Recovering Ancient Understandings of Gluttony

Book Review/Reflection for Class:
The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters by Mary Louise Bringle

       Mary Louise Bringle lays out her book, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters, after the fashion of a meal, titling her chapters “Apértif,” “First Course,” “Second Course,” and so on. I found it fitting, because this book was, indeed, a rich feast of reflection on the issue of gluttony and its relationship to the culture surrounding weight, food, and dieting in our society. I also appreciated that this book was suffused with Bringle’s own struggles with disordered eating and self-image; she conveys a gravity and emotional complexity around this issue which I also deeply feel. Bringle opens up the riches of Christian tradition, history, and theology to respond to this still current question of gluttony. She explores patristic and monastic writings for wisdom on how gluttony is rightly to be understood; I particularly found her discussion of Gregory the Great’s five kinds of gluttony to be clarifying and helpful. And she ultimately shows that gluttony is a matter of disordered priorities that idolize the goodness of creation above its Creator, resulting in damaged relationship to God, to neighbor, and to self. This book was published 25 years ago, but it continues to be extremely relevant.

Evagrius P         Building on what we have discussed in class, Bringle shows how Evagrius’ writings inform the three types of gluttony of which Cassian writes, and which Gregory later expands into five. She notes that Evagrius’ attitude toward food and the body and the ascetic life are actually not as harsh and demanding as one might expect. He comments outright, “We have received no command to work and to pass the night in vigils and to fast constantly.”[1] In fact, he asserts that the demons are the ones who “encourage the weak to feats of fasting,” knowing full well that it is neither for their health nor for God’s glory.[2] For this reason, perhaps one of the most surprising concepts of all is that this kind of excessive fasting is actually one of Gregory’s varieties of gluttony!

Greg the Great         Specifically, it is the studiose kind of gluttony, an idea which runs counter to our cultural understanding of gluttony. A studiose glutton devotes entirely too much attention to food, perhaps fastidiously counting up calories or carbs or whatever their thing might be. This fixation on food purity – and, in our cultural context, on body size and shape – lifts up part of creation as an idol over and above its Creator. I thought it was amusing that, when Bringle went on to explore penitential handbooks of the sixth-twelfth centuries, there was more mention of over-abstemiousness as a transgression rather than overeating; as a counter-measure (essentially to keep anyone from being a bummer at their feasts) anyone “who has taken a vow not to partake of flesh, bacon, butter, beer, or milk”[3] was obliged to take a little of these anyway. This highlights an important aspect of this kind of gluttony, though. It can be very damaging to community; leading one toward sins of pride and vainglory that alienate us from other people.

         Bringle contrasts this with eating ardenter, that is, eating with too much eagerness. Instead of fastidiously considering the moral weight of every morsel of food one consumes, the ardenter glutton eats with abandon, devouring instead of savoring. This isn’t the feast of delight in community where consumption of beer, butter, and bacon are mandatory; rather, this is often a solitary kind of endeavor, like Bringle’s own binges, that fail to give glory or gratitude for the riches of pleasant things that God has given us. Just as a diet isn’t truly a fast, a binge isn’t truly a feast, because neither focuses on God.

         This question of priorities is prominent in Gregory’s category of praepropere gluttony: eating too soon. While in Gregory’s context, this had to do with the canonical hours by which monastic communities ordered their days, it still speaks to putting first things first. If gratitude for God is first, then feasting, fasting, and daily patterns of eating fall into their proper places.

         Eating laute – too expensively – and especially nimis – too much – are the only two categories that most modern Christians would even recognize or categorize as gluttonous behaviors. Those who demand only the finest of foods put themselves over and above God, who declared that all things which God has given for our benefit are good. According to Bringle, Gregory doesn’t even give much attention to the category of eating nimis, and neither does she.

