Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.
Today I’d like to talk a little about gluttony. It’s the New Year, after all, and generally the time for resolutions and better intentions. I’ve been noticing all of the advertisements in the paper for gym memberships and Weight Watchers and weight loss by hynosis (boy, wouldn’t that be great if that worked!) and it’s got me thinking a lot about a topic that has been on my mind for years.
You might think this a bit of an odd topic for an ecclesiastical tailor whose focus tends to be primarily on beauty and our historical garment traditions, but I am in the dubious position of being particularly qualified to speak on this topic. Mostly through personal experience since I have been a life-long glutton, but also because this topic does touch lightly on my professional experience—my work requires that I fit people of all body types. One of the greatest surprises I experienced when I first began tailoring was that men seemed just as concerned with their weight and body issues as women. To say I was dumbfounded by the first priest who sheepishly told me he was really working on taking the weight off is an understatement. My husband had always been a string bean, high-metabolism type who really does prefer a nice steak to a bowl of ice cream, so I had no reference point. I naively thought only women were particularly susceptible to the sins of vanity and gluttony, but was quickly disabused of this notion after just one week at a national conference fitting clients. Men and women both had issues with food, which was really no surprise at all given our cultural attitudes toward food and gluttony here in America.
What got me thinking again on this topic and what the Church has to offer those of us who have a particular struggle with the passion of gluttony was Kevin Allen’s recent interview with Met. Jonah. I’ve been following Met. Jonah’s election and enthronement with much personal interest since I was at the All-American Council in Pittsburgh and experienced firsthand the excitement of his election. I’ve also been working on his enthronement vestments during most of the month of December—for those of you interested, my next podcast will be on bishops vestments, so please stay tuned—and have really enjoyed listening to his election speech and Kevin’s interviews through Ancient Faith Radio. But it was a small phrase during this interview that got me thinking of gluttony again. Met. Jonah was referring to the Orthodox Church as a native, local church and spoke of how so many of us in America are still experiencing the Church as “translated” Orthodoxy. He mentioned some of the terms like theosis and synergy and how they aren’t part of a regular man-on-the-street’s vocabulary—honestly, can you really envision your mailman speaking of the synergy of the US Postal Service?
Now I realize that Met. Jonah was speaking of far larger, more theological terms, but I had a little light go off in my head when he said “translated Orthodoxy” that made me think of gluttony. After all, how many of us call ourselves gluttons? What do you think of when you hear the word “glutton”? I think of a great big, crass medieval lord type gnawing on a greasy chicken drumstick with a table laden with all sorts of rich foods and goblets of wine. I certainly don’t think of myself standing in the kitchen eating popcorn at eleven o’clock at night after I’ve had a bowl of ice cream. When I think of gluttony, I think of Charles Dickens’ England in which the rich sit around a table groaning with food that in our modern minds, is embarrassingly gluttonous while the poor have barely enough to survive. Gluttons and gluttony tend to be the stuff of historical images or Victorian novels—imbued with an almost ancient air, certainly not something for us to be concerned with today.
But, gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins as they used to be called and still are in my little red prayer book. For those of you needing a refresher, they are Pride, Greed, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth. And, in my experience, Gluttony or “Sin No. 5” really is deadly.
I began life as a big baby weighing in at 9 lbs. Throughout a rather stressful childhood, I learned to eat for comfort or for relief, for happiness or out of boredom. The food of my childhood was classic 1970s fare—overly processed and not particularly healthy. During the summer before I began high school, I spent weeks starving myself so that I wouldn’t be teased at my new school. I succeeded in keeping my weight mostly in control throughout high school, but largely due to living on chicken and frozen vegetables.
On our first date in high school, my husband took me to a very upscale restaurant and I was quite nervous. I had rarely eaten in restaurants as a child and the whole experience of food as joyful community was very new to me. The lingering over a meal, the beautiful presentation of the food, the ornamented atmosphere—all of it felt as if I were eating on a different planet. Later on, as our relationship progressed, I met his family and began eating with them on a regular basis—Sunday dinners or holiday feasts—and this same experience of food being intertwined with community was captivating and delightful. His mother was (and still is!) a wonderful cook and I began to enjoy all sorts of foods I had never tasted before—artichokes, flank steak, salads with more than just iceberg lettuce and grated carrots. But more importantly, I noticed that not just my body was filled when I sat at table with my in-laws; my mind was filled as well by the conversation and the warm interchanges, funny stories, and shared family history that seemed to be integral to each meal. I began to think of food more than just fuel or a way to experience emotions.
