Wednesday, March 08, 2006

First Meditation: On Gluttony

"I shall speak first about control of the stomach, the opposite of gluttony, and about how to fast and what and how much to eat. I shall say nothing on my own account, but only what I have received from the Holy Fathers. They have given us only a single rule for fasting or a single standard and measure for eating, because not everyone has the same strength ; age, illness or delicacy of body create differences. But they have given us all a single goal: to avoid overeating and the filling of our bellies." St. John Cassian, "On the Eight Vices," Philokalia (ed. Ware et al).

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Few things bring such a sense of sensual pleasure than a good meal. It is attended with such conviviality, with celebrations such as weddings, birthdays and even funerals. Whatever the event, we can usually count on a generous provision of food. Food seems to make its way even into some of the less social aspects of our daily lives-somehow a movie or a show is enjoyed much more with a sandwich or some other snack.

St. John Cassian points us to the true and most essential aspect of food. Like other things, it is directed towards a goal-the nourishment of the body. But gluttony, by its very nature, subverts this purpose. Instead of nourishing and strengthening him for the service of God, food, through gluttony, is turned to other purposes-the gratifying of the flesh, and what the Apostle calls the "pride of life."

Dante's Divine Comedy reveals the true essence of this sin, as those lost souls in the circle of the gluttons partake of a cold mouthfull of mud and muck. In Dante's hell, this sin is devoid of all the conviviality that attends it in this life, and all we are left with is what Dame Dorothy Sayers called a "cold sensuality, a sodden and filthy spiritual wretchedness." The images of the three-headed dog Cerberus, ravenously eating the miry much that Dante's guide, Virgil, throws at him, and the unfortunate character Ciacco, condemned to this state for eternity, drive home to us the animal-like nature of this vice. In hell, gluttony is no longer fun.

St. John Cassian gives the remedy-the holy discipline of fasting. He is careful, of course, to point out that there is no "single rule" for everyone, thus revealing the reasonableness of the patristic genius. There is, however, one goal to our fasting, which our holy father St. John Cassian lays down as "do not be deceived by the filling of the belly." The identification of gluttony with deception is quite intruiging here. Ultimately, gluttony is a deceives us into thinking that we need sensual stimulation and satisfaction as replacements for our one true need-God.

Often I must ask myself whether or not I need what I want to eat. But this is a question I often don't want to ask myself. Why, after all, ask probing questions about my motivations that will simply "rain on my parade," and a good feast? St. John Cassian gives a sober answer-THAT YOU BE NOT DECEIVED!

Perhaps when we engage in gluttonous activities, we are open to a great deal of other passions, which derail us from our main goal of uniting ourselves to Him who is our ultimate source of being, the One who wishes to bring us to a higher realm of complete humanity and fulfillment that comes only through sanctification (theosis). Instead, we are deceived into thinking that nothing is higher than our own sensual pleasures and desires. The gluttonous spirit is nothing else than the spirit of self-indulgence, the root of which goes back to the sin of our first parents. It is no accident, I think, that the first sin involved food.

But our deification also involves food-bread and wine, transformed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of the God-Man Christ, who is our bread of life. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann, rightly observed, man needs many things, but his first and primary need is for God. Fasting brings about self-control, and helps us to see that behind all our hungers, there is a deeper hunger still-the hunger for God.

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