Gluttony March 18, 2019

Source: Pieter Brueghel the Elder / WikimediaCommons

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49 RSV).  The sin which lay behind the destruction of Sodom, the sin which cried up to the heavens, was the lack of social justice within the city, so that the poor and needy were deprived of the basic necessities of life so that the rich and powerful could enjoy extreme levels of luxury. The citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah were prideful in their wealth and power: they used it in excess on themselves, on their inordinate pleasures, to demonstrate their earthly glory; but in their prosperity, they ate away at the resources of the earth, leading to the poor and needy to experience extreme suffering and death. It is in this respect, in the injustice which can be seen tied with gluttony we can begin to understand why gluttony is one of the deadly sins: its nature lies is not in overeating, though that often is a form in which it takes, but in the inordinate taking in of the abundance of the earth at the expense of others, with eating, a necessary function of life, being at the center of the disorder.

Eating is not just a part of life, but it is, in our present condition, a necessary part of life: without food, we shall die. The power over food is the power over life. Gluttony, as seen in the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, takes joy in the power of food, in the power to control and take in excess of what is needed, so that those who engage gluttony do so the expense of others, those who are in need of that food. The glutton has turned away from charity, indeed, from the common bond that can be formed by eating together, and turned eating itself into a way to divide humanity between those who have more than enough food to survive and those who do not. Pride, vainglory, and gluttony go together, for the glutton knows no humility or love of others: they love themselves and put themselves and their own pleasure over the needs of others. Thus, the glutton learns to take what is necessary for life, food, and turns it into a weapon, leading them then to continue and take other necessities of life from the poor, turning such necessities into goods to be controlled.  Thus, in a work attributed to St. Anthony the Great, we read: “How foolishly we act, not realizing that the first of all virtues is humility, just as the first of all the passions is gluttony and desire for worldly things.”[1]

It is not surprising, then, that the fall from grace is seen connected with gluttony: “It was because we did not fast in paradise that we were thrown out into this life full of sufferings.”[2] Gluttony, as with all unwholesome deeds, brings immediate, transitory pleasure, but it also brings much suffering, both to those who cannot find the food they need to eat, and also to those who eat in excess, enjoying the fruits of that excess as their bodies become unhealthy.[3] The consequences of such sin can turn bodies into walking tombs. The remnants of life are found within their stomachs even as the excess which they place within themselves becomes a dead weight which drags down body and soul.

To be sure, it is not merely overeating which demonstrates gluttony: one can be a glutton and eat only a little at a time and still hold others down through the way the exploit food. The spirit of domination and control, trying to take what is meant to be shared by all and for all into a thing enjoyed by an individual alone creates the injustice which not only lays behind gluttony, but is rightfully deplored. Eating is life, and taking food away from others, depriving them of the necessity of life, and enjoying that is at its root a form of gluttony. It is a selfishness which puts up and establishes a false notion of the self which is set up above others which then justifies the abuse of food. Food is life, but all life is a gift of God, and so food itself is a gift of God, to be eaten and enjoyed in proper order, in proper spirit: in a spirit of communion. Gluttony rejects such communion and seeks an individualistic triumph over all, trying to turn the eater into a kind a god as they take the power of life and death unto themselves.

Alexander Schmemann, therefore, suggested that eating has always been intended to open us up to and receive God, to experience communion with God, and that the fall from grace represented in Genesis is the attempt of humanity, of Adam, to take and eat for itself at the expense of that communion:

To be sure, the world was given to him by God as “food” – as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end but its full content in Him. “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man.” The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if it is accepted for God’s sake were to give life. In itself food has no life and cannot give life. Only God has Life and is Life. In food itself God – and not calories – was the principle of life. Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing. The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake. More than that, he ate “apart” from God in order to be independent of Him.[4]