When my husband and I were newly-married, we lived on a very sparse budget, but we chose one food luxury—coffee. Our monthly food allotment was $250, but we spent $8/lb on gourmet coffee and enjoyed every cup! I began to learn to cook, but it wasn’t until we were living at seminary and I suddenly had 20 people sitting on my living room floor eating chili that I decided that I needed to add to my repertoire. Enter my friend, Thea, another seminarian’s wife, whose Greek father was an excellent cook. I certainly wasn’t in the big leagues, but I could at least do a respectable lamb roast by the time we left seminary! Throughout our time in seminary, my weight went up and down as I struggled with the pressures of seminary life and the responsibility of being the main breadwinner. I would go on fad diets, starve myself for a few days, but in general, I felt completely out of control about food. I was a food addict, having little or no control of what I put in my mouth. My husband was very understanding and helped with certain things, like keeping potato chips out of the apartment, but he couldn’t very well put a lock and key over my mouth, so I continued to struggle.
My gluttony reached an all-time high (or should I say low?!) just after the birth of my first daughter which was also our first year in our parish. My weight went to almost 200 lbs, which on my 5’3” frame was definitely obese. The turning point came when I stood in my kitchen, holding my newborn daughter with one arm and stuffing a lemon bar into my mouth with the other. I looked down at her trusting little face and was horrified by the thought that I was going to be setting this terrible example of gluttony for her. How merciful is our God that He gives us our own children to help us repent. I put the unfinished lemon bar down and made a resolution that I was going to get control of this area of my life if it was the last thing I did.
Now, you might be wondering why I’m sharing all of these gory details of my overweight life, but it’s important to note that by the time my gluttony was out of control, I had been an Orthodox Christian for six years and had never once thought of confessing gluttony during the Sacrament of Repentance. I was living my Orthodox Christian life “in translation”—I wasn’t that medieval lord cramming drumsticks in his mouth! I might eat a bit past full or snack in the evenings when I wasn’t really hungry or think about food all day, but I certainly wasn’t the same as him so what did I really have to confess?!
But looking down at my daughter that day, I realized that I must face my “food issues” head on as the passion they were—the passion of gluttony—and that I must make it a work of repentance vital to my spiritual life. I was going to have to get down and dirty with this passion and struggle with it as if I was one of the early Christians in the arena with a vicious lion. This was no little peccadillo that I could control if I really wanted to—it was a fierce beast ready to tear me apart and I was going to have to fight for my life, both physically and spiritually.
Now, gluttony is really the sin of giving one’s self too much and if we could rename Sin No. 5, the sin of “too much”, I think we might all start taking it a little more seriously. It’s not simply a sin of food or eating, it’s also a sin of anything in our lives in which we partake “too much”. Call it the “addiction sin” and I think we’d be getting a little bit closer to a contemporary name for this most ancient of sins.
So, I began to face my addiction through a variety of methods. I began group therapy to overcome my emotional eating and this was very helpful as it gave me lots of good techniques to make me think about my motives for eating whenever I put something in my mouth. I read lots of books on nutrition and dieting, not because I necessarily needed lots of information, but because I needed to be reminded of my struggle on a daily basis. If you’re facing an angry bear, you don’t look around and whistle a happy tune—you keep your eyes on that bear and don’t think of anything else. I began to exercise, learning about weightlifting and cardio and the like. Never very athletic, I discovered that I excelled at weightlifting with its slow repetitions and extreme focus. About six months after the birth of my second daughter, I was at my goal weight, which I’ve stayed within a few pounds of ever since.
