The life of St. Francis of Assisi is filled with numerous incidents that exemplify his devotion to physical mastery and the control over the passions: “…he designed for himself a tunic that bore a likeness to the cross, that by means of it he might beat off all temptations of the devil; he designed a very rough tunic so that by it he might crucify the flesh with all its vices and sins; as happens, a temptation of the flesh at times assailed him, he would hurl himself into a ditch full of ice, when it was winter, and remain in it until every visage of anything carnal had departed; when they [St. Francis and his Brothers] wanted to give themselves to prayer, they made use of certain means lest sleep should take hold of them: some were held erect by hanging ropes lest their prayers should be disturbed by sleep stealing over them; others put instruments of iron about their bodies, and others wore wooden girdles of penance; they tried to repress the promptings of the flesh with such great mortification that often they did not refrain from stripping themselves naked in the coldest weather and from piercing their bodies all over with the points of thorns, even to causing the blood to flow; the zealous knight of Christ never spared his body, but exposed it to every hurt both in deed and in word, as though it were something separate from himself.”
The philosophy of St. Francis concerning the body reminds me greatly of the very similar words written down by St. Josemaria Escriva over 700 years later: “Say to your body: I would rather keep you in slavery than be myself a slave of yours; Treat your body with charity, but with no more charity than you would show towards a treacherous enemy; It has been well said that the soul and the body are two enemies who can’t get away from one another, and two friends who cannot get along.” In the same Century, Pope John Paul would spend much of his early papacy exhorting upon what he referred to as “The Theology of the Body.” And, much of it seems rather familiar: “Paul’s words written to the Romans: ‘So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live’ (Rom 8:12-13)…When he [St Paul] speaks of the necessity of putting to death the deeds of the body with the help of the Spirit, Paul expresses precisely what Christ spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount, appealing to the human heart and exhorting it to control desires, even those expressed in a man’s look at a woman for the purpose of satisfying the lust of the flesh. This mastery, or as Paul writes, ‘putting to death the works of the body with the help of the Spirit,’ is an indispensable condition of life according to the Spirit, that is, of the life which is an antithesis of the death spoken about in the same context. Life according to the flesh has death as its fruit. That is, it involves as its effect the ‘death’ of the spirit.”
Unlike Pope John Paul, Francis was not a trained philosopher or theologian. What he believed, he lived. He taught by example. Therefore, what Pope John Paul so successfully accomplished, through his incredibly brilliant and erudite mind, was to doctrinally materialize a way of life that Francis had already proven as a real-life possibility: the mastery of the spirit over the lusts of the flesh. Because, what lies at the heart of “The Theology of the Body” “[is] that they acquire complete mastery over themselves and their emotions.” Without that, everything comes to naught. As for Escriva, he is an exemplary example of someone who could speak to the common man in a way that made complex directives seem every day; and, this was truly Christ-like. Likewise, what made John Paul also extraordinary was his ability to appeal on several levels at once: to the simple and to the sophisticated. Its extraordinary, but the Catholic Church, unlike the devil who embraces and promotes every selfish cultural whim, has a remarkable history of consistency.