Many of my favorite memories with my grandfather involve making and eating incredible food. Don’t worry, he’s not dead yet; in fact, he’s still teaching, gardening and doing home improvement jobs on the side at the still-capable age of 70. But even though this incredible man has shown me his skills in everything ranging from poker to painting, the one that sticks in my memory the longest and strongest is his ability to create macaroni and cheese, ribs, or chili that instantly changes a small party into an event. To this day, my mouth begins to water anytime I see a meat smoker.
Obviously food is a potent good in the life of any person. But it’s allure, present to keep us alive, can often lead to serious problems (see: Original Sin, apple). The vice of gluttony is not an easy one to describe or explain, much less fight in real life. The dietary needs, restrictions, habits and upbringing of any individual person are all factors in how much food a person eats and how much they should eat. Furthermore, the setting can have huge implications on what is and is not acceptable (is it a birthday? Thanksgiving? A Friday in Lent?). The “line” between gluttony and moderation can seem incredibly fuzzy at times, sometimes leaving Christians who are genuinely seeking virtue frustrated and confused.
Now obviously gluttony is a very real problem. Overeating can lead to health problems, weakness of will, and even a distortion of priorities as food becomes more and more important. But Aristotle and Aquinas agree that to reject all human pleasures and desires is to reject one’s own humanity. This is, to put it lightly, a bad idea. God gave us our bodies and our humanity, so there is good in our desires because they are gifts from God. So how do we approach food in order to promote both health and temperance, properly ordering our lives without allowing hunger to dominate us?
Moderation, or temperance, is often the virtue named that battles gluttony, but the struggle with moderation is that it is strictly a negative action: in other words, it is choosing not to do something. There is a lot of virtue in negative actions, and it shouldn’t be ignored. But simply saying “I will eat this much and no more” can be an attitude that lends itself to legalism. Not necessarily, of course; many good Christians have lived moderate and temperate lives strictly under the consideration of trying not to eat too much. But simply giving a rule to follow treats food as strictly a means of temptation; this is similar to saying that modesty is only about avoiding lust because human persons are often occasions for temptation in this manner. This can lead to an attitude like that of John Cassian, an ancient Christian teacher who recommended eating food with the mentality of “getting it over with” so as to minimize temptation. He even calls the action of eating food “contrary to chastity!” Obviously this treats food, which is good, as a necessary evil. And that’s bad.
Furthermore, fear on its own is never the appropriate response towards a good. It can be a part of the response, as poets have often described fear as one of the many emotions associated with love. But no person can fully appreciate what he or she only conceives as a threat.
So how do we perfect our temperance and our attitude towards food? The key is the virtue of gratitude. Gratitude is the proper response to any gift, and should be cultivated in relation to all that God gives us. A quick illustration will show what I’m talking about.
Imagine for a moment that you receive a car for your birthday. I’m not entirely sure why you received a car, maybe your uncle had a particularly good year selling insurance, or your mother won the lottery and decided you deserved it. Either way, the car is now sitting in front of you in the drive through. What is your response?
If you take a glutton’s approach, you use the car as your liberation-mobile, and spend so much time with and in the car that you cease to be present to your family at all. Sure, you’re busy, and there are good reasons to be out of the house sometimes. But if every free moment, or even most free moments, are spent with your car, then you have begun to love the gift (your new car) more than the gift-giver (your lately-rich mother).
Of course, if you take John Cassian’s approach, you run into a different, but in many ways equal, problem. If, on receiving the car, you refuse to drive it, use it, or take care of it out of fear, then that’s a disordered reception as well. After all, the car was given to you to use! Refusing to use it and continuing to live your life as if you don’t have it is just as ungrateful as investing too much energy into the car.
In either case, your response to the car actually makes you unworthy of it; you are not giving it or the person who gave it to you the respect either deserves.
But what does that have to do with food? Well, tastes and food are both gifts from God, and a person who approaches food and taste with suspicion and fear is failing to acknowledge the good that God has given them. However, they are also guilty of ingratitude (as well as several other sins) if the food becomes the point; if their love for food outweighs their love for God, they have mistaken gift for gift-giver. Either extreme is failing to appreciate the goodness of God and failing to give that goodness its proper response.
The truly great thing about having a spirit of gratitude is that it makes eating an act of prayer and love towards God. Every chocolate bar, every cheeseburger, and every cup of coffee is an occasion to express our love to God, if we’ll only take it. And when we approach food from the perspective of one who is trying to be grateful, moderation will take care of itself, because we’re always keeping God in mind as we eat. So the next time you order an ice cream cone, or sit down in front of a beer, thank God for it. It’s what He deserves, and what you need, too.