Sin Revisited: Gluttony
Gluttony. What, exactly, makes it so finger-lickin’ good? God knows. He made us for eating, and to make sure we wouldn’t forget and starve to death, He attached considerable pleasure to it. For us, to be is to eat.
I eat, therefore I am.
Eating is part of creaturehood. Not self-sufficient, we can’t exist at all without constantly partaking of something outside ourselves, even if it’s only air. Our dependence on our Creator is total and eternal.
Everything God provides for us is “food” in the large sense. As our Lord told the devil, “Not in bread alone does man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). To His disciples He says, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work” (John 4:34).
Assimilating anything without reference to the divine will, just because we want to, is, strictly speaking, gluttony .
That the fall of mankind was strictly from hunger is historical fact. Mother Eve was the first woman who couldn’t stick to a prescribed diet, because she was the first woman. Gluttony is a life-long threat with us because we have to eat, and we have all inherited her basic weakness.
There’s a hunger for everything. Eve was made to love good things, and she saw very well that the forbidden fruit was not only “good to eat” and sensually gratifying, but also “fair to the eyes,” and “delightful to behold,” for the knowledge it could give. Some people would rather gorge their eyes than their stomachs. Often they do both. (There is, after all, a theological reason for eating popcorn at movies or eating dinner in front of television.) Others avidly pursue knowledge, voraciously devouring books or graduate courses, or maybe battening on “dialogue.” Still others hunger for praise or “beautiful experiences.” Among the more spiritual, there’s even a hunger for the yummy consolations to be found in prayer.
From the perspective of Eden, all sin can be seen as a crescendo of “gluttonies.” It wasn’t Sigmund Freud who discovered the pleasure principle as a motive for human behavior!
The elaborate Mosaic dietary laws, which we judge so arbitrary and materialistic today, were in fact designed to portray sin precisely in this way. When God forbade his chosen people to eat swine’s flesh or geckos, He was teaching them they must not absorb into themselves just anything they pleased.
Obviously the sin didn’t lie in succulent pork chops or noisy little reptiles; it lay in “eating” the evils these represent, and which God forbids. It lay in disobedience. In their true sense, the old Mosaic laws are as binding upon us as they ever were. As our Lord promised, not one jot or tittle of their content will be done away with, but only perfected and revealed in their true spiritual meaning.
The control of gluttony is therefore the key to the whole spiritual life. Popular modern psychology sees clearly enough that:
Feeding is, unquestionably, the prime feature of daily life from the very first day of existence ... A baby is quite a tyrant; almost from the time of birth he learns that his mouth is a prime weapon in commanding the world as he knows it. Because howling and crying bring him prompt gratification of his drives and desires, he has a sound reason for holding the oral cavity in high esteem. Such a baby, if all his whims are satisfied by an overanxious mother, goes on in life, continuing to pamper his mouth, eating well, depending on oral satisfaction to allay frustration. He may turn up in later life as the glib talker, the high-pressure salesman, teacher, actor or executive, etc. (James A. Brussel, M.D., The Layman’s Guide To Psychiatry).
The same baby, psychiatry also tells us, soon finds he can also use his mouth to bite , not just his food, but others, as soon as he gets teeth. (The shortcut from gluttony to murder can be taken before we ever leave our cribs.)
Scripture told us all this long ago. To the Desert Fathers it was as plain as day that because we come into the world as nursing infants with an insatiable desire to absorb good things, the end of hunger for us can be nothing less than God. Because nothing else can really satisfy us completely, gluttony consists precisely in trying to find full satisfaction elsewhere. This is what makes it so dangerous. It can throw us off course radically, as it did Adam and Eve, right there in the beginning. Our whole life can degenerate into little more than a series of bites and chews.
The believer who at mealtime asks God to “Bless us and these Thy gifts,” is not only taking cognizance of all the good things God has provided for us, and which He means for us to enjoy; but more important, he is asking God’s help in assimilating them rightly, “blessing” those at table as well as the food. He is furthermore pronouncing a mild exorcism against the malefices of the Enemy, who can sometimes effect possession of his victim by ingestion.
Mealtime is a solemn occasion, properly accompanied by prayer, for God chose to become Food for us, even in this life. After the Last Supper, the most insignificant morsel should be recognized not only as a manifestation of everything God gives, but as a symbol and pledge of eternal life, of God himself.
It was for this that we were given stomachs, both carnal and spiritual, and not for the incidental pleasures of the palate. As never before it behooves us not to be gluttons. St. John of the Cross, mystical Doctor of the Church, warns that we risk falling into this deadly vice even as regards the Eucharist, “being more eager to eat than to eat cleanly and perfectly.”
Preparation for the Eucharist, as the Church has always taught, should begin where life begins, at the natural and physical level. The Fathers laughed at beginners who set themselves to controlling their thoughts without first acquiring some control of their stomachs, hoping to tangle with powerful Canaanites before they had even eluded the pursuing Egyptians. “It is impossible,” reports John Cassian, “for a full belly to make trial of the combat of the inner man: nor is he worthy to be tried in harder battles who can be overcome in a slight skirmish!”
