Pesky Vice No. 1 – Gluttony

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork

Sunday, September 24, 2006 – 

Every concern is tyrannical, and wants our whole heart and our whole mind and our whole strength. Every concern tries to become our ultimate concern, our god.

– Paul Tillich

Moderation in all things.

– Terence

Reading: Real Sin, Margaret B. Brehmer

What do they know of sin?

The church, the zealots

or even those wordy, earnest

and often pretentious writers?

What is more satisfying than Pride?

Not that false notion of superiority

so often used to justify abuse

But the recognition of something

worthwhile, well done. That is rewarding.

What could be more luxurious than Sloth?

More fun than Lust? Or gluttony –

reaching out, grabbing for more,

always more passions, skills to conquer,

new friends, never enough of time

or strength. Greed without restraint.

Anger, Despair and Envy we do not choose.

They lurk within, attack without warning.

Avarice might actually be a sin

worthy of the name. To satisfy

an insatiable desire for wealth,

people are willing to enslave others,

turn against their brothers,

lie, cheat, lose their lives.

Endlessly unsatisfied, they grope

in darkness to understand why.

Avarice is its own reward.

Real sin, I suggest, is Indifference.

Indifference to suffering or need,

to opportunity, to joy or beauty as well.

And how about the reverse, Zeal?

That irrational devotion

that leads blindly to violence?

Give me a few Hail Marys or good deeds

to atone for all the others, but God help me

to turn away from either Indifference or Zeal.

Pesky Vice No. 1 – Gluttony: The Rev. Alison Cornish

So, whatever inspired this Unitarian Universalist to imagine a series of sermons focused on the Seven Deadly Sins? First of all, there’s the problem of theological heritage – the Seven Deadly were first named in the 6th century by Pope Gregory the Great – not exactly someone Unitarian Universalists would call our ‘spiritual ancestor.’ And then there’s the problem of language – sin – what do we do with that word? Finally, with all the dire and pressing problems the world offers us each day – wars, poverty, planetary degradation – why spend our precious time together nosing around in the arcane and odd corridors of these ancient ‘deadlies?’

Though religion has changed considerably since the 6th century, we humans, apparently, have not. That’s what leads writers and artists of all persuasions to return to the subject of the Seven Deadly Sins over and over again. A few years back, the New York Public Library initiated a lecture and book series on the Deadly Seven. Their purpose, in the words of the series’ editor, was ‘to invite scholars and writers to chart the ways we have approached and understood evil, one deadly sin at a time.’ The editor continues:

Our contemporary fascination with these age-old sins, our struggle against,

or celebration of, them, reveals as much about our continued desire to define

human nature as it does about our divine aspirations. (Prose, ix-x)

The subject of sin itself, of course, has a long and colorful history – one that takes time well beyond the space we have this morning. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me say what I mean when I use the word, with or without the modifying ‘deadly.’ One of the many definitions of sin is to ‘fall short of the mark.’ I know that I fall well short of the mark fairly regularly. For me, using the word sin helps to remind me that when I fall short, it’s more than making a mistake that will simply evaporate, or that the harm done is confined to just me. When I use the word sin, I’m talking about falling out of right relationship – with myself, with others, and with God. My shortcomings effect, and are effected by, larger forces. That’s one individual Unitarian Universalist lens that I hope to use in speaking about the Seven Deadly Sins – they’re not just about our personal choices, but who we are, and what we do, in relation to all other beings.

It is in that spirit – as a reflection on vice, on virtue, the spiritual and the human – that I offer this first in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Today – we dive into gluttony. Next time? Well, stay tuned.

The common definition of gluttony is to eat, gloriously, generously, wildly, to the point of being so stuffed that one simply cannot eat any more. Think – All-you-can-eat buffets. Supersize me fast food options. Even the ritualistic Thanksgiving dinner. No ‘portion control’ here. For some, these gluttonous moments are an occasional indulgence, and for others, a regular compulsion.

