22 May 2012

Gluttony: Mother of all the vices?

Gluttony Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (13)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

The United States are, arguably, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Many Americans are either eating far too much (far more than is necessary for simple nourishment); or they are eating foods with little to no nutritional value whatsoever. In either case, the reason is probably the same: the food and drink being consumed are delightful to the palate. The truth is, the sort of diet which would prevent obesity is actually very boring, to look at, to smell and to taste. And that really is an important point.

The sin involved in gluttony is the worship of the senses in general, but of the taste in specific. In short, the senses--indeed the entire world of sensory assaults--become substitutes for God. We are, in various ways, lacking peace in our hearts. We are restless and bored, so, instead of turning to God we seek out sundry stimuli, one of the most popular, for some, being food. For such people, food, as a source of strength and inner peace, takes the place of God. For that reason, the sin entailed in gluttony is really a form of idolatry.

Most of us probably think that gluttony involves eating a lot of food. As a consequence, we may be inclined to think that we can easily spot the gluttonous because they are the obese and overweight. Frankly, for many of these the problem is not how much is eaten, but what is eaten, in tandem with how little exercise they may get. Many are gluttonous without realizing it because we don't eat a lot, but we have the same preoccupation with food nonetheless.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes a distinction between gluttony of excess and gluttony of delicacy. In the persona of Screwtape, he describes a woman who has no idea the depth of her enslavement to sensuality because the quantities of food involved in her gluttony are so small:
[W]hat do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?.... [This woman] is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a deumure little sigh and a smile, "Oh, please, please... all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast." You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of induging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a lttle scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says: "Oh, that's far, far too much? Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it." If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.
In her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather narrates the legend of Fray Baltazar Montoya, priest at Ácoma, in Northern New Mexico in the early seventeen hundreds. Balatazar enjoyed living well and self-indulgently at the expense of his native American congregation, so much so that they were always on the verge of revolt. The only thing which held them in check was fear of what they perceived as his magic. "It was clear," as Cather puts it, "that the Friar at Ácoma lived more after the flesh than after the spirit." Overlooking his other sins, we can focus on his gluttony, both of excess and of delicacy. He decided to invite some of his fellow priests from other parishes to dine with him and "admire his fine garden, his ingenious kitchen, his airy loggia with its rugs and water jars, where he meditated and took his after-dinner siesta." Having been trained as a cook in a monastery in Spain, frequently visited by Spanish nobles, he prepared an excellent feast. A particular source of pride was his preparation of a sauce to accompany his hare jardinière. For the sake of brevity, one of the serving boys, carrying in the hare jardinière was distracted by one of Baltazar's guests and spilled some of the sauce on one of the other guests. Baltazar, who was quick-tempered, and slightly drunk with brandy, violently threw his empty pewter mug at the boy, striking him in the head and killing him.

Just like Screwtape said: Quantities don't matter. Food can still be used to produce "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern." It can also produce death.

So, a more telling sign of gluttony may be nothing more complicated than simple preoccupation with food.

The question is how do we learn to engage in a "sober use of meat and drink" as the Larger Catechism puts it (Q. 135)? The desert fathers had so many practices in this regard that there are almost as many different practices as there are desert fathers to study! It's difficult to know what to make of it or how to imitate these practices exactly as they did, since there were so many diverse practices. But we can at least say this. There isn't any need for a lock-step uniformity in practice. The diversity of practice coupled with the success of these practices demonstrates this. In denomonations which observe the Lenten dietary rules, there are some pastors who tell their congregations that they must, in order properly to observe these rules, abstain even from any medications they may be taking. (There are, thankfully, many in those same denominations who give the opposite counsel.) This approach operates with the understanding that the people must observe Lent exactly in conformity with their liturgical texts. One can find churches which prescribe not just how much (or how little) one should eat, but even what one shall not eat (meat; poultry; fish; dairy products, including eggs; alcholic beverages; and oil, etc).

In and of themselves, and persuant to the goal of learning sobriety in the "use of meat and drink", there is nothing wrong at all with these sorts of strict observances. What is wrong is the absence of a rationale for these abstentions. Abstain from these things, because it's Lent. That's all. What is over-looked is the fact that one can easily abstain and still be lead by the stomach or palate into "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern."

But these observances harken back to the monastics. What were they up to? Recall their goal: to increase love for God and for others. How do these abstentions facilitate the achievment of those goals? Rather than being preoccupied with meat, eggs and wine, we need to remember the goal. The purpose for these abstentions is to rid ourselves of a sort of devotion to an elaborate variety in our diet, an elaborate variety that can distract us, by means of a sensory assault, from devotion to God (specifically, devotion to prayer) and to others. The point is to have our body in its proper relationship to the Lord Jesus. (And freedom from enslavement to the demands of our taste buds is also physically healthy.)

