On Fridays we will be going through the primary vices that stand in the way of our development in the spiritual life.
Our first vice is gluttony. Viewed from a worldly perspective, gluttony doesn’t seem like that big of a problem. Sure, we should be healthy, and I suppose that means we shouldn’t sneak too much ice cream in the afternoon, or take fourth helpings every night. I don’t know about you, but what really causes me trouble, in terms of sheer empty calories, is bourbon. Ah, bourbon!
But on the other hand, and maybe ironically, the Catholic should have enough contempt for the body not to take this too seriously. There are worse things in the world than having a little bit of a beer belly. In fact, in our world today, it often seems that worship of the body has gone way too far. People organize their whole lives around staying svelte.
To truly love the body is not to worship it, but to live in it. A little bourbon, appropriately applied; a piece of birthday cake; a feast with friends: these, we rightly say, are worth more than a magazine-worthy body.
And indeed, there is a kind of gluttony even in taking food too seriously. Foodies – those who live for the coolest recipe, or the most super-organic food out there – often seem to be making their bellies their gods. We don’t want to do that.
So on the natural level, gluttony is a vice than can go both ways: we can love food too much, we can oppose it too much; we can be too worried about health, we can be not worried enough; we can be too picky, we can be too slovenly. The key is moderation – or, better, discretion. The key is to eat intelligently, to be led by our souls, not our bellies.
But gluttony is also significant on the spiritual level. It is significant, in fact, precisely because it is not that big of a deal on the natural level.
On the spiritual level, the question of gluttony is precisely why we make such a big deal of it. Why, when the tradition suggests we skip a meal here or there, or not have a fancy meal or too many desserts, does that make us panic? What are we living for?
Precisely because food isn’t that big of a deal – honestly, there are a lot of things we can go without, even if they are nice – it is a good place to practice self-control.
Think of it this way. An awful lot of our sins can be described as spiritual gluttony. Those nasty words I am so tempted to say are like a tasty treat. I need to say no. That lustful glance, that self-indulgent rest when I know I should be working or praying, the addictive acquisition of stuff I don’t need, and the delicious indulgence of my own will just for the sake of doing it my way: this is the real stuff of the spiritual life, but it is all an awful lot like grabbing a glass of bourbon (or a cookie, or a third helping of dinner, or an excuse on a fast day).
Fasting and gluttony are not the most important thing. They are the little thing, where we can practice living for something higher, instead of just indulging.
And so the Church encourages us to fast. Traditionally every day of Lent, except Sundays and solemnities, was a fast day: pretty tough. In the East they make it both longer and tougher. Canon Law still tells us to skip meat on Fridays (and for many of us, fish is even fancier than meat) unless we live a harder fast. Many in the tradition have found small ways to fast every Wednesday and Friday of the year, and the day before every feast day. And there are always ways to deny ourselves what we don’t really need.
On the other hand, we can also practice detachment from food by eating when we ought. To make a feast on a feast day: not just self-indulgence, but really celebrating with food.
And practicing hospitality. St. Benedict’s Rule says to treat the guest like Christ. He’s really just paraphrasing Cassian on gluttony, where he says that the desert fathers would eat nothing for days – then have six meals a day to welcome guests.
The point is to use food to practice setting love above all else.