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November 8, 2009

To be a glutton is to live, act without principle

By Joe Paprocki


My wife and I once went on a wonderful cruise to the Caribbean. For three days, we enjoyed rest and relaxation and all the amenities that come with a cruise package, not the least of which are some sumptuous meals.

One of these meals turned out to be a huge celebration on the last night of the cruise. In addition to the lively music and the flowing drinks, there was the most enormous spread of food that I have ever seen in my life, epitomized by its centerpiece: a huge roasted pig with an apple in its mouth.

As I gazed upon this roasted porky pig, I suddenly felt embarrassed by the extravagance. When it occurred to me that a large quantity of this food would most likely be wasted, my embarrassment turned to guilt. I had no doubt that those of us on the cruise were venturing perilously close to the road that leads to gluttony.

More than food

Unfortunately, the sin of gluttony has often been represented in artist’s depictions as an obese individual, suggesting that gluttony is strictly the sin of overweight people. Obesity is indeed a serious physical condition. However, one does not need to be overweight to suffer from the sin of gluttony that is basically a propensity for overindulgence.

To be a glutton is to lack the ability to recognize common sense limits. It is to live and act without principle resulting in wastefulness. It is to squander resources.

In essence, gluttony is the antithesis of good Christian stewardship, which recognizes that the abundance of God’s creation is intended for all of God’s children. I couldn’t help but think that the overabundance of food at that cruise party was a withholding of food from those who are poor.

Gluttony is often treated as solely an individual sin, referring to one person’s inability to control his or her desire for food and or drink among other pleasures. We need to recognize, however, the gluttonous nature of the society that we live in here in the United States — a culture that is obsessed with food.

We eat, not just because we are hungry, but because we are sad, lonely, angry or bored. We eat quickly and we often eat alone. In essence, our relationship with food is disordered.

Steps toward control

Our physical appetites can be controlled. For that reason, the ability to control one’s desire for food and drink has traditionally been seen as the first step to practicing self-control in larger matters. For centuries, monasteries have directed novices to practice fasting as the first step toward developing self-discipline in spiritual matters.

Our inability to control our physical desires for food and drink can be reflective of our inability to control other desires and habits, especially those of the mind and heart. Conversely, the first step toward controlling unhealthy habits of the mind is to practice control of physical desires.

Another word for this type of discipline or self control is temperance. It is the virtue we turn to in order to combat gluttony. Temperance teaches us to “eat to live instead of live to eat.”

Is it at all surprising that Jesus’ first temptation in the desert was for food? Or that Jesus can be placed at 10 meals in the Gospel of Luke alone? In fact, Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7:34).

Jesus knew that, as human beings, we have a hunger that goes beyond the physical. In order to speak to that inner hunger, however, Jesus often began by addressing the issue of physical hunger.

Gluttony is a sin because it focuses all of our attention on our bodily hunger and prevents us from getting in touch with our spiritual hunger that only God can satisfy. It is no accident, then, that Jesus chose to share himself with us as food: the Eucharist.

The very heart of Catholic life — the Eucharist — speaks to the notion of a spiritual hunger that can be satisfied only by the Bread of Life.

As we seek inspiration to overcome the temptation of gluttony, we turn to Jesus who satisfies our hungry hearts:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35. RSV).

Paprocki is author of “The Bible Blueprint: A Catholic’s Guide to Understanding and Embracing God’s Word.”