Are You a Glutton?

St. Augustine says something in Book X of Confessions that has always made me somewhat uncomfortable. At the time he’s writing, Augustine has long since converted. He is a bishop, renowned theologian, preacher, and saint. In this section of his book, he discusses the temptations that he struggles with daily, and one is particularly interesting:

“But while I am passing from the discomfort of emptiness to the content of replenishing, in the very passage the snare of concupiscence besets me. For that passing, is pleasure, nor is there any other way to pass thither, whither we needs must pass. And health being the cause of eating and drinking, there joineth itself as an attendant a dangerous pleasure, which mostly endeavours to go before it, so that I may for her sake do what I say I do, or wish to do, for health’s sake. Nor have each the same measure; for what is enough for health, is too little for pleasure. And oft it is uncertain, whether it be the necessary care of the body which is yet asking for sustenance, or whether a voluptuous deceivableness of greediness is proffering its services. In this uncertainty the unhappy soul rejoiceth, and therein prepares an excuse to shield itself, glad that it appeareth not what sufficeth for the moderation of health, that under the cloak of health, it may disguise the matter of gratification. These temptations I daily endeavour to resist, and I call on Thy right hand, and to Thee do I refer my perplexities; because I have as yet no settled counsel herein.”

What Augustine describes here is a problem he faces when eating. He points out that when one goes from being hungry to being satisfied, a natural pleasure arises (the pleasure of eating). The problem is that we cannot morally eat for the sake of that pleasure. It is not always clear to Augustine when he is eating because it feels good, and when he is eating rationally—i.e. to keep his body healthy.

For a modern comparison, we might cite the example of contraception. It is not enough to perform intrinsically good acts. We must perform intrinsically good acts for the right reasons. Otherwise our wills can still be disordered. God gave us food to sustain us. Eating gives us pleasure, but pleasure can never become the purpose of eating. That is the sin of gluttony which, Augustine says, is a direct result of concupiscence.

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because I think I’m gluttonous all the time. We seem to think that you’re only a glutton if you’re a four-hundred pound king, with an enormous feast, surrounded by poor people with nothing. The problem is that St. Augustine says it is far more common and simple than that. If we are being honest, probably a great number of people in modern America (where there’s essentially no limit to quantities and varieties of food) have this problem.

You may think that you have bigger fish to fry and that I’m nit-picking. This may be true, but consider that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. This means it naturally breeds other sins. It is also worth pointing out how ugly and gross gluttony is. It is animalistic and vulgar to continue chewing and swallowing food for no reason other than that it feels good to us. If you want to be holy, perhaps start with the smaller things and work your way up to the big ones. Fasting and subjecting your sensual appetite to your rational will is a great place to begin.

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