Thoughts on Kenneth Colston and Pleasurable (and Voluntary) Asceticism


A teacher of literature by profession, Kenneth Colston spent most of his Portsmouth Institute lecture tracing the significance of Franciscans (and the saint from whom they took their name) in literature.  He mainly left conclusions, therefore, to the listener.  (Complete video below.)

In a sense, he describes an undercurrent of contradiction.  Franciscans in literature are “non-conformist, yet traditional.”  They are “cunning, mild, and orthodox.”

A well-known example would be Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who agrees to perform a marriage ceremony for the ill-fated lovers despite the subterfuge.  By doing so, the monk helps them to avoid the sin of fornication and has hope that the greater good of unified families might be the result.

Such matters of “common-sensical cunning,” as Colston calls it, might strike pious Christians as skirting the line of proscribed dishonesty, but Colston seemed to see a practical realism in the Franciscan ideal.  They can “reform without rupture.”

Colston also finds the thread in one of Pope Francis’s favorite novels, The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni.  The Nineteenth Century Italian author understood, Colston suggests, that it is the sinner who most understands mercy.  Faced with a sinful world, Manzoni’s characters make themselves small in relation to others, becoming “epic heroes who kneel.”

Turning to the work of G.K. Chesterton on Saint Francis, Colston gives the impression of the saint as a man who took pleasure in everything.  Theologically, in a world led from paganism through to the excesses and atrocities of the Roman Caesars, the vision of Saint Francis was one in which “lust and cruelty had not been eradicated, but they had been cleansed.”

Here again arises the Franciscan contradiction, which is difficult to articulate, perhaps because it lies so closely to the contradictions within our human nature.  Jesus said, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55).  Partaking of the savior is the means to eternal life, because the recipient “remains in me and I in him.”  This is a statement of physical exchange, as in the Eucharist, but it is more than that.

“It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).  The hard lesson that drove away some of Christ’s followers was that, in the fullness of the life that he offered, they could subsist on the mere Word of God.  The sentiment bespeaks an asceticism of a piece with other calls to give away all of our possessions and leave behind (even to “hate”) those whom we love.

Yet, the disciples continued to eat.  Jesus still turns water into wine and feeds the masses.  He brings his mother with him all the way to Heaven.  We are to reject the world, but also to embrace it.

Jesus speaks the words of “spirit and life,” as something separate from “the flesh,” yet he is also the Word made flesh.  “All things came to be through him” (John 1:3).  The entire world is invested with the Word, from which everything gains meaning and, therefore, beauty and pleasure; it radiates with Him.  The whole world, in a sense, is a Eucharist, meaning that ownership of fancy things is scarcely an improvement upon the joy to be found in everything about the simple fact of existence.

On the one hand, then, a person of mature spirituality — particularly a sinner who has realized God’s mercy — can sympathize with human frailty as we seek pleasure, because we are seeking the pleasure and meaning of God in the world.  On the other hand, the tendency can be to push others to eschew material goods prior to their developing the maturity to take pleasure in the world as they find it.

According to Colston, Chesterton saw this as the danger of the Franciscan way.  Those who gave up property, following the saint, soon turned toward banning property for others.  In that way, the drive to share the world’s highest pleasure comes to resemble something more like the aphorism that misery loves company.

This very point is at the heart of some disagreements about and with Pope Francis.  Surely, we can find pleasure and fulfillment in life without, to pick an infamous example, air conditioning. But an attack on AC is not likely to resonate with those who have not already heard God’s call.  Hearing the call must come first, and then we can give or take air conditioning as a pleasure or even a life-saving technology because it pleases the soul, rather than the flesh.

Following Chesterton, Colston suggests that asceticism, rightly understood, is not giving things up so much as it is choosing something greater to fill the gaps in our lives, to the exclusion of lesser things.  An artist might give much up in the pursuit of artistic expression, as the higher pleasure.

At the time when Saint Francis’s followers were making their turn toward prohibition, according to Colston, the pope saved the saint, insisting that “the world was made not only for Franciscans.”  His way was a worthy one deserving of respect and imitation, but it wasn’t for everybody.

In that context, one might rephrase the question on the minds of many Roman Catholics, these days, as:  What happens when the pope is Francis?