Starting with Gluttony: An Ancient Sin in a Modern Des(s)ert
Whenever early ascetical writers like Evagrius and St. John Cassian refer to the 8 Evil Thoughts, they invariably list gluttony first.
Why? Because it is the most unavoidable and thus universal of sins.
Other temptations can be tempered by cutting oneself off from their source. If your right eye causes you to sin, well, you know the rest. If lust is a problem, one can stop looking at scantily clad men or women. If greed, one can cease from hoarding wealth. Or grain. Or the latest iPhone. You’ll most likely survive without these things.
Gluttony is unique among sins in this regard because one cannot fully deprive oneself of its source, namely food.
Even St. John Cassian, himself a practitioner of the highly austere desert monasticism, observed that “we cannot possibly cut off occasions of gluttony. For however far we have advanced, we cannot help being what we were born.”
Namely, we can’t change our biology. We can’t change the fact our bodies are created of cells that require calories from an external source to live.
The discipline of fasting is one possible antidote to gluttony, but it carries the potential to do more harm than good. Excessive abstemiousness, for example, invites to pride or dejection. Likewise, those who observe a stricter fast than they can withstand are likely to swing to the opposite extreme of over-indulgence. Eventually they may become unable to observe even a moderate fast.
Cassian went on to observe that even monks who retreat “to the desert with perfect fervor of spirit and bodily abnegation still cannot do without thought for their daily meal and the preparation of their food from year to year” (Conferences 5, Chapter 19).
It is because of these factors that so many of the early ascetics made such a big deal about gluttony (such a big deal!). They weren’t obsessed (okay, maybe a little–they were stuck in the desert after all), they just knew that gluttony needed to be addressed first, as one of the primary and universal stumbling blocks in the Christian life.
Admittedly, when I first began writing this post, I wanted to talk about gluttony without talking about food.
I wanted to spiritualize or theoretical-ize it all, focusing instead on mindless consumerism, or on how the globalization of trade has enabled our nearly limitless appetites.
Food seemed too unsophisticated a concern in comparison with global economic systems. It’s the twenty-first century, for crying out loud, there are bigger perils to our souls than “eating the fried foods of rulers and princes” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies, Homily 17).
Or… maybe not?
Maybe there’s a reason why these wise theologians always seem to start with food and our spiritual attitude towards it.
Maybe we never really get beyond food. Not as humans, in any case. Not even as highly spiritual ones. Not even as post-industrial, post-agricultural, consumer-society ones.
Maybe we will always be like the eagle, to borrow an analogy from Cassian. No matter how high we soar, no matter how far above our earthly concerns we think we have risen, we will always be compelled by our human needs to return to earth for our food.
Maybe now—in an age of diet culture, disordered eating, body shaming, body dysphoria, not to mention our dissociation from the land and labour that bring forth our food–it is more important than ever that we start with food, with our patterns of consuming (or not consuming) it, of sharing or hoarding it, with our love for and hatred of it, with the needs food fills and the needs it can never fill, with the pangs it stills and the pains it distracts us from. With those who have too much food and those who have not enough.
Let us begin with food, remembering with St. Maximus the Confessor that “nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony. . . . It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”
And let us ask God to help us not misuse food, but use it for our nourishment and the nourishment of the world.
Kali sarakosti! – Today is the first day of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. A blessed Fast for all who observe!
This post is part of the Time and the 8 Deadly Thoughts series I am writing during Eastern Orthodox Lent 2021 (which commences today, March 15). I will be reflecting on one of these traditional sin patterns each week of Lent and how they manifest themselves in modern life. Join me here on the blog every Monday for weekly posts and on my Instagram page for daily follow-up thoughts and videos.