Thursday, December 03, 2009

'Tis the Season for Temperance
by John Zmirak

As the season of "holiday parties" comes upon us, it's probably time to give another thought to Gluttony and Temperance -- since we're each likely to struggle over the next few weeks with many, many temptations. Gluttony is (pun intended) a protean phenomenon, and it's hard to choose a single exemplar of Temperance. For one thing, the form modern food-Gluttony takes is unprecedented, and it has fed a nation where the poorer somebody is, the more likely he is to be overweight. (This isn't because the lower orders are culpably guilty of Gluttony, but because the least healthy calories are the cheapest and quickest, and working-class folks don't find the time to prepare fresh veggies and healthy fruit salads. They're too busy bringing in two incomes so they can keep their kids from getting stabbed in public schools.)

And we lack Scholastic commentary on the proper use of Jiffy-Pop. Ironically, one person who has written most wisely on the proper enjoyment of fleshly pleasures is G. K. Chesterton, who manifestly couldn't walk the talk. (Sadly, by the end, he could barely fit in the bathtub.)

So instead of taking a single figure and trying to stretch him to meet the need, let me make instead a mosaic of wise men and women whose contributions can help our heads better rule our bellies. Let's consider, in succession:

St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism. Unsettled by the self-starvation, idleness, and hallucinations that afflicted many hermits, Benedict gathered his monks into tight-knit communities that combined regular hours of worship with useful work that he counted as prayer. As monks, they would mostly shun meat, but Benedict's brothers were commanded to eat at least twice daily of a healthy variety of foods, and to drink at most one tankard of wine. Given that Benedict's brethren became the leading producers of wine and beer in Europe (click here for encyclopedic documentation that I damaged my liver compiling), this rule must sometimes have been more difficult to keep than Chastity. At least the monasteries weren't manufacturing women.

Dom Prosper Gueranger, author of the encyclopedia of Christian worship, The Liturgical Year -- which was bedside reading for countless saints, the most famous Therese of Lisieux. In that book, Gueranger lamented the decline of fasting in the Western Church. As those of you who are centuries old will remember, this used to entail abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday, fasting most of the days in Advent and Lent, and abstaining even from water from midnight until the moment we took Communion -- instead of skipping that bagel in the parking lot. In his chapter "The History of Lent," Gueranger quotes a previous Pope Benedict (number XIV):

The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God's glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.


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