One of the preacher's points included quoting St. Francis as he comes to us in the fifth chapter of the Legend of the Three Companions:
Whenever he would eat with seculars, and they would give him some delicious food, he would eat only a little of it, offering some excuse so that it would not seem he was refusing it because of fasting. When he ate with his brothers, he often sprinkled ashes on the food he was eating, telling a brother, as a cover for his abstinence, that "Brother Ash" was chaste. (FA: ED II, 77)
Now exactly what our holy father Francis meant by the chastity of Brother Ash has always been a little hard for me to guess, and unfortunately yesterday's homily only touched on the quote briefly. But what was interesting to me in the homily was that the confrere I had previously known as Brother Ash was, all of a sudden, Sister Ash.
Curious, I thought. Returning to my room I checked the Latin:
Unde cum sederet aliquando ad manducandum cum saecularibus et dabantur ei aliqua cibaria delectabilia corpori suo, parum gustabat ex eis, aliquam excusationem praetendens ne videretur ea propter abstinentiam dimisisse. Et quando comedebat cum fratribus, in cibis quos edebat saepe ponebat cinerem, dicens fratribus in abstinentiae suae velamen, fratrem cinerem esse castum.
Well, there he is, fratrem cinerem, Brother Ash. So where did his sister come from? Well, here's the thing: cinis, cineris, 'ash' in Latin, is a masculine noun, but seems to have made her way into modern Italian as the feminine noun cenere.
Still curious, I checked the same passage in my Italian Franciscan sources, and there she was:
Se stava a volte a mensa con persone secolari e gli offrivano cibi di suo gusto, li assaggiava appena, adducendo qualche scusa affinché non si accorgessero che se ne privava per astinenza. E quando mangiava con i frati, metteva spesso cenere sugli alimenti, dicendo ai fratelli, per dissimulare la sua astinenza, «Sorella cenere è casta!».
So there she is, sorella cenere, having come a long way, baby, from fratrem cinerem.
UPDATE: After having posted this bit of fun, it occurred to me that I had recently translated a news blurb that celebrated the always-wonderful Éditions du Cerf having put online the Franciscan sources in French in a fun and useful format. Check it all out here. So immediately I thought to see what the French translators had done with this passage, since 'ash,' «cendre», is also feminine in French. And I saw that the French had not made the same decision as the Italians:
Parfois, quand il s’asseyait pour manger avec des séculiers et qu’on lui donnait des mets délectables pour son corps, il y goûtait à peine, invoquant quelque excuse pour ne pas sembler les avoir refusés par abstinence. Et quand il mangeait avec des frères, il mettait souvent de la cendre dans la nourriture qu’il mangeait, disant aux frères pour voiler son abstinence : «Frère Cendre est chaste.»
Good to see you again, Frère Cendre.