Gluttony & Abstinence

The Temperate and the Intemperate in The Memorable Deeds and Sayings of the Romans, about 1475–80, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, artist, Valerius Maximus, author. Tempera colors and ink on parchment, 6 7/8 x 7 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 43, recto.

Today in the Vices and Virtues series, we focus on gluttony. I have good news for you today: enjoyment of food does not make you a glutton. In fact, it could, just possibly, we shall see, make you the opposite of one, depending on the kind of your enjoyment. Today in the Lenten Seven Capital Vices and their Remedies series, we are talking about gluttony and abstinence. 

This is getting to be a major theme of this series, but gluttony is again not quite what we’ve pigeonholed it into today. Being overweight can have very little to do with gluttony. Enjoying food is not gluttony. People of all shapes and sizes can be gluttonous. Put out of your mind, entirely, any extra pound anxiety or anger or judgment from yourself or others, because it’s honestly not very helpful.

A fifteenth-century book on discerning vices before confession guides us towards a better understanding of gluttony: “the sin is not in the meat, or drink, but in the appetite & the talent thereof, when thy delight is out of measure therein.” Yet again, we meet a vice about the violation of measure, about healthy amounts of appreciation and practice, about good habits around food. Gluttony consists in a reductive understanding of eating and drinking, shrinking food down to self-gratification in consumption or lack thereof rather than setting it in its rightful place as a social, spiritual, and bodily gift. 

Gluttony shows up in habits like this, according to medieval sources: eating and drinking out of time (like never fasting, or eating out of boredom), outrageously or without measure (overeating, avoiding food when you’re really hungry for reasons like saving money or losing weight), eating greedily without manners, eating only expensive food, and overpickiness or fastidiousness, drinking to insensibility. It also includes food waste, as well as devouring what other people have worked hard for without appreciation or thought. And perhaps most interestingly of all, medieval people categorize gluttony alongside “sins of the tavern,” with other parts of gluttony including swearing, backbiting, lust, fighting, and stealing. Gluttony is closely related to idle talk, boasting, contempt, false modesty, flattery, perjury, chiding and striving, murmuration, and blasphemy. 

There’s this super strong social element to characterizing gluttony. Bad table manners fall under gluttony! Why? From a very practical medieval perspective, repetitive or extreme drunkenness leads to all these sins of the tongue listed above, making gluttony a direct cause. In a passage that made me chuckle, the penitential book Jacob’s Well calls gluttony “the gateway to the sins,” which makes it sound like how people talked about marijuana in the 90s. Gluttony is the gateway drug to a lot of poor behavior. But we can think more holistically for a minute about this social element as well.

Food is a gift from God. The pleasure we get from eating and drinking is also a gift. As usual, we cannot take medieval sources just straight without thinking about them, because in that list this book includes “pleasure in eating” as a very minor sin—nothing that will get you sent straight to Hell, but maybe will earn you a few years in purgatory. Most of us don’t really hold that today, and a lot of medieval people, like St. Thomas Aquinas, would not have either. 

One of my favorite questions to ask people in order to get to know them better is, “what are some of your favorite meals you have had? Who were the people, what was the food, what did it taste like, where did the meal take place?” It brings me joy to just briefly think of mine: 2005, California Pizza Kitchen, barbecue chicken salad, my high school friends driving ourselves on the first day of our senior year of high school and our first day of early release. 2015, early morning, a hospital bed, my newborn in my mom’s arms next to my dad and husband, my favorite tea with cream and honey, and a scone with copious clotted cream. The scholar Robert Kruschwitz describes his journey with Lipton Iced Tea: a glass of iced tea tastes so good to him “because it carries so much of my life.” Human taste is not just based on the food in front of us, it is “based on the integration of sense, circumstance, and activity pleasures… The foods we choose to eat and share with others can become, as Veronika Grimm observes, ‘a gesture or language to communicate intentions, feelings, and attitudes’” (145). Food is part of remembrance, the building of social bonds; it can be an essential part of healing and loving. There’s a reason why we take food to people who are grieving or recovering from surgery. It’s an act of love and care to take cooking responsibilities off their plate, but food physically nourishes our bodies, and sometimes, it can help in our spiritual healing through the times we share it together. 

There’s a lot that could be said here about the Eucharist. God chooses to give himself to us in the shared act of eating. And this idea also drives home the danger in ignoring the full range of nourishing our body and the good there, subordinating it to pleasure or control. Kruschwitz writes that the pleasures of eating can “orient us to knowing and embracing the full good—that is, the good available to us when all things are duly considered. When we are gluttonous, however, they instead disable, distract, or disorient us in relation to the full good.” (145) Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung puts it very well: “Gluttony reduces human life to self-gratification” (164). If avarice, the vice we discussed last week, instrumentalizes and dehumanizes others, perhaps gluttony is instrumentalizing and dehumanizing yourself, boiling all the complexity and gift of your body down to material pleasure and gratification alone. 

In a twist of irony, gluttony actually takes the keen edge off the pleasure and dulls it down. If you’re constantly worrying about calories and losing weight, the pleasure of eating with a friend is considerably diminished. If you’re constantly devouring your food, eating quickly to get it down, you do not appreciate it. Overeating destroys the lasting contentment of a delicious meal taken at the right time and place. Bad table manners are gluttonous because they subordinate caring for others to one’s appetite and destroy the moments of holistic togetherness that appreciating food communally can bring us. And in the end, indiscriminate devouring of food or overly fastidious eating habits end up in the same place: more and more hunger, but less ability to be satisfied. 

