Perhaps the most improbable scene in the new film Chocolat, with Juliette Binoche, is the one in which a middle-aged woman in a confessional is telling the young priest on the other side of the grille that she has been eating . . . chocolate. “That rich, luxury filling,” she breathes, “it melts ever so slowly on your tongue and tortures you with pleasure.” It is given to few films to invent new sins – Chocolat has that much going for it.
The gist of the film, and still more of Joanne Harris’s original novel, is that there is a perpetual war between the Catholic Church and chocolate – for which read the indulgence of taste and smell, the pleasures of the senses in general. This is the reductio ad absurdum of modern anti-Catholicism – the last voiceable prejudice in contemporary Britain.
Historically, Chocolat couldn’t be more wrong. For one thing, chocolate was brought to Europe from the New World by the Catholic conquistadors; and the most important religious feast in the Church’s calendar, Easter, is celebrated with chocolate (eggs, bunnies and so on). There is a patron saint of confectioners, too – St Honoratus of Amiens. Far from being anti-sensual, the essence of Catholicism is precisely that it places extraordinary emphasis on the senses and the body. It follows from the whole idea of the Incarnation. This is the Church that offers the colour and light and smell of benediction, the hypnotic rhythm of the office, the very idea of a sacrament – sacralising things you can see and touch.
Asceticism may hold an honourable place in Christian sanctity, but it is only a single colour of an entire spectrum. People did venerate hermits and desert dwellers but, like martyrs, they were more respected than imitated. Simeon Stylites the Elder was highly regarded for standing on a column in the desert for 36 years, but his popularity never compared with that of Mary Magdalene, the beautiful and voluptuous sinner who washed Christ’s feet with her tears (talk about sensual . . . ) In this, Christians took their cue from Christ, who delighted in the company of women, whose friends were Martha and Mary, who was loved by Mary Magdalene, and who feasted rather more than he fasted.
The Catholic Church has inspired, and its princes promoted, some of the most unabashedly sensual work in western European art, from the fall of Rome up to and including the Renaissance.
Take Lent, even, which began on Wednesday and might be regarded as a time for abstinence. The point about this season is that it’s only half the story. It is followed by Easter. You might give up chocolate, but then you fall on your Easter egg in an orgy of self-indulgence. Compare this with secular Britain, where you have either no rhythms in the patterns of consumption or else – especially for women – one long Lent with no Easter: the perpetual self-denial of the dieter, the food-allergic, the woman who has been conditioned to think of chocolate as naughty but nice.
From the time of Gregory the Great, it was the genius of Catholicism to Christianise pagan customs – such as the bonfires for St John’s Eve – and to form and sanctify nearly all of the seasonal celebrations of Europe as well as the communal, human pleasures that go with them.
Other rituals were more purely religious; I remember staying with some nuns in Austria who put bunches of wild flowers on everyone’s place at breakfast for the feast of the Assumption – remembering the legend that flowers were found in the Virgin’s grave. You can say a lot about this sort of thing from a Protestant perspective; what you can’t say is that the Catholic religion is at odds with the senses.
I remember, too, Corpus Christi processions in Ireland, when the entire town would take to the streets, when every house would hang out flags and decorate an altar in their garden, when little girls in First Communion dresses would scatter flowers on the road. And I have seen its demise in the new, secular Ireland, the physical retreat of the procession to the precincts of the Church – because you don’t go in for religion in public space, and because it would mean closing the town to cars for the afternoon. I know which mindset I prefer.
Pace Chocolat, I shall be giving up sweets for Lent. And come Easter, I shall be slurping up my Bewley’s bunny. Juliette Binoche, incidentally, didn’t eat any chocolate on the set, according to the food stylist. But that was the fear of flab, not sin.