We are all familiar enough with the urges of gluttony. But perhaps we have not stopped to fully consider the spiritual dangers of gluttony. This is something St. John spends a great deal of time discussing. His analysis is very helpful, for he opens up to us the interconnectedness of the spiritual life. St. John expresses the teaching of the Fathers in this way: "the belly is the cause of all human shipwreck."
Why? For two reasons: first, a gluttonous lifestyle feeds the passions which are inherent in man. Unrestrained eating habits spill over into an unrestrained lifestyle. The reason for this is clear: "Gluttony is the prince of the passions." St. John gives several examples. If you struggle with unclean thoughts, remember: "The mind of someone intemperate is filled with unclean longings." If you struggle with talking too much, remember: "The tongue flourishes where food is abundant." If you struggle with a lack of repentance, remember: "A full stomach dries up one's weeping." If you struggle with sexual sin, remember: "The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the passion of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil." Of course, these are just a few examples of many. The point which St. John is making may be summarized as follows. The passions with which you struggle are energized by your gluttonous habits. Gluttony feeds your passions. Fasting takes away their nourishment.
The nature of the spiritual life is that all passion are interconnected. We cannot allow just one passion to be unrestrained. This is especially true of gluttony. If we are gluttonous we will be overwhelmed by other passions as well. And what is true in a negative way is also true in a positive way. If we struggle with gluttony and gain some victory, we also gain victory over our other passions.
But gluttony is not only dangerous because it unleashes our passions. The Fathers also teach that gluttony is dangerous because the demon of gluttony is the front man for other more dangerous demons. "You should remember," counsels St. John, "that frequently a demon can take up residence in your belly and keep a man from being satisfied, even after having devoured the whole of Egypt and after having drunk all of the Nile. After we have eaten, this demon goes off and sends the spirit of fornication against us, saying: `Get him now! Go after him. When his stomach is full, he will not put up much of a fight.' How seldom do we consider this when we are moved to eat. We have been taught to pamper our bodies and submit to their ever demand. Very few of us, however, question what spirit may be behind these desires.
1-2 Gluttony defined. What it produces in the soul.
Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony thinks up seasonings, creates sweet recipes. Stop up one urge and another bursts out; stop that one and you unleash yet another. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time. A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity. The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous.
3-4 The thoughts and behaviors of the gluttonous are described, as well as the self-deceit that accompanies this vice.
The gluttonous monk celebrates on Saturdays and Sundays. He counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready. The slave of the belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast. The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.
If a visitor calls, then the slave of gluttony engages in charitable acts - but for the reasons associated with his love of food. He thinks that by allowing relaxations for himself, he is bringing consolation to his brother. He thinks that the duties of hospitality entitle him to help himself to some wine, so that while apparently hiding his virtuous love of temperance, he is actually turning into a slave of intemperance.
5-7 We must constantly cultivate temperance while we have the strength, not letting up on our discipline unless we have good reason.
As long as the flesh is in full vigor, we should everywhere and at all times cultivate temperance, and when it has be tamed - something I doubt can happen this side of the grave - we should hide our achievement.
I have seen elderly priests tricked by demons so that on feast days they dispensed the young men with a blessing, though they were not in their charge, from abstinence from wine and so on. Now if priests giving such permission are quite clearly holy men, we may indulge. But within limits. If such priests tend to be careless, then we should ignore the permission they give, and we should do so especially if we are in the thick of the fight against the flesh.
8-10 Our temperance must be sensible and prudent. We must know what kind of food to eat and when to eat it. John also warns us that we must guard against the demon who suggest that we should modify our fast or extend it.
When our soul wants different foods, it is looking for what is proper to its nature. Hence, we have to be very cunning in the way we deal with this most skillful opponent. Unless we are caught up in some crisis or unless we happen to be doing penance for some particular failings, what we ought to do is to deny ourselves fattening foods, then foods that warm us up, then whatever happens to make our food especially pleasant. Give yourself food that is satisfying and easily digestible, thereby counteracting endless hunger by giving yourself plenty. In this way we may be freed from too great a longing for food as though from a plague by rapid evacuation. And we should note too that most food that inflates the stomach also encourages desire.
Be sure to laugh at the demon who, when supper is over, says that in the future you should eat later, for you may be sure that at the ninth hour he will change the arrangements made on the previous day.
