St. Paul once likened the Christian way to a race for which athletes discipline themselves in order to win a prize: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:24-25).
Indeed, self-discipline is crucial for both the athlete and the Christian, especially when it comes to food. Just as athletes must watch their diet and practice self-control in eating, so human beings cannot eat whatever they want, whenever they want, and however much they want if they are going to live a successful life.
As discussed in our last reflection, temperance is the virtue that moderates our desire for pleasure — especially the pleasure attached to food, drink, and sex. Temperance also moderates the sorrow and frustration we might experience when we have to go without those pleasures and our appetites are left unsatisfied.
Without temperance, we tend to become grumpy, angry, or short with others because our desire for pleasure is not being fulfilled. Without temperance, we become slaves to our appetites and find ourselves easily distracted from the good we should be doing (it’s hard to stay focused on a task when we can’t stop thinking about that cake in the office lounge or that fresh bag of Doritos in the cabinet). A lack of temperance also makes us selfish, by putting our own desire for pleasure over the good of others (I’m not as attentive to others’ needs when I can only think of filling my stomach or quenching my thirst).
Me . . . A Glutton?
Gregory the Great described gluttony as “an enemy within us” which must be tamed before other spiritual battles can be successfully fought. He said, “As long as the belly is unrestrained, all virtue comes to naught.”
Gluttony is an inordinate desire for food and drink. Some people who are not overweight, however, might think they do not have to worry about this vice. Yet slender people who do not eat a lot of food might actually be more gluttonous than someone who is obese. There are many ways one can fall into gluttony other than overeating. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that to avoid the trappings of gluttony, one must be concerned not only about how much one eats, but also, what, how, and how often one eats.
How much I eat.
There are two questions we should ask ourselves along these lines: First, do I eat too greedily — more than my share — such that others at table or at the social event are not able to receive as much? As the Book of Sirach reminds us, “Do not reach out your hand for everything you see, and do not crowd your neighbor at the dish” (Sir. 31:14).
Second, do I eat more than I need? It is not wrong to satisfy one’s hunger to a point and receive proper nourishment. But am I easily able to leave the table not completely stuffed? Frequently filling my stomach to maximum capacity is a sign of my overattachment
What I eat.
Do I tend to eat only costly, elegant kinds of foods? Am I a picky eater? Do I only eat certain kinds of foods or brands or do I always want my meals prepared a certain way? When I am served food that is not my preference (“It’s not organic!”, “It’s a strange foreign food I’ve never tasted before!”, “Oh no . . . lots of vegetables!”), do I try to eat it cheerfully and express gratitude to the people who prepared it? Or do I complain about the food at the cafeteria or on the table at home? Even if I do not say anything aloud, do I find myself whining interiorly that this is not the kind of food I like?
Without temperance, we tend to become grumpy, angry, or short with others because our desire for pleasure is not being fulfilled.
If I answered “yes” to any of these questions, it is probably a sign that I am too attached to certain kinds of food and that the vice of gluttony has a hold on my soul.
Of course, some people have special dietary needs. Someone with a heart condition, for example, should avoid high-cholesterol foods. And the person with an anaphylactic peanut allergy sometimes needs to let his hosts know about his life-threatening condition. But when it comes to my own personal tastes, am I willing to die to myself on certain occasions for the sake of giving others preference or for the sake of honoring those serving me?
Think about how other people feel when they perceive our picky attitudes. When our spouse, our parents, or a host is preparing a meal for us, if they sense our “high maintenance” tastes, it may make them feel awkward or uncomfortable. They may feel stress as they try to accommodate our fastidiousness. Our pickiness may even make them feel bad that they do not have the same “high standards” about food as we do.
How I Eat.
Do I eat too quickly? From a Catholic perspective, a meal is more than an opportunity to satisfy our hunger and nourish our bodies. A meal is a time to share life with others and to have conversation. When people eat too hastily, however, they are so focused on filling their stomachs that they are not easily attentive to other people. On a basic level, they do not think about the needs of others at the table. Instead of kindly anticipating other people’s desires for more water, wine, or bread, the gluttonous man is more concerned about getting what he wants on his own plate. Even more, when someone is so focused on stuffing his mouth, it is difficult for him to have conversation with the people at table. Dinner for such a person becomes more a time for gratifying his own appetite than a setting for communion with others. Instead of truly sharing a meal and sharing a life together at table as human beings are meant to do, some people eat like animals who merely happen to be occupying the same feeding trough, staring down at their food, filling their mouths, and never making eye contact with each other.
Furthermore, when a person eats too quickly, he does not even enjoy the food itself as much. God put pleasure in good food; we should eat our meals slowly so that we can actually enjoy them! The person who always rushes his meals is not able truly to take delight in the pleasure of good food.
When I Eat.
Do I always have to eat whenever I sense hunger? In our family, our toddlers each went through a difficult period while they were learning to express properly their desire for something to eat or drink. In these transitional months, as soon as they experienced the slightest bit of hunger or thirst, they used to shout out with a painful voice as if it were a major crisis: “I’m so hungry!” or “Juuuuice! Juuuuice!” And, of course, they expected to have their hunger and thirst satisfied immediately.
Similarly, when we leave our appetites unbridled, they become like a little child inside us screaming, “I want chocolate!” or “I need my Starbucks latte!” or “I must have McDonald’s French fries, right now!” And like an undisciplined toddler, we let our appetites control us. We may snack throughout the day because a little bit of hunger would be too painful. Or we may eat before others get to the table. Or we may suddenly find ourselves taking a spontaneous 10-minute break from work, or getting off the highway to hit the drive-through, or paying money for things we did not plan — all in order to satiate that incessant, demanding voice of our appetite.
Fasting is the virtue we need to free our will from slavery to our appetites. Aquinas says fasting bridles the lusts of the flesh. By abstaining from food and drink on some regular basis, we give our wills practice at saying “no” to our hunger and thirst. As a result, our wills become strengthened and we are less likely to be controlled by our appetites or become frustrated when they are not immediately satiated.
When we refuse to give in to our appetites for little things such as chocolate during Lent or meat on Friday, we gain greater self-control. This is one reason why the Church designates certain times like Lent and Fridays as special days of penance: so that we have regular opportunities to practice self-control and thus grow in temperance.
Drunkenness and Sobriety
Drinking alcohol itself is not immoral, but drunkenness is. In fact, drunkenness — drinking to the point that hinders the use of reason and causes loss of control — is a mortal sin, according to Aquinas.
Finally, a note about drunkenness and sobriety: Sobriety is the virtue that moderates our consumption of alcohol. Drinking alcohol itself is not immoral, but drunkenness is. In fact, drunkenness — drinking to the point that hinders the use of reason and causes loss of control — is a mortal sin, according to Aquinas. St. Paul lists drunkenness as one of the sins that keeps one out of the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21).
Aquinas explains that when a man is aware that his drinking is immoderate and intoxicating but wants to be inebriated rather than stop drinking, his drunkenness is a mortal sin because he “willingly and knowingly deprives himself of the use of reason whereby he performs virtuous deeds and avoids sin, and thus he sins mortally by running the risk of falling into sin.”
As a former student once said in class, “It’s hard enough trying to be a good Christian when we’re sober!” Indeed, pursuing virtue is difficult when we have full use of our reason. To willingly put ourselves in a condition that hinders our use of reason — as happens when we become drunk — compromises our ability to do the good and resist sin even more.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 150, Art. 2.