Historically Lent has been a time where Christians pay attention to where our appetites have led us astray. So I thought it made sense to start my reflections on the seven deadly sins by examining the sin of Gluttony (for information on my approach, track back to the last post). But another reason for starting here is more personal. I am a 7 on the Enneagram which means I enjoy life and all its various pleasures. When I am healthy, I am enthusiastic, imaginative and full of joy, but the sin I am susceptible to is gluttony. I am someone who left to my own devices avoids pain by self medicating. However I am not really alone. We live in a consumer culture which feeds our personal preferences, appetites and desires at every turn. When things are going well we enjoy the sensual pleasures of a well cooked meal paired with fine wine (or beer). When things are going badly we find our favorite comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, Tapitio Doritos, homemade chili or spam musubi. We feed ourselves to cope with what can’t be changed and we indulge the guilty pleasures of too much far too often. This is personal issue for me but it is a broad cultural issue as well (statistics on obesity back this up). So while I may be tempted towards gluttony my whole culture conspires against me.
The reason that Gluttony is so prevalent in our culture is that we regard it as no big deal. The Christian tradition regarded Gluttony as one of the deadly sins. Today we regard some of the physical problems associated with over-eating deadly but do not really see Gluttony as a spiritual problem.
So how do you know you are a Glutton?
So I am a glutton, are you? How would you know? The assumption is that we all know gluttons when we see them because we’ve stood behind them at Taco Bell. Yet there is so much more to Gluttony than overeating. Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung says that in the Middle Ages Gluttony was described with this slogan, “Too daintly, too sumptuously, too greedily, too much. (Glittering Vices, 141). Overeating is Gluttony, But Gluttony is more than just overeating. It includes any sort of practice which involves letting your personal appetites run wild. Catering to your inner-foody or your delicate tastes is a form of Gluttony. As Deyoung observes, “It is possible to eat healthy and appropriate foods in a manner that betrays desire gone awry. The question is not whether we are fat or thin, polite or impolite, but whether we are eating to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our own satisfaction above other goods (Glittering Vices, 145).”
DeYoung also observes that modern inventions such as chewing gum and Diet Coke are ways that we can give into our appetites and personal desires but minimize the physical impact of our choices. The result is that we eat and drink ‘guilt free’ but we are still eating and drinking for our own personal gratification (147). Sin isn’t just crouching at the door; Gluttony is squatting in the stall because we let it in and regard its presence as no big deal.
What to do about our Gluttony
In the Christian tradition one way to become aware of the ways we are enslaved to appetites and unhealthily feeding them is to fast. Fasting reveals to us the things that control us. This is why many of us give up coffee, chocolate or alcohol during Lent. These are all good things to be enjoyed in their place but fasting from them reveals the ways in which we have allowed our desire and dependence on each to rule us. So fasting during Lent is one way to set the reset button on our appetites so we can freely enjoy all these things properly without being mastered by them.
Kallistos Ware describes the value of a Lenten fast:
The Primary aim at fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food… involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we feel the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow confident in our own abilities, aquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency (quoted in Glittering Vices, 157).
The Virtue of Temperance
The goal of fasting is not simply to eat less but to be content in God. While I agree with Ware and DeYoung above about how fasting breaks the bonds of Gluttony in us, fasting is a step on the journey towards finding contentment in God. A severe fast would be an over-correction and would do little to reign in our appetites. The virtue of Temperance implies appropriate self restraint not heroic asceticism. John Cassian records some sound advice from one of the Desert fathers:
We must rapidly ensure that we do not slide into danger on account of the urge for bodily pleasure. We must not anticpate food before the time for it and we must not overdo it; on the other hand, when the due hour comes, we must have our food and our sleep, regardless of our reluctance. Each battle is raised by the devil. Yet too much restraint can be more harmful than a satisfied appetite. Where the latter is concerned, one may, as a result of saving compunction, move on to a measured austerity. But with the former this is impossible (John Cassian, Conferneces-Classics of Western Spirituality, 76).
So I recommend for you and for me that we overcome Gluttony through gentle discipline, curbing our appetites so that they do not master us. I personally didn’t give up anything food related this Lent, but in small ways I am looking for ways to guard against Gluttony and enjoy God’s good things without being controlled by them.