The Fathers discerned three forms of gluttony:
1. The first one consists in eating whenever we please. This might mean often or seldom, ahead of time or later, never or simply constantly nibbling between meals. Habitually indulged in, this form of gluttony quite predictably disposes its victim to restlessness and dissatisfaction with His state in life. It feeds instability.
2. The second form is being choosy about what we eat. In the world this might win us an international reputation as a gourmet, or simply as a weight-watcher, depending on whether our eye is on the menu or the calories, in other words, whether we are motivated by sensuality or vanity. There is no more refined form of gluttony than dieting from motives of pride. The dazzling authority on haute cuisine could fall into this category, but so might also the dear little old lady who insists on turning the host’s kitchen upside down looking for a piece of dry toast, or the health fanatic who will consume only roots, berries and spring water. It’s hardly surprising that this particular type of gluttony especially breeds covetousness, because its victims are orientated always to looking for something they haven’t got at the moment. It’s directly opposed to the perfect abnegation of Christ, who told His disciples to “Eat such things as are set before you” (Luke 10:9).
3. The third type of gluttony is usually the one we think of as gluttony proper: eating as much as we want. Its victims are more likely to be fat, I suppose, and therefore more in evidence. Because there’s a limit to what the stomach will hold, the Fathers tell us this one by a kind of inner necessity leads most directly into lust and sexual impurity, the next capital vice after gluttony. They were fond of quoting the prophet Ezechiel, who revealed that Sodom fell into the unbridled license with which her name became synonymous as a result of “fullness of bread and abundance” (16:49). No one with eyes could fail to see the relation between the glutting affluence of modern society and the so-called sexual revolution .
Carnal gluttony could hardly be called deadly in itself except that it unlocks the door, as we have seen, to all the other sins of which we are capable. No vice so lays bare, right at the dinner table where all can see it, the proud independence of the human will, its resistance to order and restraint, its slavery to sensuality. How many parents now deploring the licentiousness of their children never thought to stifle it at its source by the simple expedient of teaching them to eat only what is set before them at proper times!
By subjecting the spirit to the mindless whims of the body, gluttony literally reverses the order of creation in the same way that Adam did when he “listened to his wife.” Its effects reach far beyond obesity, alcoholism or stomach troubles, for “not only is drunkenness with wine wont to intoxicate the mind, but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation.” It stops spiritual progress dead.
Unchecked, it eventually ushers in apostasy, say the Fathers. We see around us today those heretics and apostates whom St. Jude twice characterized as men “walking after their own lusts.” He too cited Sodom and Gomorrah, for disordered appetites inevitably end by craving intellectual falsehood for their “itching ears” in the same way their stomachs were allowed to crave the “strange flesh” fancied in Sodom. Gluttons for punishment? St. Paul calls them “the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19) .
What to do?
Although their advice applies to everyone, the Fathers never deal in vague generalities. They are very explicit about how to deal with gluttony. In accordance with the three forms of the vice, they lay down three appropriate rules to follow:
l. Eat only at designated times.
2. Eat what is set before you.
3. Always leave the table with room for more.
We must, in other words, maintain order, plainness and sparseness in eating. (Foods requiring long and careful preparation come in for a special anathema. Sorry, gourmets.)
Even so, mastering these principles isn’t quite enough. Because our nature is disordered at the very root of being, we must fast. Because we sin with both body and soul, both must suffer and make reparation. As St. Paul put it, “I chastise my body and bring it under subjection, lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected” (1 Cor. 9:27).
We can never feel safe when it comes to gluttony, no matter how far we have advanced spiritually. We are always like the Israelites in the desert, secretly longing for the delicious onions and stews left behind us in Egypt. We’re only too ready to return to the secure slavery of a welfare state rather than to learn free dependence on the delicate manna God provides for us.
We have our Lord’s word for it that fasting, furthermore, when joined with prayer, is the ultimate weapon against the devil. The first official act of His public ministry, we might say, was the example of prayer and fasting He gave us during His forty days in the desert, by which He outmaneuvered the Enemy. As we know, it was because of their deficiency in fasting and prayer that later His disciples found themselves unable to cast out the dumb spirit from the epileptic boy whose father had come to them for help.
Asked why His followers didn’t fast like St. John the Baptist’s, He answered in effect, “Don’t worry, they will!” He only advised that it be kept secret, so as not to feed vanity and self-righteousness.
But what about my health?
It’s funny, but the Desert Fathers never mention it. Personally, I like St. Teresa’s advice on the subject: Forget it. As if the proverbial longevity in the more austere contemplative communities hadn’t already proved the point, now even modern science tells us that reduction in food intake actually delays the aging process.
Saints generally have concluded that health is either suffered or enjoyed, depending on God’s will in particular cases. It’s not their problem at all, but His. Whoever can’t leave such worries behind is far from leaving all things for Christ, who positively forbade us to worry about food at all.
