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franciscan - January 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1995

Saint Francis and Brother Ass

by Brother Angelo SSF

There is a sense in which any consideration of Francis’ asceticism, that is, his attitude towards ‘Brother Ass’ as he called his body, must begin with the saint’s primary and all-embracing concern for poverty. Chastity was a poverty of comfort, companionship, solace etc; and obedience a poverty of will or self-glory. Also, we must be aware that ‘body’, in Francis’ writings, encompassed everything we want for ourselves, and undertake because of love of self rather than love of God and our fellow human beings.

All this was the basis of a life aimed at total spiritual transformation, and the threefold vow enabling one to be open to God, humble before God, and ready to be used by God could therefore only be kept through abstinence, discipline and self-mortification at various levels.

For Francis the life of the ‘poor man’ must be an habitual reference to God, and such a life then really has no limits because its dimensions are the dimensions of God. We know from experience that mind, body and spirit are intimately related and interactive, each having effect on the other. Francis realised that only physical, visible poverty could produce the truly ‘poor in spirit’, total chastity lead to loving surrender to God, and strict obedience evolve into humble union with the will of God.

All three, voluntarily undertaken, expressed the willingness to make one’s self insecure and vulnerable to the same suffering and hardship endured and experienced involuntarily by the marginalised persons of society. But the original brothers and sisters were not a collection of individuals, demonstrating separate feats of ascetic self-denial, but a community seeking to be faithful to a call to live on those margins and intent on helping one another to remain faithful to that difficult mission.

Though Francis seems not to have approved of the extremes of self-mortification as practised by the Albigenses, Waldenses and other sects of the period, on occasion he personally appeared to go ‘over the top’. One writer suggests Christ was overstating the case to make his point, when blasting the fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season (Mark 11. 12-14 & 20-21)!

The stories are many. When experiencing intense physical temptation on one occasion, Francis first beat himself very severely with his cord saying, “See, brother Ass . . . thus it is becoming for you to bear the whip.” However, when the scourging did not have the desired effect he ‘went out into the garden and cast himself naked into a deep pile of snow.’ His flesh was very spare. He wore rough garments, he slept very briefly: so he is described by Thomas of Celano. Even his usual spartan life was not sufficient for him at such times as Lent. One year, Francis spent Lent on an island near Perugia, (Trasimeno?) starting on Ash Wednesday. When collected by a friend on Maundy Thursday he still had one and a half loaves left. The half loaf he had eaten had been out of respect for Christ who, during his forty-day fast, had eaten no bodily food at all. Francis’s fast had been in order to ‘cast the venom of vainglory from him, while following the example of Christ.’

At one point in his life he had just recovered from quartan fever, a very grave illness with recurring high temperatures, and during which he had eaten hardly anything; he nevertheless felt he had been self-indulgent. He had just preached a sermon to a particular group of people and immediately afterwards ordered Brother Peter Catanii, who was later to become the first Minister General of the Order, to lead him naked, and by a rope around his neck, before the very folk to whom he had preached. Francis then said, “You, and all who have followed me in renouncing the world, believe me to be a holy man. But I confess that during my illness I have eaten meat, and stew flavoured with meat.” Those who heard him wept, and said, “We know that this saint leads a holy life, for he has reduced his body to the likeness of a living corpse by his abstinence and austerity ever since his conversion to Christ.”
When it was bitterly cold and his Guardian wanted to sew a small piece of fox fur under his habit as protection for his weak stomach and spleen, Francis responded by demanding fur on the outside also “so that everyone may know that I am wearing it underneath as well.” So he had it made in this way; but although it was very necessary to him, he seldom wore it.

Late in his life, and around the time of the Stigmata, Francis confessed to one of the brethren that he had an uneasy conscience about his care of the body, still afraid of indulging it too much in times of illness, anxious that he should not come to its aid by means of delicacies or extra food. The brother responded by asking Francis how obedient had his body been through the years and the saint admitted that it ‘was obedient in all things’ sparing itself nothing, rushing almost headlong to obey; shirking no labour and refusing no discomfort. “In this”, added Francis, “I and it agreed perfectly that we would serve the Lord Christ without any reluctance”; which drew from his brother the question, “Where then is your generosity? Is this a worthy way to repay faithful friends, to accept a kindness willingly, but when the giver is in need not to repay him as he deserves?” Francis’ reaction was to apologise. “Rejoice, brother body, and forgive me, for behold, I now gladly fulfil your desires, I hasten to give heed to your complaints.” Unfortunately, as in many cases of regret or repentance, it came too late. How could his exhausted body rejoice now? What could support what had collapsed?

So we learn that, although encouraging a degree of austerity in the Order, Francis did learn a lesson about exaggeration; that self-denial should be tempered by discretion and include compassion. An illustration of this is the story of the friar who had fasted too long and was unable to sleep for hunger. Francis ‘put some bread before him and advised him gently to eat it, and began to eat himself first, to avoid embarrassing him.’ The brother ‘was overjoyed as seeing the saint’s exquisite tact which enabled him to relieve his material needs and gave him such a wonderful example.’

This story is not primarily concerned with food, but with self-denial balanced by charity, prudence and a proper respect for one’s being. Each one of us should take into consideration our own constitutions, not to over-indulge but not to overdo penance either: discipline is not deprivation and any extreme can too easily lead to pride and coldness towards others. Right and proper asceticism is a part of the way that ‘slows us down and leads us into that quiet centre within, where God speaks softly the truth of our own worth. It is the way of prudence and charity towards ourselves as well as others.’ f


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