The problem with seeing gluttony as a matter simply of quantity is that, well, it’s not really the whole story. First of all, it leaves too many of us out of the picture. There’s not much purpose in talking about deadly sins if it’s always about someone other than us. That inimitable food writer, M.F.K. Fisher wrote, ‘It is a curious fact that no man likes to call himself a glutton, and yet each of us has in him a trace of gluttony, potential or actual. I cannot believe that there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to bursting point on anything from quail financiere to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly.’ (Prose, 83-84)

The early Christians would be surprised at our take of gluttony to be primarily about the quantity of food consumed. For them, the sin of gluttony was one of degree – not the degree of excessive consumption, but excessive appetite, desire and attention – in other words, a fixation on food. In fact, for Christians right through the Middle Ages, the principal danger of gluttony was that it represented a form of idolatry – of, excuse the pun, literally navel gazing. When the consumption of food, and all that entailed, became so important that it crowded out other, presumably more important concerns, that was considered gluttony. It makes sense, really, in a culture that wavered back and forth between feast and famine. Everyone must have overeaten when they could, when the food was available. Instead of too much, the medieval sin of gluttony was closer to the words of Paul Tillich quoted at the top of your order of service, every concern tries to become our ultimate concern, our god. If food was your ultimate concern, than gluttony was your sin.

I actually find this early definition to be helpful in meditating on the modern day versions of gluttony. If we limit our concept of gluttony only to quantity, we’re in an immediate quagmire. Modern (and I should add primarily Western, economically well-off) society has a complicated relationship with food, but it does seem that how much we eat is often at the heart of the matter. Eat, eat, eat! Cry the advertisements. Diet, diet, diet! Respond the other advertisements. Obesity kills more Americans! Cry the headlines. Anorexia is the on the rise! say the news anchors. Be thin and beautiful! promise the magazines. If there’s any industry that is invested in keeping us in a constant state of agitation and confusion, all the while selling us something, it’s the food industry. And a lot has to do with how much – or how little – we should eat.

What we eat, and how much, and why, is a complex subject that needs expertise I don’t have. Sorting that out is the work of others. I don’t want to in any way suggest that the food disorders and other illnesses that afflict so many people are not real – they are. Fortunately there is an ever growing understanding of the connections and conflicts between the needs of the body and the demands of the mind. But there’s more to this subject than the quantity of food that we feed our bodies. Because we are human animals, we must eat to live. Yet most of us would agree that eating is about more than consuming calories. What about the hungers of the spirit? Where does the vice of gluttony intersect the needs of the soul?

Ironically, I have come to understand more about gluttony by considering its diametrically opposed partner, fasting. It’s a good time to take a look at the practices of fasting. For both the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur next week, and the Muslim celebration of Ramadan beginning this weekend, fasting is central.

Ramadan is the month-long celebration of the Angel Gabriel’s first visitation to the prophet Mohammed, and when the Koran was sent as a guide. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from consuming any food or drink from daybreak to sundown. In the poetic language of the tradition, ‘eat and drink until the white thread, the first rays of light, finds its way through the horizon, the black thread.’ The fast is broken at sundown, when families and friends visit one another and offer hospitality and shared meals.

The Yom Kippur fast of the Jewish high holy days is a 25-hour fast that begins with a ‘final meal’ before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur, and ends after nightfall on day of Yom Kippur. The fast is broken either at the synagogue, or at a gathering in someone’s home.

Abstaining from food for proscribed periods is one aspect of fasting. But, of course, there’s another element to religious fasting, and that’s the intentional connection to the spirit. For Jews celebrating Yom Kippur, abstaining from the pleasure of food is meant to improve one’s ability to focus on repentance, or to ‘afflict the soul.’ For Muslims, fasting includes the element of niyyah, or intention. Niyyah for fasting means to be in more complete relationship with Allah. The act of abstinence is not meant to starve you; it is an act of worship.

Religious fasting, whatever its tradition, includes some common elements, and this is where I see a connection, a mirror image, to the vice of gluttony. Fasting calls us to break familiar habits. So much of our eating pattern is habitual. For most well-fed Americans, the ‘hunger’ that we feel at mealtimes is simply a result of our bodies preparing to receive food at the expected time. Interrupting these patterns periodically allows us to be in more direct touch with our real feelings of hunger and satisfaction. Anytime we can interrupt a habitual pattern, we experience a renewal of our life force, a connection to the spirit.

Fasting also cultivates virtues that are direct challenges to gluttony. When fasting, one develops patience, tenacity, and firmness in the face of adversity. At least, that’s what one might hope for. At one point in my life, I decided to fast once a week. Actually, it wasn’t my idea – but a friend of mine wanted company in trying to lose weight, and she decided that forgoing eating once a week would be her method. I had no weight to lose (back then), so, with no small amount of trepidation, I agreed to do it.

