Yesterday my mother-in-law asked me a great question. Got me thinking. She’s reading Chesterton’s St. Francis and remarked on Francis’ habit of referring to his body as “Brother Ass”. And she said she was rather confused because that seemed to conflict with the idea that she had been taught of the body as temple of the Holy Spirit. This is the sort of stuff I like to think about and chew on. I think I gave her a good answer at the time, but I’ve had a little more time to chew and thought I’d post my expanded thoughts here.
These two ideas of the body have been in tension in the Church from the beginning. They aren’t contradictory, but they sometimes seem to be so.
In the Gospel of John we read that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation made the human body the Temple of the Most High and changed the course of human history. All of us who are baptized into that Body, and especially those of us who receive Him in the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist are members of that Body and temples of the Holy Spirit.
We are not Manichean, we do not despise the body and all matter. We think the body is good. In the beginning God made all that is and said that it was good; the world is good, matter is good, flesh is good. He made man in his own image, he looked on us and saw that the work was very good.
But then there was the fall. Man disobeyed God’s command and because of that sin man came to know death and all the ailments of the flesh. And so our bodies give us pain. And not only physical pain but also spiritual pain. Our bodies become occasions for sin because they have appetites and we no longer have the perfect control over our bodily appetites that our first parents had before they sinned and were expelled from Eden. And this is why St. Paul speaks of the sins of the flesh. Not because the flesh is inherently bad but because it is a good which has been bent. We need to regain control. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say we learn to deny ourselves and allow God to be control?
Brother Ass does sound rather harsh; but consider how St. Francis loved all the animals. He saw all of them as the works of God’s hand. So I imagine him saying it with a sort of indulgent laughter, a humorous self-deprecating sort of way of looking at things. Asses are notoriously stubborn and hard to manage. And anyone who has tried to fast for any length of time can recognize the aptness of Francis’ nickname. Our bodies are stubborn in their appetites and it takes a strong will to maintain control. Francis’ nickname does not indicate that he thinks the body is bad, merely that it is perhaps a little foolish, not always knowing what is truly in our best interest from an eternal perspective.
It’s also good to remember that Christ, now in heaven, still is both God and man, both spirit and body. Mary too, the Church teaches, was assumed bodily into heaven. When we pray in the creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body, we mean just that. Our ultimate destiny is to live eternally with God in our bodies.