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Naked — And Ye Clothed Me?

When St. Francis of Assisi called his body “Brother Ass” he was comparing his corporeal equipment to equus asinus, the donkey, the burro, an animal proverbial for its obstinacy, hardiness, and stupidity; surely the pulchritudinous male posterior was not in his mind. We know that nakedness plays some part in Francis’s story, for the young Francis tore off the fine clothes in which his father had dressed him, thus divesting himself of his old life of comfort, mercantile calculation, and worldly ambition. But when he stripped off his finery he fled to the tumbledown chapel at San Damiano to pray and to learn God’s will; there is no report that he went to pose for beefcake etchings in an artist’s studio. Finally, we know that he and his ragged band of mendicants begged alms for their support; but it has not been suggested that they peddled racy pictures of themselves to finance their new order.

These thoughts arise because of a New York Times report from Rome (Dec. 10, 1999) about Italian television programming in the millennial year. “The handsome young actor” who plays St. Francis in one of the major movies has brought out a Year 2000 calendar featuring photos of himself. But the thoughtful young man has apparently tried to be true, in his calendrical enterprise, to the spirit of the saint he portrays on the screen. The Times correspondent writes: “He said he rejected full frontal nudity and also tried to convey his innermost thoughts.”

“‘You can see my body, sure,’ he told the newspaper La Stampa. ‘But I hope one can also see my point that we have to free ourselves of the ties imposed by society.'”

He does have a point. But there are, famously, two kinds of freedom, the freedom-from and the freedom-to. When we free ourselves of the ties (and shirts and pants) imposed by society, what have we freed ourselves to do? To don the coarse cloth of a mendicant’s robe? Or to pose alluringly under a photographer’s lamps?

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