It was St. Francis, most likely, who first spoke of our bodies as “Brother Ass.” This has been one of those days when that name has been particularly fitting. C. S. Lewis commented on this description of the body, observing:
“Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.“
I won’t go into the earthy details of why this name seemed appropriate today. Let’s just say, I learned one more thing this 68 year-old body doesn’t handle well–the closest adjectives Lewis used that applied are “infuriating” and “pathetic.” It absorbed attention and energy that I might have devoted this evening to a review of a book on the theology of Jonathan Edwards. I’ll put that off for a day.
I must confess that, like the ass, my body has been incredibly useful for those 68 years. Through it I’ve encountered a myriad of other embodied persons including my companion in life with whom I’ve been married over 44 years. I’ve dug and harvested gardens, driven and cycled and hiked and run and climbed. I’ve listened to glorious music and sung choral works and painted pictures and written–oh, I’ve written! And I’ve barely scratched the surface of my body’s usefulness.
I’m kind of amazed how sturdy it is. I’ve lived longer than any of the machines and devices in my house, and longer than the house. I’m amazed at teeth, the forces they absorb, and that with proper care, they last a lifetime. There is the heart, the muscle that never rests until its last beat, that we only attend to when it is racing or otherwise troubling us or the doctor takes our pulse. And if my body takes more attention than when I was younger, so do reliable old cars!
I’m also aware of its laziness. My resting state is in a soft chair with a good book, great music on the stereo, and a drink at my side. The apostle Paul speaks of disciplining his body and making it his slave (1 Corinthians 9:27. I feel the tug of the reins, the lifetime tug of war between indolence and industry. Were it not for good parents, I’d probably be a slug!
Obstinate. That’s what I call that fat around my middle. Or the fingers far too prone to make typing mistakes. Or the eyes that refuse to focus on some things with or without glasses. Or hair that grows where it shouldn’t rather than where it is wanted.
Patient. None of us have cared for our bodies as we ought–food, rest, exercise, appropriate and timely care. They often bear a lot, letting us get away perhaps too long with bad habits, sending us quiet warnings, and shouting if need be.
Bodies can be infuriating at times. They don’t always do what we want, and sometimes things we don’t want. They remind us that we are not in perfect control. There are the erections of teenage boys at inopportune times and the impotence of older men who would give anything for their teenaged self. Funny creatures we are!
We are indeed both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. Sometimes there is indeed pathos when a man or woman has beautiful physical qualities but relies upon them rather than wisdom and character and proper ambition to make their way through life. Sometimes it seems that our beauty is absurd–how often have you gazed at yourself in the shower and seen both the beauty and the absurdity–and it is all in this package that is us.
Even when my body frustrates me, I marvel that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Often those frustrations come from failing to heed the wonder. More incredible yet, we are invited both to offer “Brother Ass” as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1) and to be bodily temples for the Holy Spirit, God indwelling us (1 Corinthians 6:19). Most incredible is that one day, we will be bodily raised with bodies something like Christ’s resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15).
So, it appears that God has deep affection for “Brother Ass.” Lewis says you don’t revere or hate an ass. I think of the futility of the body sculptors who seem to revere their own bodies. And I think of the sadness of those who hate their bodies. Instead, I receive my body and the life of the body as gift, one to be tended, protected, and used well, and accepted when it doesn’t do as we wish. A lovable old donkey–Brother Ass!