Monday, October 4, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Brother Ass

When we commemorate a saint's feast day, we’re not celebrating their birthday but the anniversary of their death. Part of the reason is that, until relatively recently in history, nobody kept track of the day someone was born, especially if they weren't nobility. But when a person who had become important died, that was noted. And for Christian saints, the day of their death is regarded as the day they entered the presence of God and were rewarded for an earthly life of service and perhaps a martyr's death. That said, I’m not sure why we celebrate the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4, since every source I can find says he died on the 3rd. We’re on time; the church year is off.

St. Francis reminded himself of his interconnectedness with the rest of creation by referring to everything as a brother or a sister, as in his Canticle of Brother Sun, a version of which we sing as a hymn. As he awaited  Sister Death, he asked pardon of, among others, Brother Ass. This wasn't his favorite donkey at the monastery but the way he referred to his own body. Part of this had to do with how he viewed his body--as a beast of burden, a way to get him from here to there and to carry loads. But this lover of animals treated his body in a way he wouldn’t have approved of in someone who owned an actual donkey. He starved his body, gave it insufficient sleep and rest and disciplined it roughly to keep it in line. A lot of this was in line with the ways Christian ascetics acted for centuries. When Christianity was legalized after 300 years of existence, it was no longer likely that a Christian would die for his faith. So people who had been attracted by this form of extreme spirituality started going out into the desert and imposing various privations and mortifications on their flesh. Some merely took fasting to extremes. Others meditated or prayed for days in uncomfortable positions, like, say, at the top of an old pillar.They sought wisdom, visions or intimacy with God through, let's face it, abusing their bodies. At least one that I know of castrated himself, in the only literal compliance I’ve ever found of Jesus’ hyperbolic suggestion that if a member of one's body caused one to sin, one should cut it off.

While Francis didn't go that far, he did embrace that idea of holiness, not realizing, perhaps, that the word "holy" means "set apart for God's use," not “to go against common sense in one’s devotion to God.” But at the end of his life, Francis did realize that he had actually diminished his usefulness to God by treating his body as he had and asked his body for pardon. He was only 44 when he died.    

It would have been better had he treated his body as a pet or even a valued work-animal.. Then as now, smart farmers take good care of their animals. Abuse of one's body is not only stupid but not really Christian.

Many people think that being devoted to God means ignoring your body. But that is contrary to the main teachings of Scripture. The problem is that over the centuries Christianity took in a lot of ideas that it had originally fought, especially ideas from Gnosticism. The Gnostics  thought the body, and everything physical, was evil. Only the spirit was good. They saw us as spirits imprisoned in bodies. Gnostics therefore denied the true incarnation of Jesus, seeing his earthly form and life as an illusion. Obviously this affects how one sees the atonement on the cross and the resurrection. Thus the church condemned Gnosticism and Gnostic books like the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas.”

Unfortunately, this moral distinction between the physical and the spiritual was so attractive that it insinuated its way into the church anyway and distorted the interpretation of Scripture. The Hebrew way of looking at humanity was as a unity of body and spirit. We see this in the "close up" of the creation of Adam in Genesis, Chapter 2. God molds man from the dust of the earth and breathes "the breath of life" into him. (The Biblical words for "breath" can also mean "wind" or "spirit.") And the man "became a living soul." It doesn't say “possessed a soul” but  “became a living soul.” A soul is only separate from your body in the same way your organs are: theoretically but not naturally. Who you are is a combination of your physical self and your spiritual self, as anyone who's seen a loved one disappear into Alzheimer‘s disease knows.

As with all things he has created, our bodies are gifts from God. Just as you can use a dog you've received as a birthday gift to be a good companion or to fight for sport, you can use God’s gifts for good or, through their misuse, abuse or neglect, for evil. And like the gift of a pet, our bodies need to be well-maintained and trained. With that in mind, let’s see what St. Francis could have done to take better care of Brother Ass.

First and foremost you feed an animal properly, not too little nor too much. And you feed him healthy foods. Throughout most of history, the majority of people have had to worry about getting enough to eat. Today, in affluent countries, it’s easy to overeat, and to indulge in foods not found in nature. If you wouldn't feed your dog or cat a diet of soda, bacon cheeseburgers and Twinkies, neither should you allow yourself a steady diet of them. A good deal of the health problems I see as a nurse are caused or exacerbated by diets high in fatty, salty and sugary foods, with too few fruits, vegetables and grains. Like our animals, we need to give our bodies good nutrition for long, healthy lives.

If Francis overworked his body, we tend to under-work ours. Fully 64% of all Americans are overweight or obese. And while for the people of Francis’ time, the basic activities of daily life could keep you fit, today’s conveniences, from cars to computers, make it unnecessary to walk very far, to lift or carry heavy loads, or even go places to transact business or visit friends. If you’re like me, your favorite place to sit on the sofa is getting way too obvious even to the untrained eye. We make time to walk or exercise our pets. We should do the same for our bodies.

One thing that animals are better at than we are is making sure they get enough rest. We are the only animals who stay awake for 16 or more hours straight. Other animals have the sense to nap. And despite plenty of research that says napping is healthy, most workplaces north of the equator make no provision for napping.  In some southern and Mediterranean countries, most businesses close in the early afternoon for lunch with the family and siestas. The other animals would approve.            

We train our animals to do better some things they normally do, like run faster, or sniff out people buried in rubble. We also restrain them from doing things they would normally do, like eat their babies or mate with every other dog around. Just because something is natural behavior doesn't mean it is good. So, too, we ought to hone natural abilities that are good and helpful. These run the gamut from athletic prowess to intellectual ability to emotional perception to artistic talent and more. These are gifts we can enjoy and share.

And we must train ourselves to exercise control over natural and normal impulses that, unrestrained, can cause trouble for ourselves and others. Attraction, jealousy, heartbreak, frustration and anger are natural and normal reactions to certain situations. But that doesn't mean it is always right to express them or that every form of expressing our feelings is good. This last week in South Florida 10 people were killed, 4 of them children, in 3 murder-suicide incidents that ultimately were about love gone wrong. You can't help feeling bad when relationships go sour; you can keep from acting out violently. The ability to resist acting on our impulses, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, is a key difference between us and other animals. And as the rehabilitation of all but one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls shows, with the help of love, even animals can change their behavior.

Finally, animals show and receive affection physically. And studies show that people also respond to friendly touch. The more teammates high-five or hug each other, the better they play. Hand holding and hugging lower blood pressure and reduce stress, even in those taking a Math test! Oxytocin, the hormone which promotes trust and bonding, is released into the body when we are touched in a positive way. We are both physical and spiritual beings and what affects one side of us affects the other. The physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning.

This theology of the body also applies to the Body of Christ. It is fed in the Eucharist. It must get out of the House of God regularly and act on its beliefs or it grows weak. It needs its Sabbaths to rest and renew itself. It must develop and share its gifts with others. It needs to resist certain impulses to act like any other organization. And it needs to show its love for God and other people in concrete ways that touch them.

And in that spirit, let me close with a quote that is often attributed to St. Francis but which really comes from St. Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on Earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
[compassionately] on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body….
Christ has no body now on Earth but yours.”

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