         Bringle extensively explores the history of how our understanding of gluttony has shifted over the centuries, relishing the irony that – in the not too distant past – it was prominently correlated with the thinness and emaciation that has become lauded as a sign of health and moral virtue in our day. The advent of the home scale, ready-to-wear clothing, and the calorie all served as methods of keeping score in the mechanistic mindset of the increasingly industrialized world; humankind, having mastered the world, set out to master the human body and its size and shape. Bringle speaks of all this in primarily individualistic terms, however, describing the European fashion and changing cultural ideals (like Twiggy, for instance) that turned women’s heads and started them on the path of battling their bodies. I would have liked to see more of an interrogation of the forces that popularized these particular ideals, and even more so, of the industries that fueled and profited from them and continue to do so to this day. I find it suspicious, for instance, that shortly after men came home from WWII to find their women working and independent that the model of the impossibly thin, perfect housewife suddenly came into vogue, and women became enthralled with their bathroom scales and their waistlines. I also can’t help but wonder how much our individualistic wrestlings with gluttony are a distraction from the systemic acts of gluttony going on in an increasingly economically inequal world. Gluttony is not just about individuals or about individual sin.

         This actually brings us back to the original understanding of gluttony. It isn’t a vice or a demonic thought that simply afflicts a person in isolation. Gluttony has a deep and negative impact on our relationships with God, with our neighbor, with creation, and with ourselves. When our attention is given to food or material goods above all else – whether it be with too much eagerness or too much fastidiousness or too soon or too expensive or too much – we are breaking proper relationships. We fail to give glory and gratitude to God. We fail to give importance to eating in communion with our neighbor and ensuring that all people have enough to eat. We fail to truly appreciate the goodness and abundance of God’s creation, which nurtures and sustains us. And we fail to honor the wisdom of our bodies, on which God has already inscribed the rhythms of feasting and fasting and the need for daily bread, if we would only stop to listen.

         I especially relate with this last sinful symptom of being out of touch with one’s own body, and I suspect that Bringle does, too. I have always been a large person, and now just plainly fat, and was taught from a young age the sort of neo-neoplatonic body-hatred and dissatisfaction that nearly all women learn. I finally stopped dieting about a year ago, and like Bringle, I was terrified of how this might give me license to give in to every one of my cravings and devour everything in sight. For a while, I did feel out of control. But I’ve begun to learn my body’s signals, to recognize thirst and tiredness, and to distinguish genuine hunger from emotional need masquerading as hunger. I have begun to embrace my body as the miraculous gift that it is; able to heal herself, to protect herself against famine by efficiently accruing fat stores that she could care less aren’t fashionable, able to talk and laugh and dance and eat and keep on living. Our bodies, our embodied humanness, truly are precious gifts from God.

         The church has so much to offer a world that is hurting from systemic sins of gluttony, from the oppressive burden of fat-phobia and discrimination, from the pressure of impossible and arbitrary standards of human perfection. We can offer the thinking of theologians like the famously fat Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the fundamental goodness of pleasure and of God’s creation. According to Bringle, Aquinas asserts that first giving thought to the centrality of God in our lives, and then giving attention to the needs of our neighbors will moderate our preoccupation with what we consume. We can offer our creation narrative, the beauty of flesh formed from dust by divine hands, inspired with the breath and Spirit of God, and declared by the Creator of all to be very good, a human flesh-creature that is of one piece with a glorious, abundant, and pleasant creation. And for me, the most compelling thing we can offer is our theology of incarnation. God became flesh – and dwelt among us. Our redemption through Jesus Christ wasn’t through some ethereal cosmic act, but by acts of flesh and blood, by the sharing of bread and wine, grilled fish and figs, by annointing with rich and costly spices, by walking the dust of the earth, by dining with sinners, by dying as one of us. Christ was labeled a drunkard and a glutton for his enjoyment of creation, but he truly showed us an example of how to live in right relationship with the material goodness of creation. Recovering a richly Christian theology of gluttony can help all of us to heal our relationships with creation, with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves.

[1] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos — Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger, 2nd ed. edition (Spencer, Mass: Cistercian Publications, 4, 1972), 29.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Louise Bringle, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters (Nashville: Abingdon Pr, 1992), 73.

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