Gluttony: A Life of Chomping, Urges & Gulps (2/2)

Guilty of Gluttony?

[Gluttony,] according to the teaching of the Angelic Doctor, [St. Thomas Aquinas] may happen in five ways which are set forth in the scholastic verse: “Prae-propere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose”:… too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily. Clearly one who uses food or drink in such a way as to injure his health or impair the mental equipment needed for the discharge of his duties, is guilty of the sin of gluttony. [The Catholic Encyclopedia].

We normally picture a glutton as someone devouring and gobbling down food. But,  gluttony also includes the dainty gourmet who cultivates a refined palate merely for the enjoyment of exotic food and drink.

Gluttony, from the Latin gluttire, to gulp or swallow, means excessive indulgence and consumption of food, drink, or luxuries, to the point of extravagance and waste. It extends to perverted, habitual greed that ignores those in need.

I heard the Messenger of Allah (saw) saying: ‘The human does not fill any container that is worse than his stomach. [Tirmidhi].

Gluttony includes all unrestrained appetites, not just food and drink. Without discipline to control our cravings, we lose both spiritual and physical stability. When desires for pleasures of the body overwhelm us, we become less than human and more of a wild beast.

However, it is not a fault to feel pleasure in eating: for it is, generally speaking, impossible to eat without experiencing the delight which food naturally produces. But it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object. Hence, the most delicious meats may be eaten without sin, if the motive be good and worthy of a rational creature; and, in taking the coarsest food through attachment to pleasure, there may be a fault. [St. Alphonsus Liguori].

Surrounded by affluence and abundance, we may be surprised that gluttony is considered one of the seven deadly sins. It is not only morally wrong, but a serious offense meriting severe punishment.

Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, and also a physician to the royal court, listed avoidance of gluttony as number169 in his list of 613 commandments that Jews must keep,

A Torah scholar should not be a glutton but should eat only food which will maintain his health. And he should not overeat [even] such foods. He should not run to fill his stomach as those who fill up from food and drink until their stomachs are ready to burst. Regarding such people it states explicitly in Scripture, “I will scatter dung on your faces, the dung of your holiday offerings” (Malachi 2:3). [Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Deot, Ch. 5]

When we use food for nourishment to sustain our body, eating and drinking can actually be sacred activities. It is our state of mind that distinguishes the condition.

Eating out of necessity is for the pure; eating as a means and provision is a support for the precautious; eating at a time of plenty is for those who trust; and eating for nourishment is for believers … [However, there] is nothing more harmful to the believer’s heart than having too much food, for it brings about two things; hardness of heart and arousal of desires. Hunger is a condiment for believers, nourishment for the spirit, food for the heart, and health for the body. [Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path].

Spiritual Warfare

Monks and ascetics once fought on the front lines of spiritual battles against gluttony for control of the soul. They carried a mystical flag in a holy war to establish dominance of the spiritual over the mundane. The lay societies depended on them, looked to them for advance intelligence on what could be done and what could be done without.

When the desert monk, St. Macarius, was given a bunch of fresh grapes, he thanked the donor but carried the grapes to a neighboring monk who was ill. That monk thanked St. Macarius, then gave the grapes to a neighbor, who carried the grapes to his neighbor. This continued until that evening, when a monk come to St. Macarius bearing his bunch of grapes as a gift. [Adapted from The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol.1, by Alban Butler, p. 25]

The ascetics reminded the public that a holy life, devoid of material comforts, is worth living and dying for. By imitating merely a portion of their pious commitment and devout practices, the society would greatly benefit, individually and collectively.

Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. [St. Chrysostom, On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises].

Test Tube Diets

Today, notions of gluttony and temperance have no spiritual framework on which to rely. We find many pharmaceutical remedies available for gluttony, but only a few holistic models that rely on spiritual formulas.

The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 83].

Our modern society relies on the empirical sciences to recommend proper and beneficial nutritional practices. Science also offers drugs and therapies to remedy any adverse side effects of the modern diet.

Since few people now look to religious leaders for pragmatic health or medical advice, spiritual considerations are usually ignored.

We respond to symptoms and conditions with abstract models, statistical probabilities, theoretical applications, and pharmaceutical remedies.  Noticeably absent from our science and technology-driven culture is a bold, distinguishable and holistic way of life that recognizes and builds upon sacred knowledge.

It is time that followers of Christ do a heart-check and make sure that our prayers of confession are not just a routine to make us feel better and justify continued sin. When we confess and repent, we must be ready to change … Confessing the sin of gluttony should be followed with new eating patterns and even a commitment to regular exercise. [John Ortberg, The Stepping Out in Faith, p. 71].

Spiritual Equilibrium 

Spiritual equilibrium hinges on our ability to recognize the consequences of our conduct. What is spiritually harmful is also physically destructive. Evil is as bad for your body as it is for your soul.

Narrated Ibn `Umar: Allah’s Apostle said, “A believer eats in one intestine (is satisfied with a little food), and a kafir (unbeliever) or a hypocrite eats in seven intestines (eats too much).” [Sahih al-Bukhari].

But, what happens when spiritual values are displaced by a secular, amoral perspective that admits no moral distinctions or judgments? Not only does the meaning of “holy” become blurred, but we become indifferent to our own moral standards, integrity and principles.

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. [Philippians 3:18-19].


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