Last week I offered some theoretical and practical tips for Temperance. Since this virtue is tied in so tightly to physical health, it takes different forms in various people, and its demands can change with age. A young person with a fast metabolism can healthily eat an amount that is for somebody else “too much,” while a sedentary 50-something may need to eat in a way that strikes his friends as “too dainty.” People born with genetic predispositions to alcohol must be much more careful consuming it, and those who have ever been addicted must practice total abstinence. Still others choose renunciation as a voluntary cross — for instance, the Irish-founded organization the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, which (50 years before AA existed) gathered men who weren’t problem drinkers to swear off the stuff, as a witness and an act of sacrificial reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As the organization says: “The Pioneer by abstaining from alcohol, which like all of God’s gifts should not be abused, is forgoing one of life’s pleasures and therefore dying to self for the greater good.” This amounts to what I can only call heroic Temperance — two words nobody expects to see together.
The Pioneers voluntarily, sacrificially give up a natural good in search of its supernatural better. That’s worlds away from the kind of Gnosticism that proudly disdains all worldly pleasures, or doesn’t even register them. That tendency St. Thomas condemned as Insensibility, the culpable lack of enjoyment in the things God made for our happiness. In case you’re wondering at this point how subject you are to gluttonous thoughts, or where you fall on the Gluttonous/Temperate/Insensible scale, I offer below one of what I call my Trademark-Busting Cosmo-Style Quizzes™.
Here’s the hypothetical: You’re in your middle 30s, and, like most Americans, you’re almost 20 pounds overweight. You never binge or purge, and you don’t even really snack — but neither does your life often entail breaking a sweat. Your weight has been stable for several years — but, concerned about your health and appearance, you’ve embarked on a grim but steady restricted-calorie intake, with exercise thrice (sometimes slipping to twice) a week. And you’ve already lost five pounds.
You’re invited to a special dinner with co-workers, to be held in the poshest French restaurant in town — a place you never frequent, since your job doesn’t pay enough. You all sit down to celebrate whatever it is the company thinks is wonderful. (Let’s say the bigwigs finally settled that class-action lawsuit filed by all those midgets who’d claimed your company scientists experimented on them.) The bottles of pinot grigio open up, and your supervisor announces: “Order anything you want. Lobster, foie gras, sky’s the limit. This may never happen again, but I’m picking up the check. We totally came out on top. That midget lawyer blinked! We nailed them.”
You take the menu and look through the elaborate appetizers — celestial stuff like deep-fried Camembert with raspberry sauce, and escargot mushroom caps in drawn garlic butter. The entrees are even more brutal: gratinéed scallops, flambéed veal chops in cream sauce, and . . . oh crap. The single most exquisite dish in any national cuisine, cassoulet — a white bean stew cooked with duck and pork in goose fat. It takes Provençal housewives three days to make. (In my previous book, you’ll find a down-and-dirty two-day version.) No wonder they charge $26.95 for it. And here’s your chance to eat it, on the suits. As to desserts? You try not to look there, but your personal Screwtape gains momentary control of your eyes, long enough to show you chocolate mousse and apricot crumble.
All around you, co-workers are ordering multicourse fêtes with all the self-restraint of a pack of starving, feral dogs. And you face the moment of choice. You do one of the following:
a) Decide that your diet can start again tomorrow — that your meal tonight will in fact “count” as breakfast in the morning. And you’ll have a salad instead of lunch. You won’t think about how many calories you’re chewing — or swilling, for that matter. Could somebody pass the wine? On the premise that “you only live once, if that,” you purposely order the richest meal on the menu: Foie gras, sautéed in Calvados with toast points;cassoulet; and apear souffléwith a glass of Poire William (the best liqueur on earth). A meal like this isn’t much to ask for from this Vale of Tears, and anyway you’ve earned it. (Although not in a literal, physical kind of way.) You raise a glass, a tiny liqueur glass, to the midgets. You’re so intent on enjoying your evening that in the morning you won’t remember it, and when you wake up barfing, you’ll figure you’ve probably lost half the calories anyway. Remember, this doesn’t count as bulimia because you didn’t do it on purpose.
b) As your eyes skim across each course, your brain automatically estimates the calorie count of each item. Ever since you started this diet thing, each item of food summons such a number — like a little price tag, neatly pinned to every chicken leg or muffin. What’s worse, since you’ve made an algorithm of how many minutes of exercise it takes to burn such calories off, each meal disappears behind a vision of lengthy sweating. On the other hand, the bosses are paying for once, and you’d have to be a sap to skip one of the few perks this job offers. You’re tempted to order the priciest possible meal (madeleines with crème fraîche and caviar; lobster Thermidor; chocolate-dipped strawberries in gold leaf) just to sock it to them. But you figure that might be impolitic. So you order the second most expensive combination on the menu, which you experience in three courses: $17.50, and 30 minutes on the Stairmaster; $35.50, and two hours of dreary running; and $10.95, with 45 minutes of crunches. Overwhelmed by all this math, you barely taste the food.
c) You’re having a grand time, and managing to pace yourself with the wine — remembering that these giggling trenchermen are still your co-workers, so whatever you say tonight may be examined under fluorescent lights tomorrow. But you still feel a tipsy camaraderie. Even that squirrelly guy who tried to get you fired looks kind of . . . human with a lobster bib around his neck. You’re glad he’s enjoying himself. And yes, your boss’s glorious offer poses a real temptation. (You hope he doesn’t get reamed out when the expense report comes in, and truth to tell, you feel a little guilty about the midgets.) You let yourself enjoy the richest dishes voyeuristically, leisurely reading the food porn describing every one. Then you order the baby green salad in a Gascon vinaigrette, the garden chicken supreme, and the mango-banana sorbet. You eat slowly, savoring every bite.
