I write this just before Lent starts yet there have been Easter Chocolate bunnies in the shops for weeks even months now. It fascinates me that some of Christian culture persists but so often only in part. The exuberant celebration of Carnival fits with the contemporary mindset but the Lenten fast it prepared for seems to be lost (Carne Vale – ‘farewell meat’; Mardi Gras ‘Fat Tuesday’ – both ways of expressing a last hurrah before the austerities of fasting.) Equally Easter is a holiday yet scarcely a Holy Day in the secular calendar. Indulging oneself on chocolate is seen as a cultural (or at least commercial) good. Voluntarily forgoing pleasures is seen as unhealthy.
A few years ago there was a beautifully photographed but, to my mind, ultimately silly film called Chocolat. (OK, to be even more of a film geek, a few years earlier there had been a better French film about Colonialism and Racism also called Chocolat). The film I have in mind starred Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina and Johnny Depp. It was located in a fantasy French village where the devout Seigneur enforced a strict and repressive conformity through his control of the Church and its meek parish Curé. Into the rigidity and frigidity of this dull and inhumane restriction an exotic young mother opens a chocolate shop that opens up the strait-laced villagers into a world of sensual delights. Eventually even the Lord of the manor and his browbeaten priest succumb and end up discovering enjoyment.
The trouble I have with it is that it sets up simple and inaccurate polar opposites. The Catholic Church is seen as world hating and pleasure denying: the wiser stranger in the midst is presented as rejoicing in the good things of the senses. The truth is that unrelenting pleasure seeking is itself unhealthy. It turns into what the ancients would know as hedonism in which the finest things of humanity are lost in the impossible search for satisfaction in ever more extreme sensual experiences. I find it intriguing that the ‘decadence’ of the Roman Empire is now not only admired but even copied: its nobility, discipline and pursuit of virtues all but forgotten or discounted. Rather the Church affirms both the goodness of God’s bounteous creation and the need to spend a short time each year in communal and personal self- discipline. Food and drink, love and laughter, are gifts from God which can indeed be beautiful, but which also need to be honoured and respected, even thankfully enjoyed, rather than sullied.
To feast and to fast are both Catholic instincts. There is a time and a place for both. Our present age separates them into competitive dynamics. What we need as Church is to hold them together so that Hedonism can be displaced by Holy Joy and repression rejected in favour of spiritual growth.