Saturday, October 29, 2022


  Last week, I wrote about “changing my identity” in order to cure myself of gluttony. I gave the example of quitting smoking years ago, which involved an identity shift from a kind of edgy, cool, tough, cynical woman to one who was gentler, softer, more open. I was becoming a woman who was willing to tolerate nicotine cravings in order to stop doing herself harm. So, what aspects of my identity define me as a glutton? What kind of person might I be evolving into now? How does my attitude need to change?

The first step is to just dump out all my thoughts about eating and drinking, writing it all out. All my thoughts about the pleasures of food and drink, the fact that I'm moving to France, and French cuisine, ooh la la! Seasonal produce, and farmers’ markets, and raising chickens, and how much more I love the idea of gardening than gardening itself. All my thoughts about the monastic value of asceticism, and the health effects of diet, and all the permutations of that, carbs, and paleo, and oh … the world food system, industrial agriculture, land reform and social equity – go deep, go broad, let it all flow. Take some time with it. Enjoy it.

Then look back through that stream of consciousness, and pick out one idea that seems especially big and relevant. For me, the one that rises to the top is not wanting to “deprive myself” of the pleasures of food and drink. So let's stop and think about that. In this day and age, “depriving yourself” seems almost pathological, doesn't it? It seems like a sign of one of these invisible disorders, like agoraphobia or OCD or bulimia. But I want to challenge it.

What if there is value in “depriving myself”? How might it actually be a sign of mental and spiritual health, rather than pathology? I was born in 1967, and “go with the flow” was something I grew up on. You know, “if it feels good, do it,” and all that hippy stuff. “Self-discipline” was never really modelled for me as a child. But in other times and cultural settings, self-deprivation has been considered to be a valuable thing, positively character-building. Certainly, the desert mothers and fathers thought so. “Fasting and vigils” wasn't for the purpose of getting fashionably thin! St. Paul thought so, too. The same guy who was so passionate about the Spirit over the Law also talked about self-deprivation and self-discipline, training the body and the will like an athlete preparing for a great contest.

I think the spiritual value of self-denial is to loosen the power that temptation has over the will. It's freedom. Quitting smoking was hell, but once it was past – when, after a whole year, I finally gave up even the nicotine gum – I was free from that compulsion. Nowadays, I see people smoking and I think, “thank you, God, that I don't smoke any more.” Freedom from internal compulsion is, I think, the goal of all ascetical discipline. The more I satisfy every passing urge, the harder it becomes to resist the next. The lizard brain gets bigger and fiercer, the rational “executive” brain gets weaker. This is called “neuroplasticity.” The payoff for resisting temptation is weakening temptation.

And then, maybe, I even want to question this idea that food is one of the great pleasures of life. In my family, that might sound like heresy. Family gatherings always revolve around food. It’s always potluck, and it’s always fabulous. My mother’s mother was from one of these foodie Mediterranean cultures, and my father took cooking classes with Jacques Pepin. I myself chose cooking for a second career, thinking it was a good choice because I love good food so much! 

The thing is, though, to really stop and think about how I actually eat. I don’t mean at those occasional family get-togethers, special occasions, or the rare times when I get inspired to make the effort to try a new recipe or something. I mean daily. I mean, stop and really think about how I eat every day, and whether I overeat because I enjoy the food so much. And honestly, sometimes I do, but usually … no. 

In real life, in all the time I've been gaining weight over the last year, I've hardly been cooking. Before I left Maryland, I was in the long process of getting rid of almost all my stuff, including all the lovely heavy pots and pans, all my good knives, everything that made cooking with care possible. I was choosing meals around using up as much as possible of what was already in the freezer and the pantry. In Spain, my kitchen is tiny and awkwardly laid out, and furnished with mediocre cookware, so I'm cooking even less often. I am, frankly, living mostly on toast with cold cuts, fruit, and simple green salad. I usually eat beans from a can once or twice a week, with pickles for a green vegetable. That's not gourmet. I eat out rarely. I can't get used to the Spanish habit of eating dinner way late after bedtime.

So no. In principle, food is one of the great pleasures of life, our enjoyment of it a gift from God that it's wrong to scorn, all that good stuff. And true, sometimes, I eat more than my body needs because I'm enjoying what I'm eating so much. But in practice, day in and day out, that's really beside the point. I eat from boredom, I eat from stress, I eat as a distraction from something that's not going the way I want it to. I keep eating past satiety because it's on my plate, and I'm not paying attention to my body's cues. 

To really honor the gift of the pleasures of the palate, I would have to be much more mindful (there's that word again) of menu planning, exploring farm markets to find what's best in season, researching new recipes, cooking it all from scratch. And while I might choose to do some of that, I don't want to put all my energy into it day in and day out. It's too much! 

And this brings me to another thought. If I embrace the reality that everyday meals are just fuel for the body, and not endless gourmet banquets, then genuine feasts get to be feasts. Sundays can be differentiated from ordinary weekdays. Birthdays, holidays, feast days, and those family pot lucks can stand out from the everyday, on purpose. 

I sometimes catch myself thinking “I'm going to have a treat,” when really, why? Because I got out of bed this morning? I mean, maybe sometimes I've done something extra hard and worthwhile, and it might make sense to treat myself with something special. But if it's “just because,” just because I feel like it, then you know what? That's not a treat, it's just ordinary everyday gluttony. A treat can be a great source of dopamine, something brains with ADHD are chronically short of – but just like any drug, the more you indulge, the less of a high you get from it. If chocolate is kept for special, 2 bites are more than enough to make me happy. If it's every day, a whole cake won't satisfy. Let me eat ascetically most of the time, so I can enjoy my food more, not less.

St. Benedict said that “all the tools and property of the monastery should be treated as the sacred vessels of the altar.” That includes the kitchen, cookware, and all the food. More aptly, I can extend it to include my body itself, a sacred vessel of the Spirit of God. We are created to take pleasure in many different foods, a gift I accept with gratitude. Let me not insult the Giver of the gifts of food, palate, and bodily health, by treating them carelessly. Let me take back my internal freedom from the "demon" of gluttony, by becoming more mindful of what, when, and how much I eat, day by day. Amen.

<<< PEACE >>>

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