The gifts of food and the cruelty of gluttony have a more practical edge as well. Gluttony includes wasteful practices towards food. Food is a finite resource. Though it may seem that there are limitless pringles and an apple always available when you want it, if you’re going to a grocery store, being mindful of what we eat, where we buy it, and how reminds us that for much of the world today and nearly all of history, consuming food was very different. In the Middle Ages, for instance, a bad harvest had immediate impact. The plight of laborers was the plight of you or your next-door neighbor or your servants. Today we mask the plight of the farmer, the impact of the weather, global warming, and so on in our complex global food systems. Yet these issues are still real. Food shortages and disastrous harvests still happen. Yet huge amounts of produce are thrown out all the time here in America because they are not pretty enough to be sold in grocery stores.

It makes sense, then, that the ancient tradition recommends abstinence, or fasting, to combat the vice of gluttony. For those used to thinking about abstinence only in the context of American sex-ed, abstinence here means, in the words of the Summa Virtutum, “the restraint of all illicit impulses… the medicine for all diseases that come from excess” (266). Abstinence becomes a fancier word for restraint. Some of this restraint is just very practical and respectful of your bodily limitations. Restraining yourself when you want to sneakily take the biggest piece of cake for yourself rather than give it to your guest, restraint when you want to eat another bowl of pasta just because you made it and its incredible even though you fully know you are full and would feel bad eating another, restraint when you really want another glass of wine but know it would push you from pleasantly buzzed to full-on drunk. It’s not centering your day around your meals, but including them in the big picture.

Abstinence comes in other forms as well. A culture of avarice and gluttony have combined and the result is that our cheapest food is often the worst for us and for the creatures we live alongside. 

Our insatiable desires for cheap food here in America have led to some very unsustainable and unethical ways of treating both animals and the land. As usual, the poor suffer the most. If we have the income, buying less of certain kinds of food though we enjoy them, or spending a bit more to get less and purchasing from local farms with sustainable practices is another way of combatting gluttony through restraint. I have learned a lot about these ideas from two different friends who are farming and living close to the land (shout out to Goodie and Jack at Bell Farm and Michelle and Joe at Little Way Farm!). 

Fasting, literal fasting, is also another obvious form of abstinence. But this fasting is not the same as fasting as part of a diet. Fasting in a diet may be necessary for medical reasons and be very good for your body. Fasting to combat gluttony and grow in virtue, however, emerges from love. The influential Summa Virtutum argues that “the withdrawal of food is not meritorious unless it is done voluntarily out of love,” and that ideally, fasting should be accompanied by giving the food you would have consumed to the poor. It’s an interesting idea. And it combats the pernicious side-effect of fasting for many people modern and medieval. When we participate in an ostentatiously difficult and notoriously holy practice, like fasting, it can sometimes fuel our pride and satisfaction with ourselves more than anything else. The Summa Virtutum compares the temptation of fasting to the proud holy man of Luke 18, who thanks God that he is not like the sinning, evil tax collector he sees across the street. Bernard of Clairvaux writes of this man, “he is giving thanks not because he is good, but because he is unique.” He’s not merely thankful for his gifts, he is comparing them to someone else’s lack. He’s better. Fasting can lead us to these spiritual temptations if not done in the right time and place. 

Fasting in a spirit of love can provide mental and spiritual clarity, as it has for two thousand years to some of the Christians who have practiced it. And this includes many different kinds of fasting, because not all of us can fully fast. It may be abstaining from chocolate and wine, or it may be skipping breakfast on Fridays, or it may be a full-blown fast. Abundance of food at all times, like abundance of money, can sometimes cause us to lose sight of our utter dependence on God. When we fast, voluntarily abstaining from eating for a period of time, we remember our limitations and our gifts. Fasting disrupts our usual habits. It forces us to pay attention to ideas, feelings, or habits we might ordinarily let slide.

The church itself has also built into itself an ancient tradition of feasts and fasts. We enjoy the body and the pleasures we have through our senses to celebrate the joys of salvation and the good news of the gospel and the wondrous exploits of the people who have followed Jesus. We also fast to remember our limitations, to mourn with those to whom food has lost its savor through suffering or grief, to lament the past, or to focus on spiritual as well as temporal goods. The cycle of feasting and fasting is meant to undermine spiritual complacency in either hypocritical holiness, an unhealthy unrelenting focus on either how bad or how good the world is, or shallow rejoicing and toxic positivity. The two modes of feasting and fasting sharpen one another. DeYoung writes, “Fasting heightens our appreciation for material goods while also keeping this appreciation in its place, with room for the enjoyment of both simple bodily pleasures and spiritual goods.” (184) One of the meals I mentioned earlier, the scone with tea, tasted so very wonderful because I had been fasting (due to said childbirth) for the last twelve or fifteen hours during my labor process. Fasting, in whatever form you partake, is similar to labor in some ways. It’s something rather painful that generates life: in this case, a life more fully aware and in touch with the goodness of bodies and creation.

Perhaps acknowledging gluttony and practicing abstinence looks like this balance and awareness of feast and fast. It’s feasting, drinking and eating really good things, savoring and recognizing them with gusto and joy for the gift they are, with company you love. It’s also abstaining at important times to sharpen your awareness of those gifts, to brighten your sense of your dependence on the gifts of God, and to acknowledge others in hard places.

Next week is the FINAL WEEK of this Lenten series! Perhaps you are rejoicing, ready to not discover what new vicious habits you labor under each week! I know I am, I am eagerly looking forward to Easter. We will consider lust and chastity. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman. I am also around on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace. I’d love to hear from you!

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