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My Brother Is An Ass


The Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
The commemoration of St. Timothy and Companions
August 22, 2017

St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorite saints, used to refer to his body as “Brother Ass.”  The reason he did this was that he believed the body was meant to be treated ascetically, giving it only the bare minimum required for physical service, such as would be given a lowly donkey that was employed as a beast of burden.  He would feed it the bare minimum needed for nutrition, and he would sometimes strike blows upon himself when he thought himself to be slow, lazy, or otherwise in need of corporal punishment.  However, by the time of his death, St. Francis regretted these excessive austerities and asked his body for forgiveness for the unnecessary hardships he placed on it.

The metaphor of the body as Brother Ass is perfectly fine as St. Francis presents it, but we can derive a bit more out of it that may be useful.

Picture one’s self riding on top of a donkey.  This is you traveling through life.  The donkey is your body with all of its urges, drives, and desires.  The rider represents you, the true you – the essential you – your soul and the seat of your intellect.  On your travels, you must, of course, stop to feed and water the donkey.  The donkey needs to be allowed to sleep, and to breed, and to fulfill the natural functions proper to all animals.

Of course, at times, the donkey will be disobedient and want to indulge himself.  He will want to eat too much or lay down when he should be working.  Given the chance, he would probably breed indiscriminately far and wide.  He may decide to go down a path other than the one you would like him to go down.  As the person riding the donkey, you are responsible for guiding him.  You need to resist his pulling and braying and keep him on course.  You need to keep him fit for service, not letting him get fat and lazy, nor starving him so he can’t carry his weight.

As time goes on, assuming you are a perceptive rider, you realize that it is possible to train the donkey to some degree. Where he used to bolt off the trail and you would have to pull back as hard as you could, it is at the point now that a sharp tug will get him back on course.   Whereas when he would lay down and be lazy refusing to get up and you might have to hit him with a switch,  now it just takes a firm slap on the hindquarters to get him to rise.

You also realize consistency is the key to the training.  When you waver and allow him to get away with misbehaving, it tends to snowball until he is back at the beginning, completely unruly, or sometimes has even engaged in worse behavior.

As we see, this is a good metaphor for one of the Cardinal Virtues – Temperance.  This virtue has to do with the assertion of our intellect and will over the desires and distractions of the body.  Though each of us have our unique set of vices, the good news is that virtue behaves like a muscle – it can be built and kept in shape through exercise.  It is also, true, however, that disuse and neglect can cause a muscle to atrophy, and it is likewise with Temperance as well as the other Cardinal Virtues.

Some, such as the Christian Gnostics, may make the mistake that the body is somehow evil or to be disparaged.  This is not the case.  As St. Paul tells us, “Or know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own? For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20) What is the case is we must resist the primal urges of the body so that we lead it and not the other way around.  It is meant to be our vehicle, so we must care for it properly, but it must be reason that remains in charge.

If a person spends some time around animals, they soon realize that animals do indeed have feelings.  We’ve seen dogs happily wagging their tail, baring their teeth in anger, and showing embarrassment by their body language when breaking a rule.  Like any other animal, the metaphorical Brother Ass has feelings as well.

Feelings can be roughly described as an internal input that acts as a reinforcer or dissuader of behavior.  When something – seemingly – makes us happy, we seek more of it.  When something makes us sad, we avoid it.  If something makes us scared, we run.  Unlike the urges of the body, we really can’t train emotions that well.  Some heresies taught that we could, but we really can’t.  The fact that our emotions can cause us to behave inappropriately sometimes can also make a person think there is something wrong with having emotions.  There is nothing further from the truth as long as the proper emotion fires in the proper degree as a response to the stimuli.  Fear keeps us safe, but the wrong amount of fear or being afraid at the wrong time causes problems.  Likewise, anger is important – it motivates to act against things such as injustices; but it works against us when we are so angry we lose the use of reason, or if we are angry for the wrong reasons.

So, in this way, too, we must rule over Brother Ass when he experiences emotions.  The emotions are taken as input, but not acted upon until reason is applied a decision reached as to the proper action – or lack of action – based on the emotion.

The final consideration is this: we only experience free will when our will is not interfered with by our desires and our emotions.  Our will comes from our intellect and reason.  If that is curtailed because we are letting drives and feelings reign, then our will is not completely free.   It is important that we have a clear path in our heads, freely chosen by us, and that we direct Brother Ass to take us there regardless.

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