From the tenor of my reflections on the seven deadly sins, the careless reader might think I’m playing devil’s advocate — or, even worse, that I’ve pumped up my ego to the point where I think I can compete with C. S. Lewis. In fact, the only Lewis I’m hoping to emulate is Jerry. (Stay tuned for my YouTube hagiography of St. Jerome, The Nutty Confessor.)
No, I’m not channeling Screwtape. In admitting to a certain wistfulness about each of the deadly sins, I speak on behalf of natural man — let’s call him Mr. Natural — who chafes at the burden of grace, who learns that his moral choices have eternal repercussions, and mutters about it into his Michelob. And who can blame him?
Consider the Four Last Things: death, judgment, hell, heaven. Three out of four are creepy, and the fourth is unimaginable — so your mind tends to linger on the others. I mean, we’ve all seen horror movies, and can picture those kinds of things happening to our souls, and then our resurrected bodies . . . forever. Conversely, I’ve seen just a few Beatitude movies, and most of those involved Robin Williams in some capacity.
The first time the truth about hell and judgment sank in, I remember exactly how I felt: like a tourist at Vegas, who’d sat in on what he thought was a “friendly game” of poker — then it dawned on him he was playing at the high-stakes table against a bunch of hit men for the Mob.
Having stuck up, successively, for Sloth, Lust, and Wrath, I’ve been agonizing over what comes next. This close to our nation’s elections, I don’t want to look partisan. If I rise in defense of Greed, it might seem I’m endorsing a straight Republican ticket. If I stick up for Envy — well, that just helps the Democrats. I could take up the cudgels for Pride, but that would only cater to third-party cranks like me, who sniffily stand above petty constructs like “reality.”
Which pretty much leaves Gluttony — a universal human trait that transcends political category, crosses ethnic and ecclesiastical boundaries, and knits together the whole human family in a vast feeding frenzy and drinking game. From the pudgiest telemarketer scarfing down his third plate of bacon at Shoney’s, to the daintiest gourmet losing her kids in the aisles at Whole Food as she scrutinizes the labels in search of heresy — no one’s left out. We have all heard the elegant cliché, “Less is more.” And we all know it’s bunk. More is more. As in, “Pour me just one more for the road.”
At first glance, it might seem that Christian strictures on Gluttony are fairly light. According to the usually hard-line St. Thomas Aquinas, we aren’t supposed to eat or drink so much that we make ourselves sick or crazy. To which we might say, “Er, okay.” It sounds more like straightforward advice we could get from a personal trainer — or a loving request from a long-time spouse, who has wearied of peeling a husband off a barstool, or prying a wife with grease and a crowbar out of the tub.
But the Faith is not so simple, nor the Good News so pleasant to hear. The Angelic Doctor was himself such a hearty eater that St. Francis Xavier, the apostle of Asia, used to call his magnum opus the Sumo Theologiae. (All documentation for this claim has, sadly, been lost.) No wonder St. Thomas looked past simple quantity when he considered the sorts of sins one might commit with a knife and fork. As the old Catholic Encyclopedia sums up his teaching, St. Thomas warned against eating or drinking:
- Too soon
- Too expensively
- Too eagerly
- Too much
- Too daintily
“Too soon” probably made the list out of deference to harried medieval mothers, who were tired of the little ones ripping chunks of half-cooked meat from the roasting boar, or digging prematurely into the stew of “Fretted Badger.” Translated for modern Christians, this item of Thomist Powerpoint calls to mind the point at which, during a drawn-out, 45-minute liturgy, your meditation on the Eucharistic meal gives way to fantasies of brunch. Behold the Eggs of Benedict. . .
“Too expensively” requires a more complex moral calculus. There’s no Church law that sets what percentage of your budget you ought to spend for food. Irritatingly, this question is left to our best judgment. Which frequently fails — for instance, when we spend most of our after-tax income eating out or ordering in. I’m fond of Starbucks, more as a company than for its coffee; how many other coffee shops offer health insurance and help with tuition? But I can’t help thinking that most of my readers are spending a little bit more than they should when they pay five bucks for a cup of low-caf, demi-soy foppacino.
“Too eagerly” seems less an issue of morals than of manners. There are inbuilt, biomechanical constraints to how fast human hands can safely wield sharp pieces of cutlery, and the palate ingest pieces of food, without someone losing an eye — or talking with his mouth full. A blatant disregard of this Thomistic injunction, if pursued with Kantian rigor, would lead to a nation of blind and fingerless citizens groping with nubby palms for scraps, and conversing in staccato bursts of “Urmph,” “Kmmmtrrimmle,” and “Yerrtz.” I know whereof I speak: The Zmirak family in 1999 laid out and gobbled up an eight-course Thanksgiving dinner in 17 minutes. (Yes, I timed it. I’m just that kind of guy.)
“Too much” is more than obvious. It’s patriotic. If you look at our nation’s obesity statistics, there’s nothing more American than a middle-aged spread, acquired some time during middle school. This form of individual expansion — let’s call it “personal growth” — can be seen less as a sign of sedentary consumption than a citizen’s quest to attain his Manifest Destiny. To claim your share of space in that elevator and burst forth from the constraints of a 34 waistband or coach seat on an airplane. If you notice in the mirror that you have become a tad too . . . Chestertonian, it pays to remember this: It isn’t your fault. Your body was built to store up reserves of energy to provide for time of famine. Is it your fault our country isn’t starving? Unless you’re a farmer, the answer is no.
“Too daintily” tends to cluster around the upper-upper middle class, although it’s increasingly open to upper middles — they’ll let in just anybody nowadays, won’t they? If it’s solidly Red-State and blue-collar to let your waistline go to pot, it’s deeply Blue to spend more time avoiding calories than consuming them. Leave aside personal vanity and the hunger for a vampire-like earthly immortality. There are thousands of Americans who crave to climb the ladder of social class by developing sensitive palates, who think that by learning to smell the difference between Breton Salt and Himalayan, they somehow make up for the fact that their student loans exceed their incomes. These folks are called Foodies, so named because the rest of us would gladly feed them to alligators.
Even if we avoid all the pitfalls laid out above, we are still not off the hook. According to common tradition, it is actually a sin to eat for pleasure. That’s right. The Encyclopedists I cited above explain, in the following sobering passage:
It is incontrovertible that to eat or drink for the mere pleasure of the experience, and for that exclusively, is likewise to commit the sin of gluttony. Such a temper of soul is equivalently the direct and positive shutting out of that reference to our last end which must be found, at least implicitly, in all our actions.
But don’t despair, because:
At the same time it must be noted that there is no obligation to formally and explicitly have before one’s mind a motive which will immediately relate our actions to God. It is enough that such an intention should be implied in the apprehension of the thing as lawful with a consequent virtual submission to Almighty God.
I’m glad we’ve got that clear. So, just to sum up: Eating and drinking are simple, natural pleasures given us by the generosity of God. And we’re free to enjoy them as we like, provided we don’t consume them too soon, too expensively, too eagerly, too extensively, or too daintily — and as long as we don’t enjoy them for their own sake, but maintain at least the implicit apprehension that we’re nourishing our bodies to glorify God.
Somehow, the Italians have managed to keep the Faith all these centuries, despite a countryside brimming with wine vats, jars of tomatoes, and lush spaghetti trees. If they can manage it, so can we. Pass the salt. No, the other salt . . .