Evagrius of Pontus, a Christian monk and ascetic whose ideas may have inspired St John Cassian's list of eight sins (see Preface), gives us a very poetic, but comprehensive definition of the sin of gluttony: "Gluttony is the mother of lust, the nourishment of evil thoughts, laziness in fasting, obstacle to asceticism, terror to moral purpose, the imagining of food, sketcher of seasonings, unrestrained colt, unbridled frenzy, receptacle of disease, envy of health, obstruction of the (bodily) passages, groaning of the bowels, the extreme of outrages, pollution of the intellect, weakness of the body, difficult sleep, and gloomy death."
Scripture concurs. Proverbs 23:20-21 warns us not to "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 28:7 declares that "he who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father." Proverbs 23:2 advises us to "put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony," and although that might seem a little too extreme, it is definitely indicative of how severely God views the sin of gluttony, which Merriam-Webster defines as excess in eating or drinking.
Why is gluttony a sin, though? Because gluttony is more than simply overeating (or overdrinking). It is abusing God's gifts. Food, which is one gift, is necessary for good health, but when we overeat we abuse it and harm our bodies, which is another gift. Secondarily, gluttony leads to other sins like sloth. Daniel (of the den of lions fame) understood that.
King Nebuchadnezzar, who once ruled the Babylonian Empire, sent his army marching into Jerusalem. After securing a tremendous victory, they returned to Babylon with a bunch of prisoners in tow, among whom was Daniel, a devout, God fearing teenager. Soon after, Nebuchadnezzar instructed his ministers to select handsome, healthy and intelligent young men from among the captives and bring them to the palace in order to teach them Babylonian culture and traditions, so that they could be of use in his service. Daniel was one of those who were chosen.
Right off, Daniel faced a problem. Nebuchadnezzar had dictated that the new trainees were to be served the same food and wine that was served on the royal table. While this would have flattered most young men, Daniel was aghast. He was a vegetarian who drank only water and he resolved to consume nothing the king was offering. Why? Not merely because the food would probably have been offered to idols (a good enough reason for him to refuse), but because the richness of the food would have led to laziness, which in turn would have ended his powerful prayer life. Ever try praying on a full stomach? (Or anything else for that matter?)
Why Do We Become Gluttons?
There are few things that are as difficult to manage as our appetites for pleasure and we seem to want to be self-indulgent in all aspects of it. The primary victim of these excesses is our self.
Christopher Rios, better known as Big Punisher or Big Pun, was a Puerto Rican-American rapper who admitted eating to seek relief from "emotional pressures." While touring, he used a golf cart to transport him to the stage and often required an oxygen mask after performing. Pun died of a heart attack caused by his obesity in 2000—at the age of 28. What made him eat so much?
Or Marlon Brando? M. Moser, in the book Movie Stars Do the Dumbest Thingsspeaks of the great star's gluttony. "Like the actor himself, Marlon Brando's eating binges grew to assume legendary proportions. Brando frequently consumed two whole chickens, half a cheesecake and a pint of ice cream in a single sitting. He was also known to don a pair of sunglasses and a large hat before driving to a food stand in the wee hours to gorge himself on several hot dogs. Food, as the producers of Superman soon learned, was an obsession...
"When the "Godfather of Bellies" was first approached about playing the role of Superman's father (Jor-El) in the screen adaptation of the comic book classic, he was remarkably enthusiastic. In fact, he had several ideas of his own. For example, because he was an alien living on another planet, Superman's father could look like anything: "What if," Brando asked the film's producers, "he was a giant bagel?""
A normal question, perhaps, for somebody whose life had begun to revolve more around food than around work. Close to his death he weighed over 300 pounds! What made him become like this?
Or Montezuema II? The last Aztec ruler in Mexico could put away chicken, turkey, songbirds, doves, ducks, rabbits, pheasants, partridges and quail, followed by tortillas and hot chocolate! Or the ancient Romans? Often given to excess, they crossed all limits during the reigns of Emperors Claudius and Vitellius, overindulging at lavish banquets and then vomiting so they could continue eating. What causes behavior like this?
A God Sized Hole
All of us are born with a big gaping hope within us. It's a hole that God himself placed so that we would search for Him and find Him. Some of us don't realize this, however, and try to fill the emptiness with food, alcohol, sex, tobacco, anti-depressants, and other things of the world. This hole, however, is a God-sized hole, and the only thing that can fill a God-sized hole is God Himself, which means that anything else that we do simply won't compensate. The belly may be stuffed, but the heart is hollow.
Towards the end of 2008, I was drained out after being practically non-stop on the road for nine whole months. Before returning home from the United States, where I had a series of missions, I stopped by in Omaha to make a silent guided retreat with a contemplative community Bellwether, more popularly known as the Intercessors of the Lamb.
My retreat director was a priest who was originally from Surinam. Named Fr. Paschal, he was affectionately referred to by the community members as the Ninja Priest. I soon found out why. He got straight to the root of whatever was troubling you (chop! chop!). He was the only person I was allowed to speak to and I'd meet him for an hour each day. On the first day he looked at me and said, "You are tired. I want you to get some sleep," and refused to do anything more with me. I really must have been exhausted because I slept for about fourteen hours straight.