Now, once again, I’d like to point out that I worked on my addiction for almost three years before it occurred to me that the Church might have some weapons of her own to offer me in this battle. I began looking at the discipline of fasting much more closely, finally reaching the realization that dealing with my gluttony on a spiritual level first was of primary importance if I was going to win the battle. I’d tried all sorts of fad diets, ones that had me saying things like “Well, I can’t really follow the fast right now, I’m working on a much harder diet.” But once I realized that the passion of gluttony was rooted in my soul, not just my body, I knew I had to grab hold of any spiritual tool the Church could provide me and wield it accordingly in my struggle.
So, I began learning to fast. Sure, I had fasted before, but I hadn’t taken it quite as seriously as I should. I didn’t want to just suffer through the fast, I wanted to appreciate the fast; after all, this was truly my only hope. My husband in teaching his catechism classes likens fasting to a journey, one in which we begin making little steps and then larger and larger steps as time goes on. This image gave me focus, realizing that each fasting season was a time for me to sharpen my weapons, so to speak, in order that the discipline and focus that I learned during the fasting seasons would carry me over through the non-fasting times. Because discipline is at the heart of fasting—making yourself do something you don’t want to do. I remember speaking of this with my spiritual father and him saying, “Fasting is 50% making up your mind and then 50% doing it”. But each fast saw me a little stronger and a little more disciplined. And, it wasn’t just the fasting—it was also the feasting in its proper context AFTER fasting—that helped normalize my relationship with food. I no longer liked to eat past fullness, but on Pascha, I would eat a bite of absolutely everything I wanted without counting a calorie or fat gram and truly enjoy the food. I was beginning to be blessed by food, not cursed as I used to feel.
About four years ago, I was given an additional challenge—I was diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance. The short explanation is that I do not have the proper genetic structure to process glutinous foods like wheat, rye, or barley and that if I do consume these foods, I will have 50-100 times the chance for stomach cancer than your average person. The first few months following the gluten-free diet were very discouraging as it seemed every food known to man included some kind of gluten and there were days I stood and my refrigerator and cried. But once again, my spiritual father gave me excellent advice when I began moaning and groaning—he told me that I had been given a gift and that now I would fast all the time. Boy, I thought, talk about irony—the girl with the food issues gets the grand-daddy of food issues! But in hindsight, I know that this disease was given to me just in time—I had long before reached my goal weight and was somewhat under the impression that I had licked this addiction. However, through the disease, I’ve learned one of the most important lessons about gluttony or any passion with which we particularly struggle and that is that the struggle is life-long and at least in this earthly life, we don’t get the luxury of saying we’re “done” or “fixed”. The single greatest freedom I experienced in my struggle with gluttony was paradoxically the knowledge that this beast was with me for life. I needed to always keep a wary eye on him and be prepared for his next attack. He wasn’t going to just docilely walk away—he was on the prowl until I, God-willing, reached the Kingdom of Heaven.
This knowledge made me sharpen my weapons all the more and nowadays I try to use the three major ascetic disciplines—fasting, almsgiving, and prayer—to continue to fight the battle. Fasting is a natural discipline when it comes to gluttony, but less obviously are almsgiving and prayer. Almsgiving is sacrificial and breaks the “me first” attitude of the heart and subsequently, the body. When we’re giving alms, we’re getting used to doing without or doing with less, and all of this is good discipline for fighting gluttony. As with all the passions, prayer is vital to our victory, and one little tip I learned along the way was to bless my food as a litmus test—if I could bless the piece of food going in my mouth, good; if I could not in good conscience bless it, then I wasn’t going to eat it.
Alongside the ascetical disciplines, I have worked on experiencing the joyful and communal aspect of food, as this is what food was originally intended for. My family sits down to a home-cooked meal most days and it’s a rule in our house that dinner last an hour, complete with conversation and checking in with each family member and how their day is going. We sit in the dining room and use the good china so that my daughters learn the proper use of food. I’ve learned from the Middle Eastern families in my parish and how they approach food and community and what a powerful weapon this can be—it’s very hard to overeat when you’re surrounded by loved ones!
All in all, this battle of mine with gluttony has been a journey, an education, and a gift. A journey in which I’ve travelled along and “met” new comrades such as the ascetical disciplines; an education in humility and my own weakness, and a gift of salvation for as St. Paul says “that we may be…strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in which we have the redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col 1:11-14)