As part of my regular academic work, I’m currently writing a book chapter tentatively titled “Holy gluttony: Bede and the Carolingians on the pleasures of exegesis.” It’s intended for inclusion in a book on the understanding of pleasure and pleasurable activity in the Middle Ages, a book partly meant to refute the popular idea that medieval people were just a bunch of miserable, gloomy folks with no enjoyments, pastimes, or hopes, destined only for a brutal, ignorant life of deprivation and an early, equally brutal and ignorant death. The pseudo-scholarly representation of this view (and the forwarding of a putative and tendentious alternative) might be seen in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011), which sets up the Middle Ages as a sort of deprived straw man, easily knocked down by the solidly interesting early modern period, with its focus on pleasure, individuality, science, choice, etc. As R.R. Reno put it in his review in First Things:
Today’s convenient philosophy for elites is a new materialism. Greenblatt demonstrates no interest in the ways in which Epicurus counseled modest desires and adopted a largely ironic view of society. The Swerve moves in the opposite direction, blustering again and again about the beauty-loathing, eros-denying evils of Christianity, and sighing in the usual postmodern way about pleasure and desire.
Other chapters in the book on medieval pleasure will tackle a lot of different activities, but my chapter explores how early medieval authors frequently spoke of the practice of the spiritual reading of Scripture as an activity involving intense spiritual pleasure, akin to stuffing oneself with food or becoming drunk. Now, apparently for my sins, divine providence seems to have arranged things so that my editors have asked for my revisions right in the middle of this season of the year, the time perhaps most clearly associated with an abundance of food and drink. Harvest Festivals, Halloween, and Thanksgiving have all gone by, and we are now rolling on full-steam towards Christmas, separated only by the remaining weeks of Advent.
In other words, I’m forced to think theologically and historically about gluttony, both physical and spiritual, right at the time of the year most marked by it. We’ve all been eating too much carnal food, and we’ve started our journey through some of the headiest readings in the Church’s liturgical year. Both forms of gluttony are only going to grow in their intensity, of course, in the coming weeks.
Part of my chapter tries to grapple with the relationship between these two forms of gluttony, as well as the paradox of even speaking of gorging oneself spiritually or becoming spiritually drunk. It is here that I face the greatest difficulties in grappling with my sources, and it is also here that I have discovered some material with the greatest promise — one finds that the two often go hand-in-hand in the writings of early theologians, a fact of which they are themselves aware. It is in the aporia, in the unsolved problems, and in the tensions between apparently contradictory concepts that we often find the most significant areas for future reflection.
But I should explain what those problems are.
The short version might be this. In ancient and early medieval medical, philosophical, and theological texts, overindulgence in food and drink, called gula or gastrimargia, was often considered a danger to one’s physical and spiritual health. On the physical end, it was thought to lead to indigestion, an overexcitement of one’s bodily capacities and pleasures, an increase in unnecessary fluids and other matter (leading to all sorts of problems: fatness, gout, etc.), and various other problems.
On the spiritual end, it was thought to exacerbate an individual’s problems with self-control and hinder the ability to address issues of a higher moral spiritual nature. It is commonly asserted that one could not expect to address one’s problems with pride, without first learning to manage one’s physical appetites.
Multiple solutions were proposed. At the most basic end were (a) moderation in the amount of food consumed and (b) an avoidance of elaborate meals, something counseled nearly everywhere. But philosophical and theological texts often went further: planned abstentions from meat and alcohol, sometimes complete, were quite common. More advanced ascetic texts prescribed deliberately meager or harsh diets or specific exercises for diagnosing one’s internal state. For example, one famous Stoic exercise involved having a meal prepared, sitting before it, and choosing not to eat, in order to observe one’s internal state before an arousal of the natural appetites. Regular fasting, of course, was a staple prescription, both within and without Christian circles. But Christian authors arguably commended fasting to a higher degree, exalting what was seen as a positive effect on the body and soul.