The following day, he said, "You're empty. You've been giving too much of yourself and receiving very little back. You need to fill yourself up. I want you to drink." "Drink?" "Yes, drink the Living Water. Imagine Mary is standing in front of you holding a pitcher of water. She pours the water into your hands and you drink. Or imagine Jesus standing by a stream. He invites you to drink from it. Go and drink."
So I got my imagination into fifth gear and drank. Pretty soon my stomach felt full and I couldn't drink any more. I told Fr. Pascal this the next day and very gently he told me it was my heart I needed to fill, not my stomach! Well, we live and learn. It took an entire week before my heart felt full—and this despite "drinking" a lot every day! I can only imagine how empty your hearts must be, especially if you don't do any drinking yourselves.
What's Eating You?
How empty are your hearts? Your eating habits may reveal a lot. What do you do when you are seated at the dining table? Do you pile your plate with food, then without a glance to see if everybody else has served themselves, begin attacking your food and don't say a word until you have finished eating? Do you take second and third servings?
Do you eat at the wrong time or when you aren't hungry? Are you fussy about the food that is laid on the table? Does everything have to be made just the way you like it? Does rice, for instance, have to be the best of Basmati with each grain unbroken and separate from the next? Do you insist on having the best of everything?
Do you snack constantly? When you are at a friend's house and the snack tray goes around, do you pick something from it each and every time it passes you by? Do you try to ensure it ends up close to you?
Do you tell yourself that it is okay to overindulge sometimes? For instance at a wedding party where a huge buffet is laid out with an array of mouth watering delicacies, each one more tempting than the next, do you let yourself go? Or when you are at restaurant that has a special "All you can eat" offer: do you believe it is okay—nay, necessary—to eat three times what you normally would simply because you want to make the most of a good deal? Do you ever give thought that there may be consequences to your health because of what you do?
We probably don't read too much into some of these things, but they are all indicative of gluttony, which in turn may reveal the emptiness within you. Which could lead to all sorts of trouble. Dinah Mulock observed in her 1857 book John Halifax, Gentleman that the stomach was the way to an Englishman's heart. Fifteen years after that, the writer Fanny Fern broadened the idea to include all men in Willis Parton.
This could very well be true, but not only for a woman to exploit; Satan takes advantage of this too. He used food to tempt Adam and Eve! "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate" (Genesis 3:6).
He tried to use food to tempt Jesus too. After His baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where He fasted. After fasting for forty days He was obviously hungry and Satan, who is ever ready to exploit a situation to his advantage, was right there next to Him: "If you are the Son of God," he tempted Jesus, "tell these stones to become bread." Jesus knew better than to fall for his tricks. He answered, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (cf Matthew 4:34). He was saying that it isn't only food that fills us, but God's Word too. Do we fill ourselves with it?
It is not only reading it and memorizing what God says that fills us, however, but doing what God tells us to do as well. After speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, His apostles returned with food and offered Him some, but He said He had already eaten. Confused, they wondered who might have brought him food. Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work" (John 4:34).
The Virtue: Temperance
The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess, helping us to control and moderate our appetites, be it for food, drink or anything else. Intemperance brings about an arrest of emotional development. Have you ever taken a little child into a toy shop? S/he will drive you crazy by his/her demands believing s/he needs everything s/he sees! Jesus tells us to be like children, but not like spoiled little children. There is nothing appealing about a spoiled child. That's what we become like when we are intemperate, demanding our desires be fulfilled. When we are slaves of our desires, we cannot exercise our free will, which leads to an inability to cultivate other virtues. Temperance, however, allows us to become the people God created us to be, spiritually and morally beautiful.
How do we control gluttony? Fasting and mortification usually helps, and both these can be done without damaging one's health. On the contrary, going on a diet that comprises only fruit juice for a week (or longer) can actually be beneficial to health, as also giving up meats, sweets and other things that we might be very fond of and think we can't live without.
What really helps, however, is addressing the basic root of the problem which is the emptiness of the heart that only God can fill. He has something beautiful to fill it with - the Holy Spirit. We have already met the Samaritan woman at the well (see Lust). She was emotionally empty, and tried to fill herself with the love of men, but she went through five husbands without getting what she craved for. She was hoping number six would do the trick, but as Jesus told her: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14).
In other words, we can do whatever we want to fill the emptiness in our lives, but the only thing that truly can is God.
The Gift: Fortitude
There is a very powerful passage in Paul's letter to the Corinthians where he speaks about "beating" his body, a euphemism for getting his body under his control. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV).
Many of us are slaves to our body. The instant we feel hungry, we look for something to put into our bellies. The moment we feel a little warm under the collar, we turn the air conditioner on. The minute we feel thirsty, we're reaching for the soda can. We need to make our body our slaves, bringing it into subjugation to us. The gift of fortitude helps us in this task.
To quote Pope John Paul II again, he writes that "when, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we experience "the weakness of the flesh", or rather, of human nature subject to physical and psychological infirmities, we should ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of Fortitude to remain firm and decisive on the path of goodness. Then we will be able to repeat with St Paul: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (1 Corinthians 12:10).
May the Spirit be with you.