In fact, I was petrified of such a proposition. For as long as I could remember, every time I had gotten ravenously hungry, my mood had rapidly deteriorated. When I ran out of food in my system, I would get irritable, even irrational, and then I’d start to panic. I would become unable to make decisions about how to counteract the descent into more hunger, and my sole focus would become – me – and my desperate state. When my friend proposed that we start our fasting, I was just beginning to write my masters thesis – it seemed a foolish thing to do, to jeopardize my working time on this massive project with a looming deadline by joining in fasting. But I did.

This is how we fasted. After dinner on Tuesdays, we drank only water, fruit juice and vegetable bouillon for the next 22 hours. At first I found this to be nearly impossible.

My stomach would start to growl, and I could feel my impatience and panic begin to rise Ö but then I’d drink some water, and the hunger would subside enough that I could focus on my work. It amazed me how little it took to keep me away from that edge.

And contrary to my expectations, I had at least as much energy as I did eating regular meals – though, granted, I was sitting and writing, not engaged in physical labor. I did learn patience and tenacity, and those lessons are still with me today. When the demands of my body, and the whining of my self, try to take over, I have some means to make them recede.

The evening meal that Val and I would prepare together at the end of the day – we found that we didn’t need to eat a lot, nor did we need excessive flavors. Somehow, the first bites of whatever we were having sang in our mouths like the darkest chocolate we were both so fond of Ö even if it was just boiled potatoes. There is nothing like a fast to bring real appreciation for basic sustenance, and an awareness of the fullness of the present moment. We don’t need of food to experience satisfaction.

It was at this same time, in graduate school, that I lived side by side with Muslim men and women for the first time. It was new to most of us to hear our dormitory neighbors intoning prayers in their rooms. When Ramadan came that year, it was in the midst of northern England’s summer, with daylight that lasted from the early hours of the morning to nearly 10:00 p.m. I felt viscerally for these friends, most of them from Algeria, where the days and nights are more evenly divided, and the daily fast would not have lasted so long. Without the experience of fasting myself, I don’t know that I would have felt such solidarity with them.

Fasting offer us lessons that we learn through out bodies, not just our minds. We do so much eating unthinkingly – another form of gluttony, to me – and fasting counters that. Using my body to better understand the discipline of self restraint is very different from simply employing my will. I find now that I see certain food issues in a different way – how celebrations can be so excessive that the well-meaning but extreme indulgence cancels out my appreciation and pleasure. Many people have used the discipline of fasting to experience solidarity with the poor, letting themselves feel hunger rather than simply reading about it. And once one has experienced fasting, it’s hard to see good food go to waste in quite the same way.

One writer, trying to get to the bottom of the sin of gluttony, asks ‘who does gluttony hurt besides the glutton?’ In other words, is gluttony a personal sin, or a sin against society? We happen to live in a part of the world where food is relatively plentiful, and given our cost of living, also relatively affordable – which is not to say that there aren’t plenty of people in our own neighborhoods who go hungry. Yet we are connected with the whole story of food around this planet. If we overconsume species that are suffering depletion; if we genetically modify seeds to increase yields, only to adversely effect the surrounding environment; and if we insist on buying foods that cost their weight in petroleum products to be trucked, flown and shipped from afar; yes, we are gluttons that hurt far more than ourselves. This is most definitely a sin – in the words of theologian Sally McFague, sin is a refusal to understand and accept the limitations of our place within the universe. At the heart of sin, she says, is the activity of living out of proportion, or falsely, in relation to our proper place. Gluttony fits the bill.

The sin of gluttony and the virtue of fasting call us to find a balance in our consuming. We must eat to live, but too often, we live to eat. Sometimes we crave what we do not need. Oftentimes we make food into an idol, crowding out other concerns. Frequently, we eat unthinkingly, from habit. Too often, we forget that what we eat is connected to the whole of the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part. So, let us learn from this autumnal season – balance – and from this Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur – a time for turning – and from our Muslim sisters and brothers – solidarity with one another, and fortitude – May we live in harmony, may we make life anew, and may we choose to live in care and affection with one another.

References: Francine Prose, Gluttony (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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