[Paula Huston's new book Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, is now featured in the Patheos Book Club.]
I am frequently invited to speak about the virtues. Often, the talk is accompanied by food: wine and cheese, a dinner, a dessert. As the speaker, I have a bird's eye view of how well people are able to listen while they are consuming food. And I can tell you that no matter how they try not to be, they are distracted. They are spearing things with their forks, tasting, thinking about what they've just tasted, wishing it were something else, anticipating the lemon cream pie they spotted as they came in—in other words, preoccupied with the pleasures of the meal rather than the content of my talk.
And that's what good food, not to mention all the other pleasures of life, can do to us: distract us from the big picture.
Ancient Christian monks were famous for their rigorous fasting. Yet they did not consider the enjoyment of eating sinful—quite the contrary. They were convinced that a loving, all-wise God did not create anything bad. That the universe in all its multiform beauty was a very good thing: God said it himself. No, what concerned them was our propensity to get entirely absorbed in the pleasures of the moment.
In my talks about the virtues, I often bring up our complex relationship to food. I ask people to think about how much time and energy they devote to fantasizing about their next meal, or to making sure they get their daily treat at Starbuck's, or to slowly, methodically crunching their way through an entire bag of Cheetos as they watch TV in the evening. And I ask them to think about what food means to them, whether they are perhaps using it as a source of security, or a tranquilizer, or a weapon. I ask them to think about how that preoccupation might be draining them of energy and using up time that could be spent more wisely and productively.
Aristotle taught that virtues are strengths we acquire through good acts repeated habitually. In other words, what we do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to a large degree determines who we become. He believed that we don't really "own" a virtue until we can behave virtuously without thinking about it anymore. And then a beautiful thing may happen to us. We may find that we have begun to love this way of being in the world—that the habit we have striven to develop, which at first seemed so difficult and onerous, is now something we cannot imagine living without.
As I think about my own relationship to food, I can trace its evolution from unthinking overindulgence, which was strongly rooted in the legacy of family anxiety I inherited, to a slow dawning of the light: I did not want to remain dependent on sugar, fat, salt to make me feel safe, calm, happy. I could see what that dependence had done to beloved members of my family: they had put themselves in precarious health, cut productive years from their lives, and ensured that they would become increasingly enslaved to pharmaceuticals.
I thought about St. Paul's beautiful image of our bodies as "temples of the Holy Spirit." How did overindulgence in unhealthy foods fit into that picture? And so I began seeking a way to become virtuous in the area of eating.
And what an exciting adventure this has been! As soon as I began to deal with my relationship to food as a substantive moral and spiritual question rather than, as is so sadly common in our media driven culture, simply an appearance issue—am I thin enough? do I still look young enough?—it became clear what needed to happen. I needed to start practicing on a daily basis healthy habits of eating. I needed to think of my body and my energy and my ability to focus and think as beautiful gifts of God, not to be squandered. I needed to eat well out of tremendous gratitude for life.
And slowly, with self-indulgent setbacks along the way, that is what has happened: a new life, different from the life I grew up with, in which eating for health has become a true spiritual discipline.