There is a grotesque scene in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life in which a hugely corpulent character named Mr Creosote eats a gigantic meal, vomits repeatedly and then, after eating a tiny after dinner mint, explodes. The comedy is completely outrageous, but you can’t miss the explicitly revolting depiction of gluttony.
Being heavy is not always caused by gluttony, nor does one need to be enormously obese to be guilty of gluttony. St Thomas Aquinas (who was himself overweight) defined five forms of gluttony: 1. eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly 2. eating food that is excessive in quantity 3. eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared 4. eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time 5. eating too eagerly. Gluttony includes any form of addiction. Drug abuse, caffeine or sugar addictions and alcoholism are forms of gluttony, but so is any inordinate attachment to food and drink. Similarly C.S.Lewis (who knew how to down a few pints of beer) points out than being overly fussy about food and drink can also be a form of gluttony. A person who insists on their steak being done “just so” then complains and rejects it is also placing too much selfish attention on food.
We think of gluttony as socially unattractive, but a sophisticated person dining daintily at a fine restaurant may very well be guilty of gluttony because they love their food and drink too much. Indeed, a connoisseur may be a very refined glutton.
Gluttony is a deadly sin not because it is unattractive but because there is a deeper problem. The glutton uses food for something other than its proper intention. Food is given for our nourishment, our enjoyment and for the fellowship of sharing with others. The glutton uses food simply to give himself pleasure or comfort. Think of a baby with a bottle. Not only does he gain nourishment, but he enjoys a feeling of comfort and relief from the warm drink. It’s okay for babies, but we’re supposed to outgrow the need for comfort food, and we shouldn’t need to rely on inebriation of alcohol or the false high of drugs to find the peace and happiness we long for.
To put it plainly, the glutton seeks in food, alcohol or drugs the comfort, and sense of well being and happiness that he should find in a strong relationship with God and a life of true goodness, truth and beauty. That is why the lively virtue that counters the deadly vice of gluttony is temperance.
The seventeenth century poet Thomas Traherne wrote, “Can a man be just unless he loves all things according to their worth?” Temperance is that virtue that empowers us to see the good in all things and to love them without being inordinately attached. Temperance in our consumption of food and drink also helps us to establish temperance in our relationship to other material things in life.
A person who is gluttonous is also likely to be greedy. The person who seeks comfort, peace and happiness in food and drink probably also clings to material things hoping to find security, peace and happiness. By exercising the virtue of temperance in the area of food and drink we will also find victory over our inordinate attachment to our money and possessions.
Temperance is the virtue that allows us to enjoy food and drink to the full, but avoids excess realizing that to abuse the gift is to destroy it. Temperance is therefore gratitude in action. By enjoying God’s gifts in the right proportion and in the right relationship to all things we are saying “Thanks” to God and living in the abundant life he promises.
Editor’s note: This is the second part in an eight part series exploring the Seven Deadly Sins. Check back each Wednesday and read previous articles here.