“Man has held three views of his body,” writes C.S. Lewis in the “Eros” chapter of his 1960 book The Four Loves.
First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and [others] to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans, the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.”
Lewis then says, “All three may be . . . defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.” He continues,
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. (93)
And so we now move to address the topic of body stewardship, which may seem like a surprising turn in our spring chapel series on the virtues. And, as Lewis saw 60 years ago in his day (and as he summarized three main enduring views of the human body throughout history), so we see them too today. We have our ascetic Pagans, or digital Pagans, who feel their body to be a prison. The body holds them back; screens and virtual reality create new possibilities. Life, for many, has become shockingly sedentary.
On the other hand, those same screens show image after image of meticulously sculpted and enhanced bodies — Lewis’s Neo-Pagans, half-nudists, at least, for whom the body is glorious, or must be glorious no matter how much dieting and exercise and surgery it takes.
And third, we have the road perhaps least traveled. Saint Francis’s road. Lewis’s road. Our road — the road of Christian Hedonists — Christian Hedonists. Today’s non-Christian hedonists may divide themselves up pretty well between sedentary, digital Paganism and semi-exhibitionist Neo-paganism, while we Christian Hedonists are gladly left with “Brother Ass.”
Now, I know the word Ass is arresting and hard to ignore. It accents our natural, sinful laziness and obstinance — the “infuriating beast” deserving the stick, as Lewis says. But I don’t want you to miss the affection and warmth in the word Brother. I don’t think Lewis says “Brother” lightly. Just as Jesus doesn’t say “brother” lightly. I don’t say it lightly. Brother accents the usefulness, sturdiness, patience, and lovability of these bodies, which are, Lewis says, “absurdly beautiful.” And he steers a careful course between reverence and beauty — they are not to be revered, but acknowledged and appreciated as “absurdly beautiful” — or as the psalm says, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).