It had not always been this bad. There were days, not long ago, that he had food aplenty and friends as well. But now that was all past. The feasts were over and the friends gone. All that indulgence, the rich food and the flowing wine, did nothing to build up friendships. Now he just looked at the swine and longed to eat his fill of the pods on which they fed. But nobody gave him any. Thus the Prodigal Son’s dissolute life left him, in the end, both hungry and alone.
“Gluttony” comes from the Latin gluttio – to gulp down. It is the action characteristic of the glutton, who devours his food and drink with little or no thought to health, decorum, or those around him. Our appetite for food and drink is a good thing, of course, and should be obeyed. But precisely because food and drink are so necessary, we must control our appetite for them all the more. Gluttony is the lack of restrictions on that appetite. This vice sets in when we desire the pleasure of eating and drinking more than food and drink, when we no longer see them as a means to end but as an end in themselves.
In The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer describes gluttony as the five fingers of the devil’s hand dragging us into sin. His image of five fingers comes from what seems to have been a well known list of forms of gluttony. Saint Thomas Aquinas gives this list in a little doggerel: “Hastily, sumptuously, excessively, greedily, daintily.” These are the five ways we can be gluttonous — as much today as in the middle ages.
Hastily — when we jump into our food without waiting for others. Our desire for the pleasure of food makes us rude and discourteous. Sumptuously — when we eat foods that are too costly, more than we can afford or than is reasonable. Excessively — when we eat more than we need or than we can literally stomach. Eventually this compromises our health and, again, displays a rudeness to others, to those upon whom our ill health becomes a burden. Greedily — “like a pig,” we say, when we eat in a less than human manner, more attentive to food than to others at the table.
Then the last of the five fingers (perhaps it is the pinky): daintily. This describes the fussy, picky eater who inconveniences others by his insistence on all his food being just so. No, this person does not overeat — heaven, forbid! But his constant questioning about the ingredients, correcting of waiters, sending dishes back, turns the focus of a meal from the company to the food every bit as much as the other forms.
Notice then how gluttony abuses the good not only of food and drink, but also of community. Every civilization has tried to elevate the act of eating — from just satiating the body or pleasing the palate, to something more noble, more human. We intuit that for man a meal should be more than feeding. It should be a time of communion. Sharing a meal expresses the sharing of lives. Being at table with someone indicates intimacy.
Gluttony blinds a person to those at table with him. The food is the thing for him, not the company. Gluttony turns what should be a social occasion, an opportunity for conversation and sharing, into feeding time. It brings us to the painful situation of eating alone…in front of one another. For the glutton, eating is a mere physical activity. If others are present it is simply because they too need to eat. Worst of all, the glutton cannot appreciate the significance of a sacred meal such as the Last Supper…or the Mass. He cannot lift his eyes from the plate to loftier, more sacred things. So as much as the glutton feasts he, like the Prodigal Son, does not find himself closer to people. He winds up more alone.
Much if not most of our society has this animalistic habit of eating. With our ubiquitous fast food restaurants, on-the-go eating, all night diners (do we really need to eat at any hour?) and all-you-can-eat buffets…we do not dine with one another so much as we graze as a herd. It is the eating itself, not the benefit of body and community, that we seek.
We correct this vice by deliberately attacking it through abstinence — some kind of fasting from food and drink. Perhaps this can can the form of fasting one day every week (yes, even outside of Lent). Maybe it could be a “fast food fast,” keeping away from unhealthy food and an unhealthy manner of eating. Or making a sacrifice at every meal. Something as simple as a little less salt or a smaller serving can help discipline our appetite to obey our will…and not the other way around.
Finally, say grace before meals. And do not rush through it. Certainly we should do this for reasons of piety and thanksgiving. It also has the effect of making us pause before we eat…slowing down our pace. Most of all, it reminds us that all natural food is a sign of that celestial food that alone satisfies both soul and body…that the body’s appetite points to our deeper longing — to be seated at the feast in the Father’s house.
This post is the seventh in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia