Charlie's Blog: Gluttony



I don't mind that I'm fat. You still get the same money.

Marlon Brando was an awesome actor. In his prime, his talent was matched only by his dashing good looks. His talent would remain with him for much of his life, but his body would betray the emptiness he felt inside as his weight ballooned to over 350 pounds. This was one of the problems Francis Ford Coppola dealt with while filming Apocalypse Now. Brando was supposed to be playing a trim and fit Green Beret colonel. Instead, he played a debauched and overweight Green Beret colonel. It was brilliant acting. Brando played a man who was a complete wreck mentally and spiritually. He was less trouble than his drug addicted co-star Dennis Hopper who didn't even remember making the movie. If there is one thing we can appreciate about Brando, he did not suffer from vanity. As the great actor put it so well, "Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings."

The reason Brando ate so much is the same reason that others indulge in drugs, alcohol, sex orgies, and the like. All things considered, Brando sitting down with a gallon of ice cream and a spoon makes a lot of sense because the other indulgences kill you much quicker and leave a toll on those around you. But all of these indulgences share the common trait of trying to fill the emptiness in a heart that is not filled with God. Gluttony is fundamentally addiction, and all addictions are consequences of the emptiness inside.

Jesus deals with this fundamental aspect of gluttony and addiction in Matthew 4:1-4,
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
The body is easily satisfied with bread. The soul is not. Jesus would say the same thing to the woman at the well that He would give her living water, and she would not thirst again. In respect to spiritual hunger, we are all gluttons in that we seek to satisfy that hunger with anything and everything but God Himself. This is why a glutton continues to eat long past the point of bodily need. The same is true of drunks who snort lines of cocaine to stay conscious as they drink all night. With sex, Viagra and porn push the body past satisfaction. But all of these things are a waste because of one true thing. Evil is never satisfied. There is never enough to satisfy the appetite. It always wants more. Walter de la Mare got it right in these lines,
Oh, pity the poor glutton 
Whose troubles all begin
In struggling on and on to turn
What's out into what's in.
The infinite hunger of the soul can only be satisfied with the infinite mercy and grace and love of Christ.

The Christian who draws close to Christ is satisfied with Christ. The Christian needs nothing else except Christ Himself. Whatever is left is known as concupiscence which is the residual weakness left in a believer after the remission of Original Sin through baptism. This is why a heroin addict can still want a shot of smack years after overcoming the addiction in rehab. Though the body no longer screams for the heroin, the memory of it remains as a temptation. Indulgence never yields satisfaction but actually produces remorse and regret in the Christian. The memory is actually more satisfying than the actual thing. I discovered this after becoming vegan. I have fond memories of greasy cheeseburgers and barbecue pork, but the smell of those things now makes me feel sick to my stomach. It would take Herculean effort for me to go back to eating meat because I would have to overcome my revulsion and nausea. The same thing applies to sin. I don't know of anyone who enjoyed their first cigarette. I also know ex-smokers who would love to have a cigarette but the smell of smoke makes them want to gag now.

Mortification is the process of pulling away from these old habits and putting on the new habits of Christ. At this point, I will lose the Protestant. As a former Protestant, I can say that my life was one of wanting to be a better person but failing at it. I migrated from being an evangelical to being a Calvinist because this seemed to make sense of my struggle with sin and constant defeat. I could never become holy no matter how hard I tried. Calvinism said it was a lost cause because I was born wicked and would remain this way until I died. The result was that I was filled with endless self-loathing. Becoming Catholic was the exact opposite of this experience. Connected to the means of grace denied to me as a Protestant, I was able to do things I never could do as a Protestant. The upside of all those years in error is that I know that it is not me doing these things but Christ and His grace. I am not a good person in my own eyes, so it is sort of disorienting when people say good things about me. But I know that I don't struggle with the same sins I did a year ago. My life is mostly venial sin now where a mortal sin was a daily thing for me. Holiness has gone from an impossibility for me to something that I can think anyone can achieve by the grace of Christ. My best advice on this is to urge the Protestant to become Catholic. It makes a huge difference.

Corporal mortification is where one gains strength over concupiscence by deliberately enduring pain. Once again, I will lose the Protestant on this, but it is in the Bible. When Jesus fasted, he was practicing corporal mortification. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:27, "But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." This verse runs contrary to the conventional Protestant thinking because it is thoroughly Catholic. It strikes a blow against the faith alone doctrine and "once saved always saved" while exhorting believers to follow the example of so many Catholic saints who used disciplines, hairshirts, and cilices to inflict pain upon themselves.

This may seem like macabre stuff, but it is no different than someone getting up at 5 a.m. to go for a run around the block or not having a slice of cheesecake after dinner for dessert. Pain and suffering are essential to growth in sanctity. It is in these trials of self-denial that you cling more strongly to Christ. This is what happens when a Christian fasts especially during Lent. Trial and adversity give strength to the soul. I might add that these acts of corporal mortification don't mean you can't have a cold beer or a nice meal when it is done. Catholics are known for fasting and for feasting and are criticized mercilessly for both.

One's appetites must always be in subjection to one's love for God. There is nothing inherently wrong in food or drink, but they must be used in proper regard to one's devotion to Christ. I recommend fasting at least once per week. Friday is a good day for this because it is the day Christ suffered and died. For breakfast and lunch, eat only bread with a glass of water. Do this until 3 p.m. when Christ died on the cross. This is the "hour of mercy." After 3, eat normally for the rest of the day. The hardest part is not telling anyone what you are doing because people who may see you eating an "air sandwich" for lunch will wonder what is wrong with you. During Lent, you do this same routine for 40 days with Sundays as a rest from the fasting. It won't kill you. Instead, you will grow closer to Christ.

For myself, I struggled with gluttony my whole life until I became Catholic. My body still carries the evidence of this as I am still overweight. I follow a low fat vegan diet these days, but I can honestly say that the self-discipline to follow this diet has been aided immensely by my faith. Prior to this, I was a regular at the fast food burger joints near my home such that the ladies at the drive thru would just ask me if I wanted the usual at the speaker. I realize now that I was a food addict for all those years just like Marlon Brando. When I would consume a fat burger or two with a side of fries and a milk shake, I would feel a narcotic rush that would just make me feel an immense feeling of calm and peace. This would last for about an hour until the emptiness swelled in me again. I understand now that the fat in the food provoked all sorts of pleasure chemicals in my brain that gave me this drug like high. As a vegan, I don't have this experience anymore when I eat. I enjoy food now but only because it tastes good and stops me from being hungry. But the addiction aspect is gone. My becoming vegan was like Hugh Hefner becoming celibate. I could only do it because I don't need a fat burger to make me happy anymore.

Skinny people are prone to thinking they are free of gluttony, but I find that it merely takes different forms. Tobacco use and abuse is one of the most prominent. When smokers quit, they usually report weight gain. Compulsive gambling is another form of gluttony. I could add excessive gaming, Facebook, the internet, and other things to our list. The problem is the excess. Almost anything can be done beyond what is reasonable. Even things like exercise and work which are normally considered virtuous can become vices when taken to excess. The one thing they have in common is the urge to fill a spiritual need with the wrong thing.

Satisfaction can only be had in Christ. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you. When you are in a state of grace, pleasures and pains both become indifferent to you. Good things are enjoyed without excess while bad things are endured without despair. Go to Confession. Go to Mass. Pray the Rosary. Spend time in the morning and the evening in prayer. Read Scripture and read the saints and church fathers. If you do all these things, you will find the satisfaction that eludes you in everything else.