11-13 If we are guided by the right spirit, we should find joy in our discipline, rather than constantly longing to bring it to an end. We should only be looking for the consolation that God offers.
Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment. The warrior monk enjoys the heat of the battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter.
In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.
14-16 Fasting strengthens prayer, calms one's thoughts, makes one more docile and puts a curb on talkativeness; whereas Gluttony dries up the tears of compunction and encourages the spirit of fornication.
A fasting man prays austerely, but the mind of someone intemperate is filled up with unclean imaginings.
A full stomach dries up one's weeping, whereas the shrivelled stomach produces these tears. And the man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the spirit of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil.
Begrudge the stomach and your heart will be humbled; please the stomach and your mind will turn proud. And if you watch yourself early in the morning, at midday, and in the hour before dinner, you will discover the value of fasting, for in the morning your thoughts are lively, by the sixth hour they have grown quieter and by sundown they are finally calm. If you can begrudge the stomach your mouth will stay closed, because the tongue flourishes where food is abundant. Fight as hard as you can against the stomach and let your vigilance hold it in. Mark the effort, however little, and the Lord will quickly come to help you.
17-18 Nature will eventually work in favor of the one who fasts.
If leather bottles are kept supple, they can hold more; but they do not hold so much if they are neglected. The man who stuffs food into his stomach expands his insides, whereas the man who fights his stomach causes it to shrink, and once it has shrunk there is no possibility of overeating, so that henceforth one fasts quite naturally.
19 How the demon of fornication pursues the gluttonous man.
You should remember that frequently a demon can take up residence in your belly and keep a man from being satisfied, even after having devoured the whole of Egypt and after having drunk all of the Nile. After we have eaten, this demon goes off and sends the spirit of fornication against us, saying: "Get him now! Go after him. When his stomach is full, he will not put up much of a fight." Laughing the spirit of fornication, that ally of the stomach's demon, comes, bind us hand and foot in sleep, does anything he wants with us . . .
20-22 In these paragraphs, Climacus touches upon the mystery of the human person, the relationship between body and spirit and how the body is both enemy and friend. It is a subject he will explore in greater detail in Step 15, On Chastity. The path of true temperance is straight and narrow, John tells us, and we must keep to it, always remembering our destiny and what Christ suffered for us.
23 Fasting described: what it fosters and helps to conquer.
To fast is to do violence to nature. It is to do away with whatever pleases the palate. Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind, a deliverance from blindness. Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, and end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.
24-26 John concludes by telling us to listen to Gluttony describe herself, her children and her enemies.
Let us put a question to this enemy of ours, this architect of our misfortunes, this gateway of passion . . .this guide to every uncleanness. Let us ask her from whom she is born, who her children are, what enemy there is to crush her, who finally brings her low. Let us ask this bane of all men, this purchaser of everything with the gold coin of greed: "How did you gain access to us? To what does your coming lead? How do you depart from us?
Angered by such abuse, raging and foaming, Gluttony answers us: "Why are you complaining, you who are my servants? How is it that you are trying to get away from me? Nature has bound me to you. The door for me is what food actually is, its character and quality. The reason for my being insatiable is habit. Unbroken habit, dullness of soul, and the failure to remember death are the roots of my passion. And how is it that you are looking for the names of my offspring? For if I were to count them, their number would be greater than the total of the grains of sand. Still, you may learn at least the names of my firstborn and beloved children. My firstborn son is the servant of Fornication, the second is Hardness of Heart, and the third is Sleepiness. From me flow a sea of Dirty thoughts, waves of Filth, floods of unknown and unspeakable Impurities. My daughters are Laziness, Talkativeness, Breezy Familiarity, Jesting, Facetiousness, Contradiction, Stubbornness, Contempt, Disobedience, Stolidity of Mind, Captivity, Boastfulness, Audacity, Love of Worldly Things, followed by Impure Prayer, Distracted Thoughts, and sudden and often unexpected Catastrophes, with which is linked that most evil of all my daughters, namely, Despair. The thought of past failings is an obstacle to me, but hardly overcomes me. The thought of death is my enemy always, but nothing human can really wipe me out. He who has received the Paraclete prays to Him against me; and the Paraclete, when entreated, does not allow me to act passionately. But those who have never tasted Him inevitably seek pleasure in my sweetness."
Victory over this vice is a brave one . . .