Monday, March 21, 2011

The 7 Deadly Sins: Gluttony

The warm-hearted or fleshly sins can be viewed as weaknesses. Rage, lust and gluttony can be seen as a lack of self-control. Viewed that way, we might excuse them. After all, everyone has his weak moments. But while sometimes our lower nature may seem to blindside us, it is also true that sometimes we knowingly expose ourselves to situations bound to tempt us. And conversely, we often have more self-control than we admit to ourselves. The man who doesn't hesitate to scream at his wife and kids will somehow be able to restrain himself around his maddening boss. The woman who can't pass up dessert will go on a crash diet to be maid of honor at her sister's wedding. The 2 teenagers overcome by hormones will break off any sexual activity in a second should they hear a parent's approaching footsteps.

Society goes out of its way to encourage some sins. We'll deal with lust next week. But our focus this week, gluttony, seems to be one of the main engines of our economy. For instance, McDonalds has single-handedly changed the world's agriculture. Before World War 2 the most frequently eaten meat was pork. Now it's beef. Slaughterhouses used to be regional affairs. Your burger came from one cow. Now abattoirs are huge industrial-sized places and your ground beef is usually a blend of several cows to make the meat tastier. No wonder those Mad Cow and Hoof and Mouth Disease outbreaks made the Golden Arches blanch. More farmers now raise potatoes, once considered a poor man's food, for all those French fries. The same agricultural re-prioritizing happened when coffee was introduced to the West and there was a proliferation of coffeehouses. Many poor countries even today devote an inordinate amount of agrarian land to raising cash crops, like coffee or chocolate, for export while their countrymen starve. Still the sin of gluttony is not limited to food; it's about the overindulgence of any appetite. Even that for a healthy body.

Our bodies are built to survive brief periods of famine. On the plains of Africa, and during the harsh Northern winters, a person never knew when he would get his next big meal. So we acquired the ability to store fat. Now that food is abundant, this survival feature is killing us. That, combined with our increasing use of labor-saving devices and screens that keep us immobile, has led us to the point where the majority of Americans are overweight. So now we take the leisure time gained by having machines do the hard work and use it to work out...on machines. We take the elevator to the gym where we get on a machine that simulates stair climbing! We no longer have to lift heavy things for a living so we buy heavy weights to lift…for fun? Our cars get us home from work faster so we have time to run several miles.

As bizarre as this sounds, it is better to exercise than not. But now we have people who feel if a little exercise is good, a whole lot more is a whole lot better. So they fill every available minute with exercise. Not content to add some tone to their muscles, they sculpt their bodies until they look more grotesque than comic book superheroes. Some women even cease to resemble their sex as they eliminate all fat and exaggerate every muscle group. Other women run until they cease to menstruate. During her heyday, Martina Navratilova only had a period every 5 months or so. This ability probably goes back to our years as hunter/gatherers. Back then, if you were running 15 miles a day, everyday, something very hungry and/or persistent must be chasing you. That is no time to be having a baby, so nature shuts down reproduction. This also happen when one is starving. Anorexia is a brain disorder that has unfortunately gotten quite a boost from a society that encourages women to become excessively thin.

But gluttony doesn't necessarily have to do with the body. Our culture encourages us to overdo all consumption. The average household has 6 radios, and a TV for every member of the family. People in America, Northern and Western Europe making more than $12,000 a year have on average more than 1 cellphone per person and more than 60 computers per 100 people. We are fast on our way to everyone having his own website. Some people are getting Facebook pages for their newborn children's future use.

Another thing that we consume constantly is entertainment. We spend an awful lot of time keeping ourselves amused--movies, sitcoms, soap operas, reality shows, video games, You Tube videos, shock jocks on the radio, music, sports, mystery books, romance novels, horror stories, even political news that is becoming more like entertainment daily. We listen to the radio or our I-pods in the shower, in the car, at work if possible. What's the first thing many of us do when we get home? Turn on the TV! And it's often one of the last things we turn off before bed, though today that may be the computer. We can even access the internet on our phones. We read magazines on entertainment, watch TV shows about entertainment, and visit websites about entertainment. We can't get enough.

I am not arguing that God is a dour and pleasure-hating deity. He created a delightful world that he expects us to enjoy. He endowed us with creativity so we could imitate him in devising new delights. But he doesn't want us spending all of our time indulging ourselves anymore than a parent wishes that his child spends all of his days in front of the TV or the monitor, eating snack foods. And for much the same reasons. It broadens your body and narrows you as a person.