A quotation from a fourth-century treatise is appropriate here:
Fasting heals diseases, dries up the bodily humors, casts out demons, chases away wicked thoughts, makes the mind clearer and the heart purer, sanctifies the body and places the person before the throne of God. … For fasting is the life of the angels, and the one who makes use of it has angelic rank (Pseudo-Athanasius, De virginitate 7).
So, overeating and being drunk is bad for you; it leads to ill health, to a disturbed physical and spiritual equilibrium, and, eventually, to sin. The general solution is fairly simple: don’t eat so much, and plan your regular diet carefully. Endure prolonged periods of abstention, and you’ll reap the benefits: angelic life and all that.
So much for carnal gluttony and one of its solutions. What about spiritual gluttony?
Here’s where things get a little weird, at least to me. Beginning around the turn of the eighth century, it seems, at least with the Venerable Bede, many of those commenting on Scripture begin to write frequently about the possibility of becoming stuffed with the “bread” of the Word of God, as well as drunk with “the wine of the spiritual understanding.” And, as a strange parallel to the gluttony paradigm, this spiritual form of overindulgence leads to a higher state of morality. One becomes more moral, more virtuous by enjoying this spiritual pleasure, by being stuffed and drunk to capacity and beyond, by engaging in the continuing interpretation of Scripture.
For some, this might seem like no problem at all. It’s a no-brainer that a spiritual pleasure causes no harm. It’s impossible to spend too much time thinking about and interpreting the Bible (well, maybe).
But the kicker is this: why is the spiritual pleasure described in the same terms as the physical, but with opposite effects? Isn’t there a problem with describing a good activity in precisely the same terms as a bad activity?
Here, as in so many other areas, I’m a firm believer that the Church Fathers are our best guides. As Gregory the Great puts it, this is simply how God talks to us; he has to refer to things we understand. As he says in the prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs:
When the human race was thrust out from the joys of paradise … it became blind of heart, lacking in spiritual insight. Had the divine voice spoken to this blind heart, saying “Seek God” or “Love God” … the heart would not have grasped what it heard because of its lazy indifference. For that reason, the divine Word speaks to the dull and lukewarm soul, and, from those things which the soul knows, it secretly inspires a love of which the soul knows nothing.
For allegory supplies the soul separated from God with a device (machina) by which it is raised to God. By means of dark sayings in whose words a person can understand something of his own, he can understand what is not his to understand; by earthly words he can be raised above the earth.
That is, God speaks to us of ineffable joys of which we know nothing by describing them as ones that are eminently known, spoken of, and enjoyed. He excites us towards spiritual pleasures by reminding us of carnal ones. It is in the effective “switching of the bait” between the two that we begin learning how to enjoy the spiritual.
But this makes the relationship between the two kinds of pleasure quite fraught. The love of the good is brought about by one’s lust for evil, desire for the appropriate by means of a longing for the inappropriate. Perhaps it can only be so, this side of human sin and in the midst of a fallen (and falling) world. God intervenes to heal us and to remind us of what desire is for, what our natural and our spiritual appetites are truly about. It is only in the purification of our current desires that we can arrive at true ones.
So what is the takeaway in the midst of this season of gluttony, of abundant feasting and drinking? This is no simple prescription to fast and to engage in extended Bible reading, prayer, or contemplation (spiritual gluttony) instead of eating too much (carnal gluttony). No, I shall start with a patristic assumption: we’re all going to eat and drink too much in this season; we’re all going to fail to fast and pray as we ought.
Instead, this post offers a reminder. In this season of dark and cold nights, as we frequently and almost obsessively indulge our desires for more and better food, for endlessly elaborate treats, for warming and comforting drinks in the company of friends and family, we must know that our incredible capacity to enjoy such things ought to remind us of something else. Our desire for food and drink is, at heart, a reminder of our more basic and fundamental desire for spiritual nourishment, inebriation, and communion.
There is a holy gluttony in which we have only begun to indulge. May we remember to do so this Advent.
The featured image is “Thanksgiving dinner” (2009) by Ian Westcott. It is licensed under Creative Commons.