To take and eat apart from God is to try to take the place of God; instead of the wholeness of communion which has all things and people sharing the glory of God together, we try to cut off the glory of God from creation and take for it for ourselves. In this way, we see ourselves as lords over all, lords over life and death, as gods capable of determining good and evil based upon our individual wishes and desires. What is good and evil is what is good and evil for ourselves, deliberated by us in our independence from the right order in order to preserve and reinforce the new order established by us to satisfy our every pleasure and whim. Good and evil is established as a dualism dependent upon the fallen self and what it desires in order to preserve the status it has established for itself. Gluttony is not the only way this is manifest, but because of the way gluttony can be seen connected to life itself, the dominance the glutton seeks to have over life, it is a primal error which leads to grave consequences for the glutton. While they might have some momentary pleasures in life, they shall never know true happiness as their unrighteous, unwholesome actions will never allow them to find the peace which they need for true happiness to be theirs. Such happiness will only be found in harmonious existence with others, in a state a communion, which gluttony by its nature overturns.

Once we give in to the injustices behind gluttony, it is easy to see how we will slowly find our self being shaped by the dictates of such injustice so that we become more and more self-seeking at the expense of others. Thus, St. Gregory Palamas understood, we will find other forms of injustice, such as outright theft, easily manifesting itself in our lives once we have given in to the error of gluttony:

This sort of body-loving soul, which pursues pleasurable sensations by every means and gathers material from all over to delight the touch, the taste, and the other senses, begets acquisitiveness and love of money, which gives rise to theft, extortion and every form of greed.[5]

Once we have lost justice, we eat and drink unreflectively; consciously, we are likely not to think of others as we eat, and so we will not see the injustice which lies behind our gluttony. We will think what we possess is ours, to do as we wish, without care and concern for others, and if we have an excess of food, there is no duty to share it with others. This, of course, demonstrates how far we have gone from the bond which we should have with others as a result of our common need for food, our common need for the gift of life presented to us in food. To get beyond this cycle, to begin to reflect upon the connection between food and life, and how our excess hurts others, fasting is important: it helps center us away from the self and the excess of gluttony and slowly develop a proper relationship with food – and with others in connection to food.   “Begrudge your stomach and your heart will be humbled; please the stomach and your mind will turn proud.” [6] Fasting, therefore, is not about rejection of food but the actual promotion of it and finding our proper relationship with it. As with other goods which we inordinately desire and use wrongly, food is not evil; we do not reject food when we fast, treating it as an evil to avoid, but rather we find it is a good which should be shared by and enjoyed by all.  “We should use all things for the glory of God, and we should not refuse anything on the grounds that it is evil, as the accursed heretics do.”[7] Food should be used for the glory of God, something which we share with each other, a common good meant for all: to take beyond what is right just is not good, and therefore, takes what is good and uses it for evil, contrary to the gift of God found in food. This is why gluttony not only is an unwholesome act, but one which is seen as a deadly sin, because of the way it inspires in us further unwholesome acts which will hinder not only ourselves, but others in our rejection of justice.

[1] Attributed to St. Antony the Great, “On the Character of Men and the Virtuous Life,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 341.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies. Trans. Christopher Veniamin et. al. (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), 63.

[3] St. Hildegard, promoting abstinence over gluttony had abstinence declare itself as a healthy form of living:

[The response of abstinence to gluttony]: No one should play a lyre in such a way that its strings are damaged. If its strings have been damaged, what sound will it make? None. You, gluttony, fill your belly so much that all your veins are bloated and are turned into a frenzy. Where then is the sweet sound of wisdom that God gave man? You are mute and blind and you do not know what you are saying. Just as heavy rain destroys the earth, so also excess meat and wine lead man into blasphemies of mockery. I, however, saw a beautiful form in the mud as God put man together. I am, therefore, like a soft rain so that man does not have to sprout weeds. I draw moderation out of man so that their flesh does not revolt and bust, having been flooded with more life-giving food than it needs. For I am a lyre sounding praises and piercing the hardness of heart with good will. For when a man feeds his body moderately, I reverberate like a lyre with his praises in heaven.

St. Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life. Trans. Bruce W. Hozeski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 74-5.

[4] Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969; rev. ed. 1974), 94.

[5] St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, 263.

[6] St. . John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 168.

[7] St. Peter of Damaskos, “The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 90.


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