This doesn’t mean that the Fathers were ignorant about particular foods and their effects. In fact, they probably knew very much more about them than we do. They counsel, for instance, to stay away from those which kindle lust. Unfortunately they neglect to tell us which these are, no doubt assuming that anybody knows these basics. Alas, how could they foresee how much our civilization would have forgotten once it discovered — and over-ate — on science!
They lay down no more definite rules for fasting than our Lord did, because none can be universally applied. Dealing as it does with material bodies, differences in age, sex and physical constitution must always be taken into account. Hard fasting for one individual could be feasting for another. In our own day Mother Church leaves this delicate question very much to each one’s conscience, although she never ceases to recommend abstinence from food as a basic means of maintaining spiritual balance and sharpening inner vision.
The Lenten liturgy implores “that our fasting may have a salutary effect, so that the mortification inflicted upon our body may benefit our souls” (Collect, Sat. after Second Sun.); and “that thy faithful who to mortify the flesh abstain from food, may likewise refrain from sin by the practice of justice.” (Collect, Mon. after Second Sun.)
The end of fasting, after all, isn’t gnawing hunger pangs, or even a beautiful figure, but joy and purity of heart. Without religious motivation, fasting soon degenerates into mere dieting or a display of ascetic prowess with purely natural rewards. Keeping the proper spiritual ends in view, too severe fasting can never be recommended (barring some special inspiration from God). In practice it drives us screaming and complaining back to Egypt for many unnecessary relaxations, and keeps us bouncing from feast to famine by turns. It’s much more effective, and much harder, to practice dogged moderation in our fasts.
Also, because our Lord approved of His followers not fasting “as long as the bridegroom is with them” (Matt. 9:15), the Fathers tell us not to scruple about breaking voluntary fasts on social occasions. At such times, they maintain, Christ is present in the person of our guest and “mourning” is out of place. Not that social life can ever be used as an excuse for laxity. John Cassian, visiting in the desert of Skete, tells this story of himself:
When one of the elders was pressing me to eat a little more as I was taking refreshment, and I said that I could not, he replied, “I have already laid my table six times for different brethren who had arrived, and pressing each of them, I partook of food with him and am still hungry, and do you, who now partake of refreshment for the first time, say that you cannot eat any more?”
Even at best, however, bodily fasting will avail us little if it’s not accompanied by rigorous spiritual fasting, and in this regard we can be as ruthless as we please. Didn’t our Lord tell us plainly that it isn’t what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him? “For from the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19).
Hear those super-psychologists the Desert Fathers on “soul-food”:
And let us not believe that external fast from visible food alone can possibly be sufficient for perfection of heart and body unless with it there has also been united a fast of the soul. For the soul has its foods which are harmful ... Slander is its food, and indeed one that is very dear to it. A burst of anger also is its food, even if it be a very slight one; yet supplying it with miserable food for an hour, and destroying it as well with its deadly savor. Envy is a food of the mind, corrupting it with its poisonous juices and never ceasing to make it wretched and miserable at the prosperity and success of another.
Vainglory is its food, which gratifies it with a delicious meal for a time; but afterwards strips it clear and bare of all virtue ... All lust and shifty wanderings of heart are a sort of food for the soul, nourishing it on harmful meats, but leaving it afterwards without share of the heavenly bread and of really solid food. If then with all the powers we have, we abstain from these in a most holy fast, our observance of the bodily fast will be both useful and profitable. For labor of the flesh, when joined with contrition of the spirit, will produce a sacrifice which is most acceptable to God.
So much for fasting, necessary and efficacious. There is nevertheless, the Fathers say, only one real remedy for gluttony: Anchoring the mind in the contemplation of divine things.
This is simply a fancy way of saying that we must gradually learn to feed on God, beginning now in time the “eating” to which we are destined in the Beatific Vision. If even physical love-making or a passion for work or study can leave us no time to eat when we are in its throes, think what an awakened appetite for God and the things of God could do!
Where our hunger for God is concerned, no measures need be taken to check unruly appetite. We were made for Him. As St. Bernard put it, the measure of loving God is to love Him without measure. In Him all gluttonies are swallowed up and all desires satisfied.
“O taste and see that the Lord is sweet!” (Ps. 33:9).
“I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If any man eat of this bread he shall live forever” (John 6:51-52).
Summary: In Sin Revisited, Solange Hertz tackles the topic of sin with a unique perspective for modern times, delving into the intellectual approaches of the Desert Fathers as well as St. John of the Cross. In Hertz's own words: "Don't expect to find the seven deadly sources so familiar in song and story. You'll find eight, and even these won't be in the same sequence most of us are used to. This approach is newer than Vatican II, because it's so much older, if you know what I mean, very much older certainly than the old Baltimore Catechism." Upon reading this book, a person may subtly undergo an examination of conscience pertaining to each sin that is being discussed. This book is designed to be a guide for spiritual perfection.