Thursday, April 03, 2014

Gluttony (a Plate Too Far)

~~  "As long as the vice of gluttony has a hold on a man, all that he has done valiantly is forfeited by him: and as long as the belly is unrestrained, all virtue comes to naught."  --Gregory the Great  ~~

Let's begin with a mental picture of this lovely vice.  The word "Gluttony" is from Latin: gluttire-- to gulp down, swallow.  I know what that looks like (even without a mirror).  Go ahead, picture it.  In its full bloom, it is vexingly pleasurable to feel for oneself and quite sickening to witness in another.  More than many other vices, it is usually out there for all to see-- and they do see.

~~  “Gluttony is not a secret vice.”  --Orson Welles  ~~

Beyond the gross factor, why is it considered one of the big seven?  For starters, it is another of those attributes that can be considered a moral deformity because it defies our reason.  It is right and logical that necessity should be the measure of our indulgence in eating and drinking; and Gluttony ignores that with a snarl and a burp.  It's not just gulping down and swallowing... in the inimitable and compendious reckoning of Thomas Aquinas, it is gulping down and swallowing "Prae-propere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose" (too quickly, too expensively, too much, too greedily, too daintily).

Part of the criteria involved in a certain vice/sin to be named "capital" is that other vices/sins originate from it.  It doesn't take a microscope to see that this is true of Gluttony.  Gregory lists the "daughters" of Gluttony as unseemly joy, scurrility (vulgarity), uncleanness, loquaciousness, and dullness of mind.  To almost any degree, those are ugly stains to have showing on one's character.  There are certainly others that can be borne of Gluttony, depending upon the person and the details.

Gluttony can be considered a minor (venial) sin or a major (mortal) sin, based upon the circumstance.  I can see that rather clearly: minor when it comes in small and occasional doses.  The mighty Augustine himself said "Who is it, Lord, that does not eat a little more than necessary?"  I am not sure that there are very many people in the history of the world who have not been guilty of such at some point(s).  However, one can see where it could get much worse-- where food and drink become the raison d'être; thus putting one in the company of those St Paul spoke of in Philippians 3:19 ("Their end is destruction. Their god is their stomach; their glory is in their 'shame.' Their minds are occupied with earthly things.").  It's not just Paul, the rest of the Good Book is not shy about weighing in on Gluttony.

"Be not greedy in any feasting, and pour not out thyself upon any meat: For in many meats there will be sickness, and greediness will turn to choler.  By surfeiting many have perished: but he that is temperate, shall prolong life."  Sirach, 37: 32-34

Dante took quite seriously the biblical admonitions of Gluttony (as he did with all the Capital Vices).  In the "Inferno," the 3rd Circle of hell is populated with those poor souls whose chief sin in life was Gluttony.  For eternity, they must lie in "stinking dirt" and a "foul slush," with putrid and cold rain falling on them.  They are guarded and tormented by the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who is constantly ripping and tearing at them.  The better one's imagination, the worse this notion is.

In either case, minor or major, Gluttony is certainly something that is all too prevalent in human nature.  I believe that, upon some cogitation, the reason becomes obvious.  Like many vices, Gluttony is behavior that is reaching for some level of happiness and satiety.  Perhaps even more than others, though, Gluttony will never succeed in that quest because, as Qoheleth tells us in Ecclesiastes (6: 7) "All the labor of man is for his mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied."  There is something there, no?  The human  heart is always seeking more than it possesses; and that is obviously because what it possesses is not hitting the mark for some reason.  (Keep that point in mind- we'll unpack it a lot more when we get to discussing Envy.)

It is really not such a fine line of distinction between enjoying one's food and drink and being a glutton.  It's more like a fairly thick line that, for some reason, we still have trouble seeing in ourselves.  As is the case with many things, it really is a matter of conditioning oneself into (or out of) a habit.  That starts with recognition that there is an issue; and it continues with finding the proper tools to address the issue.  Gregory saw that since pleasure and necessity go together in eating/drinking, we can easily fail to discern between the proper call of necessity and the seduction of inordinate pleasure.

- Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.  Proverbs 23: 20-21 -

So, if we're going to tame the "enemy" (our gluttonous appetite) that is dwelling inside us, we have to stand up and engage in spiritual combat.  Fortunately, as we've been discussing for a while now, we have the Virtues to help with these pesky and problematic vices/sins.  I've been praying and working diligently for quite a while now on achieving Temperance in all things.  I have had some great successes and some... not quite successes; but even when falling short, I can feel the power of that virtue... if only I can become able and worthy to wield it.

The other Virtues can also help in their own ways, of course.  Prudence will tell us how unwise and unhealthy it is to be a glutton.  Justice, working with Charity, will help us channel some of the objects of our gluttony to those in need.  Fortitude will keep us moving along the difficult path of denying ourselves excessive (and harmful) pleasure.  Faith will remind us that we are really hungry for more than food and thirsty for more than drink... and that we will finally be satisfied when we go to Him.

As an avowed lover of food and drink, I would be remiss if I let this essay descend into a "bashing" of one of the best gifts we poor little humans posses.  It should be stated and understood clearly that it is not the food's or drink's fault.  It is what we do with them that makes all the difference; and the bottom line is that the thing being over-indulged in (food and/or drink) is in itself neither bad nor good.  (Sounds a bit like the gun control debate, eh?)  We can and should appreciate the good food and drink that comes to us from the Lord's bounty.

~~  "He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not cannot be otherwise."  --Henry David Thoreau  ~~

The endlessly wonderful, and truly miraculous, array of food and beverage that are available to us is most certainly one of God's great gifts to the world.  However, like any of His gifts, we must partake of them rightly (and gratefully, I would add).  In fact, the more we can train ourselves to enjoy things moderately, modestly, and gratefully, the more we will actually enjoy them.  Don't believe me?  Let's make it a homework experiment and see how it goes.

It is, in my mind, beyond question that the Almighty loves us and wants what is good and right for us.  Just look at Ecclesiastes again: "Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun" (8: 15).  AND mortals should " and drink and provide themselves with good things from their toil. Even this, I saw, is from the hand of God"  (2: 24).

So we'll close by remembering that, while it is definitely okay to "eat, drink, and be merry," we must never let that inclination become the master of our focus.  It hurts us physically, morally, and spiritually-- and it is yet another brick in the wall that our vices and sins seek to build between us and our true end.

- "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."  1 Corinthians 3: 16-17 -

Bon appétit and God bless!


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