Postmodern Act in the History of Religion #22:
James Nayler Rides a Donkey into Bristol

Pablo Piñero Stillmann

When I say he looked like Christ, and he most certainly did look like Christ, I mean he looked like our notion of what Christ looked like, which, as we all know, is not at all what Christ looked like. Impossible to know whether it was product of a manic episode or illumination from within, but Nayler rode a donkey into Bristol as his followers cried, “Holy, holy, holy.” The People, of course, were outraged. What does one (I) mean when one (I) says (say) The People? The People: that ball of opaque gas which rests on our planet and yet is bigger than our planet, covers our planet, tries to convince us it is the planet. (One of life’s defining questions is, Am I part of The People? Other defining questions are, Do I want to be part of The People? Do I wish for my loved ones to attach themselves to The People?) The Parliament, voice of The People, ordered for Nayler to be stoned to death as is called for in Leviticus: And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The Practical Man, let’s call him Thomas Cromwell, however, remarked that stoning Nayler to death would make him look a whole lot like Christ, with whom, as we know, he already bore a striking similarity. “It would be counterproductive,” said Cromwell. “It would be falling into his trap,” said Cromwell. “We might as well just crucify the man,” said Cromwell, The Practical Man. (Also, privately, inside his practical head, Thomas Cromwell was asking himself defining questions: Do I want to be the Romans? Is the leader of The People still considered part of The People?) “O.K.,” said Parliament in one voice. “We won’t stone him.” To which The Practical Man, Cromwell, responded, “Phew.” “We’ll just give him a good flogging in the streets,” said Parliament’s collective voice. “Well,” said Cromwell, The Practical Man, “don’t you think that’s still a little close to the plight of You-Know-Who?” “In addition to the flogging,” said Parliament, una voce, “we demand his forehead be branded with the letter ‘B’” “For blasphemy!” said a lone voice. Parliament cheered. “And I’d like to propose,” said another lone, lost voice, “we pierce his tongue with a hot iron!” “Aye!” growled the Parliament. “Is that all?” said Cromwell, cynical, resigned, a bit dizzy. “No,” said Parliament. “We have one last order: Nayler must be pilloried.” “Pilloried?” “Pilloried!” “Pilloried?” It doesn’t take a brilliant man to realize how much a pillory resembles a cross. Cromwell, The Practical Man, was more than brilliant. Cut to Thursday, Nayler attempts to chew a piece of rotten bread in his cell: long hair, beard, “B” engraved on his forehead, mutilated tongue. Yet he had a smile on his face. (Again, look somewhere else if you want to know the difference between madness and The Light.) Our last chapter finds Nayler being released from prison and getting on a horse. “What will you do now?” said the very few (0) followers he still had. “Will you again challenge The Powers that Be?” “Sorry,” said Nayler. “All I desire is to ride to Yorkshire and see my family.” Completely understandable. But he never made it to Yorkshire. A group of highwaymen (knights of the road, thieves, criminals, Bad Guys) attacked him in the forest and left him for dead. A hermit came across Nayler minutes before his death, and the man who rode a donkey into Bristol uttered one of the most beautiful passages in the history of religion (edited here in the interest of brevity): There is a spirit which I feel that delights…but delights to…hope to enjoy its own…wrath…cruelty or whatever…It sees the end…it conceives…it is betrayed…Its crown is…life is everlasting love…its kingdom…and not…by lowliness of mind.

Pablo Piñero Stillmann was a Fellow at the Foundation for Mexican Literature (’08-’09) and a Booth Tarkington Fellow at Indiana University (’11-’12). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Cream City Review, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Laurel Review, The Rumpus, and other journals.