Never eat more honey than you need; too much may make you vomit. (Proverbs 25:16)
Neil Simon once observed that there are two immutable universal laws: (1) the law of gravity and (2) the fact that everybody likes Italian food.
As an Italian, I've been exposed to the finest cuisine the world has ever known, due to the limitless access I had to the kitchens of both my mother and grandmother. It was there that I came to realize what Christ meant when He compared Heaven to a celestial feast.
And if Heaven is literally a celestial feast, surely the first course will be pasta al pesto served al dente.
Had I been consulted, I wouldn't have included gluttony on a list of Deadly Sins. One can't sit at a Sunday noon meal at an Italian's home with the entire family around them and not be overwhelmed by the glorious spread replete with no less than three entrées and four desserts. Why, you may ask, do we offer three entrées and four desserts every Sunday when we eat together? The answer is simple: because we aren't barbarians.
You couldn't hope to find food that delicious even in a world-class restaurant—roasted russet potatoes with olive oil and oregano, yards and yards of lasagna, and a pork tenderloin so delicious that PETA would have gladly given up their nonsense for a plateful of my grandmother's sausages and meatballs.
This isn't gluttony though.
Gluttony is an inordinate love or excessive indulgence of eating and drinking. It's a corruption of moral reasoning, because gluttony disregards balance and moderation. A weekly feast to celebrate family unity is not excessive—and the purpose of the meal is to get together with people you love, not to stuff your face until you're dizzy and can't think straight.
Our family meals were inviolably sacred times that our family set aside for us to get together, across four generations. It's a time for remembering the past and celebrating tradition and a time for hope for the future. Our grandparents passed on wisdom and stories of the past, and the younger generations gave updates on all of our activities. The meal was made all the more delicious because it was shared by people whom you loved and who, in turn, loved you.
None of this has anything to do with gluttony—even the overeating at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Immaculate Conception and Easter.
One of my favorite films about gluttony isn't about gluttony at all. Rather, it's about the spiritual dimension of food and sharing a meal. Danish filmmaker Gabriel Axel's1987 “Babette's Feast” (“Babettes gæstebud”). It's considered a classic Catholic film, even though the film isn't specifically about the Faith. The film takes place in 1871 and is about two elderly and pious Protestant sisters. The sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer,) live in a small village on the western coast of Denmark's Jutland. They belong to a very strict Calvinist denomination that seems destined to become extinct.
The two women were ravishing beauties in their youth but their father was frightened of losing them to marriage and so refused to give them his blessing when they were courted, thus condemning them to leading lonely lives and even lonelier deaths.
Many years later, a French woman named Babette Hersant (Stéphane Audran) comes to the small village. She carries only a letter from Philippa's former suitor, which explains that Babette had narrowly escaped the Paris Commune and begs them to please accept her as their housekeeper. She remains with the sisters for fourteen years as their cook. Throughout this time, she remained a helpful, kind and benevolent figure, interested only in serving.
One day, Babette receives a letter announcing that she had won 10,000 francs from a French lottery, which would allow her to return to her home. Instead, she uses the money to prepare a magnificent dinner for the sisters and their small congregation to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of the founding pastor (Martine and Philippa's father).
The sisters agree to accept Babette's offer but soon become suspicious that the meal is actually sinful decadence or possibly witchcraft or deviltry. The guests agree to eat the meal but foolishly refuse to take any pleasure in it. Despite their pact, the meal is so delicious that their distrust and superstitions dissipate, love is rekindled, past deeds are forgiven, grace flows, hope is restored and the diners are redeemed.
The spectacular meal becomes an outpouring of Babette's love and appreciation for the community which saved her. Unbeknownst to the sisters of the small community, Babette has sacrificed her entire lottery winnings for the meal. The sisters assume that Babette will return to France but she informs them of what she's done. Martine is shocked and pained. "Now you will be poor the rest of your life," she says. Babette smiles and replies gently, "An artist is never poor." Philippa then tells Babette that in Heaven she will be the great artist God intended her to be.
Food is a good thing and can't be sinful. Its abuse and worship, however is a sin. A glutton sees food as its own end. It fills his belly but not his soul. Babette's meal isn't an exercise in gluttony because it's a sign of her love and that love spreads to the diners enabling them to love each other in turn. Thus, Babette's extraordinary meal becomes an act of self-sacrifice reminiscent of the Eucharist.
Despite the fact that people are starving around the world, by all modern accounts, 50% of Americans are obese or overweight. According to a study conducted in 2004, 59% of Californians were either obese or overweight. The silliness of "fat advocates" like film director Kevin James, who insist that the morbidly obese have the "right" to be fat and that people of normal, healthy girth should accommodate the obese, physically and legally, is preposterous. The same ridiculous argument can be made about smoking, illegal drugs, lying, theft, adultery, promiscuity and every other illegal or immoral activity. This is the argumentum ad civilis rectus (i.e., a fallacious argument based on claiming civil rights). When one couches one's argument as a "right", you can always win the argument in a society that is as unthinkingly and foolishly permissive as is our own. The truth is, we all have the right to punch ourselves in the face but other than the cast of the television show Jackass, no one is stupid enough to take up the banner for that "civil right." This is a fast track to spiritual and physical self-destruction.
