‘Tis the Season for Temperance

As the season of “holiday parties” comes upon us, it’s probably time to give another thought to Gluttony and Temperance — since we’re each likely to struggle over the next few weeks with many, many temptations. Gluttony is (pun intended) a protean phenomenon, and it’s hard to choose a single exemplar of Temperance. For one thing, the form modern food-Gluttony takes is unprecedented, and it has fed a nation where the poorer somebody is, the more likely he is to be overweight. (This isn’t because the lower orders are culpably guilty of Gluttony, but because the least healthy calories are the cheapest and quickest, and working-class folks don’t find the time to prepare fresh veggies and healthy fruit salads. They’re too busy bringing in two incomes so they can keep their kids from getting stabbed in public schools.)

And we lack Scholastic commentary on the proper use of Jiffy-Pop. Ironically, one person who has written most wisely on the proper enjoyment of fleshly pleasures is G. K. Chesterton, who manifestly couldn’t walk the talk. (Sadly, by the end, he could barely fit in the bathtub.)

So instead of taking a single figure and trying to stretch him to meet the need, let me make instead a mosaic of wise men and women whose contributions can help our heads better rule our bellies. Let’s consider, in succession:
  • St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism. Unsettled by the self-starvation, idleness, and hallucinations that afflicted many hermits, Benedict gathered his monks into tight-knit communities that combined regular hours of worship with useful work that he counted as prayer. As monks, they would mostly shun meat, but Benedict’s brothers were commanded to eat at least twice daily of a healthy variety of foods, and to drink at most one tankard of wine. Given that Benedict’s brethren became the leading producers of wine and beer in Europe (click here for encyclopedic documentation that I damaged my liver compiling), this rule must sometimes have been more difficult to keep than Chastity. At least the monasteries weren’t manufacturing women.
  • Dom Prosper Gueranger, author of the encyclopedia of Christian worship, The Liturgical Year — which was bedside reading for countless saints, the most famous Therese of Lisieux. In that book, Gueranger lamented the decline of fasting in the Western Church. As those of you who are centuries old will remember, this used to entail abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday, fasting most of the days in Advent and Lent, and abstaining even from water from midnight until the moment we took Communion — instead of skipping that bagel in the parking lot. In his chapter “The History of Lent,” Gueranger quotes a previous Pope Benedict (number XIV):
The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
(This quote comes courtesy of an InsideCatholic commenter, the delightful “I’m Not Spartacus.”)
  • TV chef Julia Child. Decorated for her service in World War II, during which she spied for the Allies in Asia, Child is even more of a hero to millions of Americans who grew up on ersatz casseroles, canned peas, mystery meat, and marshmallow aspic. The bland, prepared dishes promoted by the food industry had by the 1950s largely displaced both the wholesome (if plain) recipes native to Anglo-Americans, and in many immigrant homes the complex ethnic cuisines they’d brought over from the Old Country. (For hilarious examples and stomach-churning pictures from 1950s cookbooks, see James Lileks’s classic of snark, The Gallery of Regrettable Food.) In an era when advertising’s Mad Men really had convinced the average American that formula was healthier than breast milk, and tinned vegetables better than fresh (they’re more “scientific”), Julia Child’s 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking drew on the 1,000-year heritage of loving attention to the nuances of God-given ingredients, patient technique, and preparation that shows love not just for the food but those who will eat it. To her budding chefs, Child advised: “Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.”
  • Technology critic Eric Brende, author of Better Off. Brende’s critique of our modern addiction to gadgets is grounded in a solid Thomistic account of Temperance — a principle he applies to what he calls our “technology addiction.” As Brende points out in Better Off, the best form of diet most of us could undertake would be a technological diet — a gentle, insistent attempt to see how many “labor-saving” devices we could shed. Instead of employing power tools to do our work, then autos and elevators to do our walking, we might try returning to the God-given order of things — really earning our daily bread in the sweat of our brows. That includes eschewing pre-packaged “convenience” foods and spending the time and effort required to make things from scratch.
  • Food philosopher Michael Pollan. His best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma explores the roots of America’s farming and food dysfunction, and looks for healthy alternatives that would at once shrink our waistlines and limit the damage our habits inflict on farm communities, animals, and the rest of Creation. Famously, Pollan explored the meaning of a meal by harvesting the veggies, picking the fruits, hunting and dressing the meat, then cooking the ingredients himself. On a more practical note, Pollan offers the following dictum for the kitchen: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” By “food” he means “things our grandmothers would recognize as food,” which rules out stuff like the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets that appeared on the Zmirak family Thanksgiving table in 2004 — for instance.
Drawing on all these sources, one could come up with a personal program for cutting off gluttonous habits — adapted to one’s state and station in life. For instance, someone who enjoys several beers at a sitting might invoke St. Benedict, and offer his thirsty liver the argument: “If one pint is enough for the monks who made this beer, it should be enough for me.”
A soul with a serious weight problem might follow Dom Prosper, benefiting both body and soul through an old-fashioned Lent. (A nice, medieval Advent would be even more challenging and more useful, given the premature feasting that nowadays starts just a week after Halloween.)
Those with sedentary lifestyles can imitate Brende and swear off elevators, escalators, power lawn mowers, and chainsaws — and learn perhaps for the first time that their bodies are useful for something more than powering the hands that type on keyboards.
Those addicted to cheap, easy eats that are no sooner opened and nuked than they’re coursing down to their buttocks might pick up Child — and commit to eating elaborately only when they’ve done all the work entailed preparing it. No more fast food, and no fancy meals in restaurants. If they want rich food, they’ll need to spend several hours making it right. When they’re too busy or lazy for that, they can gorge themselves on raw fruit and veggies.
Those who already care about healthy eating, but who shy away from the sniffy, self-congratulatory cant of the NPR listeners they run into down at Whole Foods, can follow Pollan down to the local farmer’s market — or join a Community Supported Agriculture co-op, which pays the families who grow the stuff a fair price in advance. Then, every week, members get wholesome produce. (A group of nuns runs our local CSA in New Hampshire.) You don’t always know what will come down the chute, and it’s sometimes a puzzler trying to decide what to do with all those rutabagas. Doing this, taking what God’s earth has given you and trying to make prudent use of it, is the opposite action to Gluttony. In fact, it’s gratitude.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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