d) You smile thinly when the boss makes his announcement, thinking how much you’d rather have the cash. Of course, there’s some tax advantage entailed in dinners that can be written off as business expenses, and anyway this guy is kind of a lush. It probably makes him feel like King Henry VIII, hauling everyone out here on their own time and ordering them to eat. You calculate the extra hours you’ll have to spend with co-workers talking shop, instead of sitting peacefully at home adding more entries to your social-justice blog. But here you are, so you scan the menu, wondering how many families in Chad could eat for a week on what your firm is spending on this victory dance. When the waiter comes, you interrogate him on the provenance of the food: Are the chickens free-range? Were the veggies grown on sustainable farms? Is the boeuf really hormone-free? (Your co-workers may be rolling their eyes, but at least they know somebody in this company has a conscience.) Anyway, food has never really caught your interest. You put on those extra 20 pounds in a fit of absent-mindedness, mostly from movie popcorn and Coke you consumed while watching documentaries down at the art house. (Not that any of these people care enough to educate themselves.) After ten minutes of wrangling, the waiter agrees to serve you a vegan meal: walnut oil salad,ratatouille, and watermelon with toasted fennel salt. You leave as soon as you’re finished, waving farewell with an irony everyone misses. You decide, with a shrug, “Well, that was filling.”
If you picked:
a) If this is your reaction to a temptation as mild as a heavy business dinner, your will is woefully weak. Moralists have long said that addiction to one fleshly pleasure leads to others — something you know for a fact is true with drinks. One glass of wine leads to another, which leads to cognac, which leads to those little thimbles full of paint-thinner you hazily recall are called something like crappa. Excessive drink, of course, lubes the skids for sins like Lust and Wrath, although in your case it’s more likely Sloth — which explains why you are the only person to call in sick the day after the dinner. When you do toddle in, expect your supervisor to hand you a pamphlet about the Employee Assistance Program, designed to help “substance abusers” like you.
If any of this sounds familiar, it might just be time to take up Dom Gueranger’s idea of keeping medieval-style Catholic fasts. The key to fasting and abstinence, remember, is not that they cause suffering; otherwise, on Fridays we’d be choking down Big Macs instead of peeling shrimp. The purpose of fasting is to subject your body to the rule of the mind, and your will to a rule outside itself. Maybe it’s time to call in that Higher Power. Think of Him as your personal trainer and designated driver.
b) You might be one of those people who’d be better off being fat. Really, if the only way to control your appetites is to turn them into idols you spend all day straining not to worship, yielding to them might be better than letting them twist you into an angry Pharisee. However, those aren’t the only alternatives. Instead of giving up on self-control, you should try to baptize the beast. Following Church fasts and feasts would be a start, but only if they help you develop a rhythm of gratitude to God for the good things of Creation, and self-restraint in their enjoyment. When you’re suffering from the necessary strictures of your diet, think of Christ fasting in the desert, and try to unite yourself with Him. When you’re lifting the bar on your Soloflex, be thankful it isn’t a cross.
c) It sounds like you’ve got a wholesome balance going on here. Eating more mindfully will help you do it more healthily, if only because you’re making yourself go slower and giving your stomach time to catch up with your palate. Consider cutting your rations and “dieting” from some of the labor-saving devices you spent all that money on. Read Catholic technology critic Eric Brende on how to do that — and start by using the stairs instead of the elevator, especially at the gym. Whenever you find yourself chafing against the moderation you’ve embraced, try to think of St. Benedict and his men — those men in drafty, isolated abbeys who saved the great books of the ancient world, preserved the art of wine making, and invented the best beers in Europe. They couldn’t have managed that if they were lushes — and if you don’t believe me, think of the ancient Romans, lolling on their divans, eating lark’s tongues before heading off to the vomitorium. How many of their recipes do we still use today? There’s a liqueur named for Benedict, but nothing for Lucullus. (All this will help you spiritually, but you still might not lose the weight. For that, ask your doctor about Meridia.)
d) You sound like you suffer from Insensibility, the culpable lack of enjoyment in the things God made for our happiness. This typically goes with a harsh austerity toward other people and their pleasures, and can culminate in Envy — in the wish that everyone lived stark and rigorous lives, and pruned away every pleasure, to maximize utility or serve some ideology. Go back to Orwell’s 1984 and read about how the higher-ups in his totalitarian Party were happy to sacrifice creature comforts, in exchange for the power to inflict this discipline on others.
Rather than turn the world into a godless monastery, you’d be much better off effacing yourself and embracing Creation. You could start by paying attention to all the human work and care that goes into growing wholesome food and preparing it elegantly. Try reading Michael Pollan or Wendell Berry on agriculture, and cooking your way through a few of the healthier chapters in Julia Child. Remember that cooking is the single art that common folk have pioneered, leaving experts and gourmets to dash about collecting recipes from peasants. Anything that has consoled the laboring masses over the centuries — serving as a much better opiate than religion — must have something to recommend it. As you grind that basil with a mortar into a pesto, try to offer your work as a prayer.