Editorial note: The ideas and packaging in this series about the seven deadly sins come from two sources: 1. Bishop Robert Barron’s series, “Seven Deadly Sins / Seven Lively Virtues” (wordonfire.org); 2. A talk I prepared several years ago for a theology presentation.
I just can’t get enough of talking about Gluttony. Alongside lust, it is considered among the “least” deadly of the deadly sins because it involves the domination of reason by the passions more than a twisting of ego; it is more a problem of weakness than malice.
Gluttony is immoderate or unreasonable pleasure in food and drink. Our nation’s tendency to obesity is definitely a physical and psychological problem, but at depth it is spiritual. By extension this vice applies to other practices and substances we consume, things that end up consuming us. Entertainment comes quickly to mind. The latest iOS update allows you to monitor the “screen time” you and your family spend. How would you and I feel if those amounts were published?
Out of a sense of entitlement and even plain old enjoyment, we might “treat ourselves,” and this is not evil; but we must honestly consider how much attention, time, and money we devote to particular agents in our lives. The lack of satisfaction tempts us to try more of what finally cannot satisfy the interior hunger for communion with God and others. When our usage of finite goods distracts us from serving the common good and the infinite good, we have a problem. Modern language might suggest we have an addiction.
For all this, we are not Puritans. Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc famously declared, “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine / there’s music and laughter and good red wine / At least I have always found it so: / Benedicamus Domino! [Bless the Lord!]” Like Catholic liturgy, Catholic life-in-general enjoys a certain sober frivolity. Because we take life seriously, we can have fun with it: another paradox for you.
Asceticism is the discipline of our incessant juvenile desires. We want to develop a plan of eating, drinking, and exertion that provides us greater energy, strength, and endurance. Mature regulation of the lesser goods, Bishop Barron notes, will allow the greater goods (e.g., literature, friendship, science, the quest for God) to emerge. Rightly we’d chafe at whipping ourselves in the style of medieval monks, but an hour on an exercise apparatus or the skipping of one meal might seem nearly as torturous. Are we as willing to discipline ourselves for the service of spiritual values as we are for physical health and appearance?
Twenty years ago a retreat director suggested I give up coffee; whether permanently or temporarily, I cannot recall, as I was so traumatized by the thought. What did that say about coffee; about my attachment to coffee; about me? A good question to ask is, “What do we hold onto?” It applies to physical enjoyments and spiritual pursuits alike.
In Dante’s Purgatorio, the gluttonous are made to quote the 51st Psalm: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” We open our lips to ingest, and to suggest (disciplining our speech applies here!)—but the praise of God is the best purpose for the mouth God gave us, and it’s always a good substitute for overindulgence.