Gluttony is about having too much but usually of just one thing. The glutton's world shrinks to a single obsession: food, science fiction, sports, exercise, music or sex. (This impinges a little onto the sin of lust but sins do tend to cluster and overlap. And lust is not really excess. But more on that next week.)

One can even become a glutton of religion. You know what I mean: the person who turns every discussion into a specifically religious one. His or her speech is heavy with religious words. He quotes Bible verses, but sometimes they have been wrenched out of their original context and stretched or twisted to fit the topic at hand. He lives in a different world, not the way one feels a saint would but in the way of someone who's a vampire or Star Trek or World of Warcraft fanatic. In fact, fanatic is a sometimes a good synonym for glutton.

Like a fanatic, a glutton's soul, far from being an expansive one, is really a shriveled thing. His interests are few and his scope of enjoyment radically diminished. Even that which he loves tends to pale over time as quantity reduces quality. He finds himself consuming more but enjoying it less, like the little boy who decides to eat all of his Halloween candy in one night. But the boy will usually get full or sick and stop. The glutton tries to outpace the Law of Diminishing Returns through greater consumption. How does someone end up this way?

Often gluttony begins when we find something that we really enjoy. We dive in but instead of merely adding this pleasure to out repertory, we slowly let it take over our lives. Eventually it can become an addiction, something we persist in despite escalating negative consequences. But how does this bad habit become a sin and a deadly one at that? The way any sin does…by displacing God.

We were created by God to love him and enjoy him forever. But sometimes we love the creations rather than the creator. When we do that we cut ourselves from the real source of our pleasure. Gluttony is a desperate denial of this fact, a dire form of idolatry, in which the worshiper tries to squeeze ever greater gratification from his golden calf.

While gluttony can't really wring more satisfaction from something than there is to be had, it can dull us to the Spirit's invitation to real joy. It can divert us from seeking the source of all delights. It can exhaust our spirits and convince us that, having experienced so much of the world's pleasures, that there is nothing beyond them. Gluttony can lead us to sloth and thence to despair.

The way to stop gluttony is to regain one's sense of proportion. And the best way is to put God back in his proper place in our lives, that is to say, at the center. This is not to say we must become fanatics--people so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly use. Unlike the religious glutton, we are not to ram God down people's throat or artificially impose God on every situation. Rather we are to see all things in their proper relation to God. It's a subtle difference but a real one. Gluttony knows no subtlety.

A bicycle won't get us where we need to go unless the hub is at the center of the wheel and all the spokes are connected, straight and properly spaced. In the same way, we won't make much progress in our spiritual journey unless God is in the center of our lives and everything else is in proper relationship to him and to each other. When they start to get bent out of shape, come loose or go missing, our lives become unbalanced.

One virtue that helps us against gluttony is generosity. We in the United States are only 6% of the world's population but we consume 80% of its products. We are a gluttonous culture. The world's resources are not infinite, so we must learn to share and even be sacrificial in our giving. Pass up the super-sized Quarter Pounder meal and give the money to Food for the Poor. Ride your bike to work and give the gas money to your favorite environmental cause. Turn of the boob tube, log off the internet and read to your kids or play a game or go for a walk.

Another virtue that helps us stay balanced is moderation. It's not an exciting virtue but it is important to our spiritual equilibrium. We need that sense of when we've had enough--of pleasure or of pain. Because there really are people who are gluttons for punishment. Wallowing in guilt or self-pity can warp our relationship with God, too. That's why, for instance, in the very middle of Lent, we have Laetare Sunday, when we rejoice and relax our penitential observances.

A good analogy is dieting. Doctors and nutritionists tell us that to lose weight we must not only cut down on our calories but increase our exercise. We must balance the negative with the positive. And to keep it off we must change our habits and attitudes towards food. We must stop focusing on food and put it in proper place within the whole spectrum of a healthy life. Only a total change of mind will do.

And so it is with our spiritual life. To repent means to change one's mind. For some of us that means turning our back on our obsession like an addict who must give up the substance that enslaves him. For others it might mean simply reducing the object of our gluttony to its rightful size and place. Either way we cannot accomplish this without the help of God's cleansing and guiding Spirit. Whichever path is correct for us, we will find ourselves coming out of the narrow rut of obsession and into a wider appreciation of God's creation and his inexhaustible supply of redeeming love.

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