Friday, April 3, 2009

Lent Special - Seven Deadly sins - No.3


Evagrius of Pontus, a Christian monk and ascetic whose ideas may have inspired St John Cassian's list of eight sins, gives us a very poetic, but comprehensive definition of the sin of gluttony: "Gluttony is the mother of lust, the nourishment of evil thoughts, laziness in fasting, obstacle to asceticism, terror to moral purpose, the imagining of food, sketcher of seasonings, unrestrained colt, unbridled frenzy, receptacle of disease, envy of health, obstruction of the (bodily) passages, groaning of the bowels, the extreme of outrages, pollution of the intellect, weakness of the body, difficult sleep, and gloomy death."

Proverbs 23:20-21 warns us not to "join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags." Proverbs 28:7 declares that "he who keeps the law is a discerning son, but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father." Proverbs 23:2 advises us to "put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony" and though that might seem a little too extreme, it is definitely indicative of how severely God views the sin of gluttony.

Why is gluttony a sin, though? Because gluttony is more than simply overeating. It is abusing God's gifts. Food, which is one gift, is necessary for good health, but when we overeat we abuse it and harm our bodies, which is another gift. Secondarily, gluttony leads to other sins like sloth. Daniel (of the den of lions fame) understood that.

King Nebuchadnezzar had once sent his army into Jerusalem. After securing a tremendous victory, they returned to Babylon with a bunch of prisoners in tow, among whom was Daniel. Soon after, Nebuchadnezzar instructed his ministers to select handsome, healthy and intelligent young men from among the captives and bring them to the palace in order to teach them Babylonian culture and traditions, so that they could be of use in his service. Daniel was one of those who were chosen.

Right off, Daniel faced a problem. Nebuchadnezzar had dictated that the new trainees were to be served the same food and wine that was served on the royal table. While this would have flattered most young men, Daniel was aghast. He was a vegetarian who drank only water and he resolved to consume nothing the king was offering. Why? Not merely because the food would probably have been offered to idols (a good enough reason for him to refuse), but because the richness of the food would have led to laziness, which in turn would have ended his powerful prayer life. Ever try praying on a full stomach? (Or anything else for that matter?)

A God Sized Hole

All of us are born with a big gaping hope within us. It's a hole that God himself placed so that we would search for Him and find Him. Some of us don't realize this, however, and try to fill the emptiness with food, alcohol, sex, tobacco, anti-depressants, and other things of the world. This hole, however, is a God-sized hole, and the only thing that can fill a God-sized hole is God Himself, which means that anything else that we do simply won't compensate. The belly may be stuffed, but the heart is hollow.

What's Eating You?

How empty are your hearts? Your eating habits may reveal a lot. What do you do when you are seated at the dining table? Do you pile your plate with food, then without a glance to see if everybody else has served themselves, begin attacking your food and don't say a word until you have finished eating? Do you take second and third servings?

Do you eat at the wrong time or when you aren't hungry? Are you fussy about the food that is laid on the table? Does everything have to be made just the way you like it? Does rice, for instance, have to be the best of Basmati with each grain unbroken and separate from the next? Do you insist on having the best of everything?

Do you snack constantly? When you are at a friend's house and the snack tray goes around, do you pick something from it each and every time it passes you by? Do you try to ensure it ends up close to you?

Do you tell yourself that it is okay to overindulge sometimes? For instance at a wedding party where a huge buffet is laid out with an array of mouth watering delicacies, each one more tempting than the next, do you let yourself go? Or when you are at restaurant that has a special "All you can eat" offer: do you believe it is okay—nay, necessary—to eat three times what you normally would simply because you want to make the most of a good deal? Do you ever give thought that there may be consequences to your health because of what you do?

We probably don't read too much into some of these things, but they are all indicative of gluttony, which in turn may reveal the emptiness within you. There is a saying that the way through a man's heart is through his stomach, which may very well be true, but not only for a woman to exploit; Satan takes advantage of this too. He used food to tempt Adam and Eve! "So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate" (Genesis 3:6).

He tried to use food to tempt Jesus too. After His baptism in the River Jordan, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where He fasted. After fasting for forty days He was obviously hungry and Satan, who is ever ready to exploit a situation to his advantage, was right there next to Him: "If you are the Son of God," he tempted Jesus, "tell these stones to become bread." Jesus knew better than to fall for his tricks. He answered, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (cf Matthew 4:34). He was saying that it isn't only food that fills us, but God's word too. Do we fill ourselves with it?

It is not only reading it and memorizing what God says that fills us, however, but doing what God tells us to do as well. After speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, His apostles returned with food and offered Him some, but He said He had already eaten. Confused, they wondered who might have brought him food. Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work" (John 4:34).

The Virtue: Temperance

The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess, helping us to control and moderate our appetites, be it for food, drink or anything else. Intemperance brings about an arrest of emotional development. Have you ever taken a little child into a toy shop? S/he will drive you crazy by his/her demands believing s/he needs everything s/he sees! Jesus tells us to be like children, but not like spoiled little children. There is nothing appealing about a spoiled child. That's what we become like when we are intemperate, demanding our desires be fulfilled. When we are slaves of our desires, we cannot exercise our free will, which leads to an inability to cultivate other virtues. Temperance, however, allows us to become the people God created us to be, spiritually and morally beautiful.

How do we control gluttony? Fasting and mortification usually helps, and both these can be done without damaging one's health. On the contrary, going on a diet that comprises only fruit juice for a week (or longer) can actually be beneficial to health, as also giving up meats, sweets and other things that we might be very fond of and think we can't live without.

What really helps, however, is addressing the basic root of the problem which is the emptiness of the heart that only God can fill. He has something beautiful to fill it with - the Holy Spirit. We have already met the Samaritan woman in the well (see Lust). She was emotionally empty, and tried to fill herself with the love of men, but she went through five husbands without getting what she craved for. She was hoping number six would do the trick, but as Jesus told her: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14).

In other words, we can do whatever we want to fill the emptiness in our lives, but the only thing that truly can is God.

The Gift: Fortitude

There is a very powerful passage in Paul's letter to the Corinthians where he speaks about "beating" his body, a euphemism for getting his body under his control. "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24 NIV).

Many of us are slaves to our body. The instant we feel hungry, we look for something to put into our bellies. The moment we feel a little warm under the collar, we turn the air conditioner on. The minute we feel thirsty, we're reaching for the soda can. We need to make our body our slaves, bringing it into subjugation to us. The gift of fortitude helps us in this task.

To quote Pope John Paul II again, he writes that "when, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we experience "the weakness of the flesh", or rather, of human nature subject to physical and psychological infirmities, we should ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of Fortitude to remain firm and decisive on the path of goodness. Then we will be able to repeat with St Paul: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (1 Corinthians 12:10).

May the Spirit be with you.


No comments: