lewis had served in World War I and was certainly not opposed to young men of college age serving their country, but not all would be called at once and some might, like himself and other dons, continue to devote themselves to the seemingly otherworldly pursuit of knowledge. But what is the point?

What Lewis suggested was that war simply makes stark the abiding condition of human existence. Whatever the wider circumstances, our years on earth are simply a preparation for an eternal existence. Mortality is not a wartime condition but part of what it is to be a human being. Our lives are always lived in the prospect of death.

Such thoughts may seem lugubrious, themselves appropriate to times of unusual stress, and it is certain that they were prompted in wartime. We who now live with a heightened sense of the fragility of security, with constant reminders that we have here no lasting city, will not find Lewis’s observations inappropriate. Times of peace do differ from those of war, though mortality haunts them both, but the prospect of danger concentrates the mind.

I have just finished rereading one of the most remarkable novels, H. F. M. Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey. It is set in 16th-century England and is told in the form of a medieval chronicle. Through a variety of characters and in prose almost miraculously evocative, Prescott makes present to us the early years of the English Reformation, the depredations of Cromwell, the looting and closing of houses of religion. Great figures are here, the king and his queens, nobles and bishops, but the center of gravity lies in the doomed rising of the northern counties against the destruction of Catholicism. Thomas More and John Fisher make cameo appearances, but Prescott makes central to her account lesser figures, simple priests who imperfectly understood what was happening to the Church, convents that sought to put off the evil day by bribing Cromwell, and Robert Aske, the Great Captain of the rebellion who dies a horrible death in York, betrayed by his king, his family, and his friends.

I first read this novel long ago—it appeared in 1952—and its accounts of unworthy churchmen and worldly nuns and ill-taught priests had all the strangeness of the historically distant. To read it again now is inevitably to feel its odd relevance to what has happened to the Church in the last half-century.

But I do not recommend this marvelous novel as an occasion of morose delectation. No doubt those who have raised their voices in protest against what has been done to the Church will find consolation in this narrative from their counterparts in a not dissimilar time. But the real power of the book resides in much the same reminder as Lewis’s essay: Turmoil in the Church waxes and wanes, but the task of the believer remains unchanged.

Since we are all sinners, the antics of others can never seem wholly unlike our own misdeeds. I sometimes think how terribly odd we must seem to the Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, untroubled by the inborn weakness that so often does us in. How heart-rending and unintelligible our sins must seem to one who is sinless. And yet she has made her loving concern for us known in extraordinary ways, at Lourdes, at Fatima, perhaps elsewhere.

Apparitions often appeal because of their apparently apocalyptic aspects. Dreadful events portend, and we are curious to read of them. But that is scarcely the point of Mary’s visitations. It is said that the imperfectly revealed secret of Fatima recounts what the post-conciliar Church would become. But what one is struck by is the judgment that bad times are a punishment for sin. And the remedy is what it has always been.

Apparitions do not add to the content of the Faith but remind us of our abiding task. Prayer and penance, purity and love of neighbor, keeping the commandments—it is the same message, ever ancient, ever new. God so loved us that He became man and suffered the most ignominious death to manifest to us the extent of His love and to provide the means of our healing. In times like these a novel like The Man on a Donkey can be spiritual reading of the most fundamental kind. The man on a donkey is Jesus, and I the worst o times as in the best, He is riding toward Jerusalem to effect our salvation.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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