Meat, eggs, and wine may not be the things from which we should abstain occasionally in waging our war against gluttony. If all we do is compile a list of foods from which we abstain, as if those abstentions in and of themselves could do us spiritual good, then we have made the same error as the Pharisees, who argued over such things as whether to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath--as if man were made for the Sabbath and its rules (man-made or otherwise), rather than the Sabbath for man (see Mark 2.27). If we do that, we aren't resisting the passions, we're just abstaining from this or that item of food or drink. Our focus will be on the rules about food, what we're permitted to eat on certain occasions, rather than on resisting the passion of gluttony. If you think about it, this focus on what we may be permitted to eat is not too unlike the sort of woman Lewis was writing about, above. That woman, recall, was making work difficult for an already over-worked server.

One way we can resist the passion of gluttony is to demand, expect and be content with less when we go out to eat (or even when we dine at home), to tolerate not getting it our way all the time, or not getting our way at all. If what we get is food, then let's be content with it if by the time it gets to the table it's a little cooler than we might like. If there's water on the table for us to drink, we should be content with it if our servers don't do the best job of keeping our soda glass full. Too often we insist on getting we we've paid for, rather than on extending grace to people who do not cease to be humans just because they've punched a time-clock. It's nice for our food to be as piping hot as we like; it's also nice (though not very healthy) to have a bottomless glass of soda (or beer); it's nice to get what we've paid for. But we should be mindful of those around the world who would love to have the food we complain of; we should be mindful of the fact that those who have prepared our food and those who have served our food probably feel just as over-worked and under-appreciated in their work as we do in our own.

You can see that we can be abstemious about not eating this or that--or eating less than this or that other amount--and still mistreat people. This is not what it looks like to resist a passion. Resistance to passion should move us to treat people better, not worse.

We should also focus much less on pleasing the palate, or our taste buds. Often what, and how much, we eat is dependent upon its taste and how much that taste pleases us. The more intense the sensory assault, the more we are likely to enjoy it. Ask yourself if you would drive as far, and with as much anticipation, for a meal of plain rice and beans, seasoned only with a bit of salt and pepper, washed down only with water, as you would for a simple burger and fries, washed down with a soda--much less for large plate piled high with Mexican food. Most of us would probably prefer almost anything but a dish of rice and beans. Why not, especially when, in most cases, that dish of rice and beans will be healthier than the burger, fries and soda, or even the Mexican food? Because, employing a comparison of sensory assaults, a plate of beans and rice is black-and-white analog television, while the alternatives are color-loaded HDTV. It's not about nourishment; it's about distraction from the cares of life, distraction mediated by that assault of sensory delights upon the palate.

Our use of food for purposes other than nourishiment may often be an attempt at self-consolation. Many of us are stressed, worried, figety, bored, dis-satisfied with our lives or otherwise without inner peace. In the same way that those who struggle with lust may turn to sexual gratification rather than to God when attempting to turn from their stresses pains and cares, we turn to food, seeking relief by using food and drink to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains. We are even encouraged to do so. We attempt, in short, to employ food (among other things) to provide what only God can provide. For that moment, we feel so much better. That is what gluttony really is. And that is why Christian thinkers have always maintained that gluttony is a form of idolatry. It denies what God has said of himself: In His presence is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (see Psalm 16.11).

So pernicious is gluttony that Christian thinkers have long claimed that termperance is something like the mother of all virtues. The nineteenth-century Russian Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov said: "Wise temperance of the stomach is a door to all the virtues. Restrain the stomach, and you will enter Paradise. But if you please and pamper your stomach, you will hurl yourself over the precipice of bodily impurity, into the fire of wrath and fury, you will coarsen and darken your mind, and in this way you will ruin your powers of attention and self-control, your sobriety and vigilance."

The Westminster divines, like the desert fathers before them, thought that restraining the passions, even the passion of food, was an important and necessary pre-condition for obedience to God. As I mentioned above, as one of the duties implied by the prohibition of murder, the Westminster divines, in the Larger Catechism (Question 135), included "sober use of meat and drink." The context of the answer makes clear that the divines were looking at internal states of affairs, habits and dispositions (especially of mind) which serve as the pre-conditions for obedience:
A."What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?"
Q. "The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent."
Neither the desert fathers nor the Westminster divines were the first to meditate upon the pre-conditions for obedience. The Lord Jesus, speaking of the suddenness of his return, gave this warning to his disciples (Luke 21.34):
Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. 36 But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Christian life is a life of prayerful, priestly devotion to God, a life of watchful expectation of his return. We cannot live that life preoccupied with our taste buds and palates any more than we can live it in preoccupation with our sexual organs, material possessions or status. If we can't resist the demands of our palates, we may have little hope of resisting even greater temptations. In fact, it may be, as I've already suggested, that some of our eating may in fact be substitues for yielding to some of our other temptations.


About Me

James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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