To be a Christian means to revere the body. We aren't pagans, Albigensians or Gnostics who separate the human body into two non-interacting parts. The Gnostics and Albigensians and their modern New Age confrères claim we are spirits who are "imprisoned" in our fleshy bodies. This pseudomysticism might sound appealing, but keeping this theological perspective inevitably leads to immorality and immoderation. When the body is seen as unimportant, it can be used for any purpose and people will presume those actions won't affect the condition of the soul. This is not only patently false but extremely dangerous. We are certainly comprised of both spirit and a physical body but the two are intimately connected. Things that affect one will, in turn, affect the other.
This is the reason why the Church suggests fasting to augment prayer. We fast in order to bring under control our self-indulgence and self-centeredness. Gluttony is the perfect example of our self-indulgence and self-centeredness. This is not to say that regular, everyday obesity is the same as being gluttonous. The basic cause of Western obesity is, according to theologian Eileen Flynn, being too sedentary and not burning off sufficient calories to keep their weight under control. This is not the same thing as being seduced by food. As St. Paul reminds us, the body is the temple of the Lord because the body is destined to rise with us in the New Jerusalem. Thus, it should be treated with reverence and respect.
A distinction must be made between gluttony, which is a sin, and obesity, which is a medical condition that is the result of overeating and/or a sedentary lifestyle. Being overweight, or having the so-called "right" to be obese, does not grant license to ignore the rules of science, logic, good health or Christian spirituality. We become fat for one reason only—our intake of calories is greater than energy expended. This is not, however, the sin of gluttony.
Financially, obesity-related illnesses in 2003 cost U.S. taxpayers $75 billion in Medicare and Medicaid expenditures, according to a joint study conducted by RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the medical cost is merely an indication of something by far more important—that of the moral dimension to obesity. If we are eating just for the sake of eating, it's a violation of the fifth commandment (i.e., “Thou shalt not kill”).
St. Thomas Aquinas describes five ways in which a glutton might sin: (1) too soon, (2) too expensively, (3) too much, (4) too eagerly, (5) too daintily— or prae-propere, laute, nimis, ardenter, studiose. No one has the right to injure himself. Neither our souls nor our bodies belong to us. They are, as it were, "on loan." The admonition not to injure ourselves includes overeating and undereating. This adds a new dimension of understanding, appreciation and impact in a country in which half of us of us are overweight or obese. Technically, it counts as gluttony if someone eats or drinks exclusively for the pleasure of the experience. This is not to say that a craving for butter pecan ice cream is a sin capable of condemning someone to Hell. It's not a sin to enjoy food. Good food heals the soul. In fact, hating pleasure is also a sin. A connoisseur of haute cuisine and professors of culinary arts aren't necessarily sinning just because they enjoy a good Delmonico sirloin steak. A sybarite, on the other hand, is devoted to his own luxury and pleasure and is single-minded in ignoring the pain and suffering of others. One can be a gourmand without being a glutton. An epicure is interested in the art of cooking and fine eating. There's nothing wrong with this. A glutton, however, is interested in his own satisfaction, luxury and pleasure to the exclusion of others. An epicure is an artist. A glutton, on the other hand, has a bottomless pit for a stomach. A glutton doesn't sample—he devours, leaving nothing for others. A gluttonous person is an edacious person—someone given to overeating—a voracious person who eats to the point of discomfort and his own bad health. The dining table, especially the Italian dining table, offers many acceptable and even wonderful pleasures of which we should grateful. However, when one is only interested in one's selfishness, it's best to keep in mind what St. Paul writes:
They are going to end up in hell, because their god is their bodily desires. They are proud of what they should be ashamed of and they think only of things that belong to this world. (Ph 3:19)
Other translations of this Epistle state, "whose god is their belly," which is by far more telling. Gluttony becomes a mortal sin when one eats or drinks to such an excess that it greatly impairs health or makes a person unfit to perform the duties required of him. After all, sybaritic excess is nothing one should be proud of. The pleasures we might derive from gluttony are restricted and fleeting. And when they end, the emptiness returns to us very quickly. Gluttony is the perfect metaphor for sin. We have at the core of our respective beings, a vast, dark chasm whose emptiness cries out to be filled and fulfilled. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this would that can satisfy us. If, as atheists insist, God doesn't exist, the question remains begged—why would evolution have burden us with this uncontrollable, insatiable, unfathomable emptiness? Whereas everything else about our biology and psychology might be explainable as adaptations to our environment, this Weltschmerz and existential angst give us nothing. In fact, they waste precious mental and emotional energy which ultimately affects our reproductive success from an evolutionary standpoint. If there was no single infinite, indefatigable, self-emptying Source of Love which made us for Himself, how is our emotional, mental and spiritual pain of any use to us and our genetic success? It seems that the Theory of Evolution proves God exists.