The Seven Deadly Sins have fallen on hard times. Codified by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride enjoyed a robust career in the Middle Ages, inspiring countless works of art. In the current Cathechism of the Catholic Church, however, these seven sins warrant exactly one paragraph (out of nearly 3000). Which is just as well, I suppose–positive invocations of morality probably help a lot more than simply listing sins, which often only encourages further (often Pharasaical) list-making. Still, there is one good thing which can come from such explicit lists: they make it hard to rationalize away something that we ought to strive mightly to avoid. In my judgement, our church leaders do a good job at preventing us from forgetting about the perils of lust, greed, wrath, envy and pride. Sloth I’ll leave for another day. But gluttony? This, I fear, is one that’s been allowed to slip through the cracks.
As in so many things, the modern world has built up a false image of gluttony in order to simultaneously mock it and also escape association with it. The “glutton” is, popular imagination would have it, nothing more or less than a fat man, an obese and irresponsible consumer of whatever he can lay his hands on. This is a clever cariacature, because it’s at least partially true: when Rosalynde wrote her very thoughtful post about how and to what degree our religious beliefs and practices affect our weight or how we view it, she cast it in terms of gluttony, and properly so, since that’s how most of us use the word. But the original point of the term was never related to one’s girth, or indeed one’s health at all. Rather, it was related to the love one felt for food or drink, and by extension any kind of physical pleasure. “Excessive love of pleasure” was Dante’s rendering: to be gluttonous was to passionately indulge in things, consumable things, in such a way as to warp one’s appreciation of their actual significance as gifts from God. This might begin to sound like what is so often called “worldliness” in the scriptures, and that’s certainly part of it; being in the world but not of it is prophetic call that is drilled into all of us with great regularity. But gluttony gets at something subtle but still important that straightforward worldliness perhaps does not–it is not enough to not give the world your allegiance, but you also ought to be careful just how much or in what way you love it, or enjoy it.
How to know when one’s partaking and consuming of worldly things has become gluttonous? Does this just bring us back around to more listmaking? To a degree, I suppose, thought the revelations of the prophets provide a good guide: D&C 49: 18-21 is a good starting place. Here we’re told that there’s nothing wrong with abundance; the problem comes with possession and waste. To lord one’s possessions over another person, or to partake of more than one needs, is sinful. What is being asked for is a humbler posture in life, a temperant and moderate one. A light touch is called for, as the Word of Wisdom suggests: “Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving. Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.” Again, God makes it clear that he has nothing against the feast, against thanksgiving, against celebration–but do it in season, sparingly, when appropriate. One who indulges in the world in accordance with what is needed and appropriate is one who loves the bounty of the world properly, not excessively.
Of course, all this talk of seasons is appropriate today in the northern hemisphere, the first day of autumn, 2005. It gets one thinking about the harvest, about the changing of times across the land. In an exchange about BYU programs on T&S a while back, Jim Faulconer made the observation that “there really aren’t that many LDS farmers out there any more, an accurate comment which made both Adam and I sad; there are a lot of reasons why this sadness may or may not be defensible, but one such is that someone who is closer to the production of the food he or she eats is less likely to take that food for granted–which is not to say that they will be miserly of it, but rather than they will appreciate it for what it is: a hard-won gift, something deserving of celebration but also care. (While I put this in poetic terms, it is also plainly practical, as any farmer knows: you eat, with relish, what’s in season, because it won’t be available later, but you also hold back on your consumption of it, so you can plant it again next year.) It seems to me that, whether they’ve ever looked at it in these terms of not, such a concern for engendering a proper, non-gluttonous love of the world is very much at the heart of the old (but, until I hear otherwise, I presume still operative) call that members of the church try to plant and tend gardens. Of course the prophets must realize that a great many of the members who hear them–to be a sure a majority of the American and European members of the church at any rate, and probably a great many elsewhere around the world as well–could not possibly feed themselves and their families through gardening, not given where they likely live and the socio-economic niches they’ve for the most part professional committed themselves to in the world. But even a small garden–some tomatoes, some herbs, whatever–teaches one a little bit about the seasons, about the kind of work that involves waiting for something to be ready, and thus about what it means to take delight in the world (the taste of a fresh strawberry, or a ripe ear of corn) without overindulging one’s love for it. So perhaps the point of such counsel, and for that matter the Word of Wisdom itself, is not to teach us the path to perfect health (to say nothing of Adonis-like bodies), but rather to get us used to discipline and limit our enjoyment of things; that way our love for the world, because more connected to work and time and less to the simple over-in-an-instant act of consumption, will be less worldly, and less likely to make ourselves a part of it.
Of course, this whole argument begins with the question of what we put into our bodies, which perhaps isn’t the best place to start: too easy to get sidetracked by social pressures about how we look and what’s healthy and what isn’t (something which, as Frank reminded us, is almost impossible to know). Still, if the Lord is willing to use a revelation about eating and refraining, with its talk of wine and fish and grains, as a way to teach the “weakest of all the saints” about what it means to be wise, then I certain have no complaints with starting with food. From the garden to other areas of life, who knows what other virtues might spread? All I can say is, among all the serious gardeners and farmers I’ve known in my life, and I’ve known quite a few, none of them–whatever their other sins–have ever been a glutton, wasteful, overindulgent and disrespectful of others and the world they inhabit. So it’s not a guarantee of salvation, perhaps, but not a bad way of living either.
(More here, if you’re still interested.)