Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

November 30, 2008

one of an occasional series of sermons the Seven Deadly Sins

Rev. Catherine Torpey

There once was a mythical land named Cockaigne, described here in a poem translated from medieval Dutch:

I recently came upon a land
A land unknown and strange
Now listen well, for 'tis wondrous true
What God did there arrange.

In that land, one lives and breathes,
Without any work or pain!
Has anyone seen a better land
Than that place they call Cockaigne?

There no one suffers shortages,
The walls are made of sausages.
Every window and every door
Is made of salmon and nothing more.

Pancakes are the tabletops,
The mugs are all fermented hops.
And all the plates that you will find
Are plated with the gold they’ve mined.

The bread, it lies next to the wine
Which sparkles like the great sunshine.
The beams that in the house are laid
Are made of butter, fresh homemade.

Hinges and spools and even the spackle
Are baked of the finest and crispiest crackle.
There are the roof planks overhead
Baked of finest gingerbread.

The hares and rabbits, the deer and wild boar
All let men catch them with their hand
Has anyone ever seen anything more?
Has anyone seen a better land?

There are nice clothes very cheap,
In front of each door they lie in a heap,

All may to their liking choose
Finery such as stockings and shoes:
Eating and drinking make all the day
And no one ever has to pay

It rains and rains in all fair parts
Sweets and pastries and various tarts.
As anyone seeing that lovely land would
I declare that Cockaigne is very, very good.

Ah, the life of eating and eating and eating and never working…. i

Doesn’t it sound dreamy?

The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, advocated a life of pleasure.  He, in fact, called pleasure the alpha and omega of a blessed life. “Pleasure is our first and kindred good,” he said. “We make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.”  This past week, I have a feeling that many of us were rather Epicurean in our partaking of food and drink.  I don’t suppose any of you sat around the kitchen table reading Saint Thomas Aquinas’ words about gluttony.  Imagine, telling us that our love of eating is a sin – and possibly, if we do it bad enough, a deadly sin?  How can this be?

After all, I know that too much food and drink can be bad for me, can make my jeans too tight, can stress my organs – but sinful?  How can a hardy appetite make me a sinner?

In the passage that Rita read from the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas reiterates what Gregory the Great – the guy who enumerated the seven deadly sins – had said about gluttony.  He says that it manifests itself in several ways:  As to the kind of food we want, we might want it too sumptuous or too daintily prepared; or we might just eat too much, eat it too quickly or eat it too greedily.

I’m supposed to eat slowly, without greediness, and not too much; that I tell myself every day.  But Thomas says I shouldn’t want it to be too sumptuous or too daintily prepared?  Of course, you know that Thomas was a very large guy….  So why should I listen to him?

Most of us Unitarian Universalists don’t think of anything as sinful.  We tend to think of the whole concept of sin as… well, sort of sinful.  The idea of sin brings to mind feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, a tyrranical religion which we seek to escape.  (Something a tasty muffin might help us get over.)

The notion of sin to Saint Thomas and to traditional theology was the notion that some things are offensive to God, even if they seem victim-less.  Nowadays, we are very focused on letting each person do whatever they like as long as they don’t hurt another person.  A theology that focused on the notion of sin, however, focuses much more on the internal life of the individual, rather than on that individual’s relationship to other people.  The trouble with gluttony, according to Thomas, is that our relationship with food and drink can be, in his language, “disordered.”  It is very possible to make food so important that it seems almost Godlike.

A few years ago woman named Francine Prose gave a lecture at the New York Public Library on Gluttony, and noted that
even as gluttony has (at least in the popular imagination) ceased to be a spiritual transgression, food, the regulation of eating, and the related subjects of dieting, obesity, nutrition, etc. have become major cultural preoccupations.  A casual survey of the self-help section of the local bookstore will make it clear how large a place gluttony (in its new, deconsecrated form) now occupies in our collective consciousness.ii.

While we might not think of our eating habits as an offense against almighty God, a lot of us sure do feel shame, guilt and frustration around our eating habits.  And one has to wonder if the change in orientation from seeing it as a spiritual problem to seeing it as a problem of psychology or willpower has helped at all.  (It has certainly helped to sell a lot of books and weight loss schemes.)

Maybe Thomas and those early Church theologians weren’t so crazy to see gluttony as a spiritual land mine.  Gluttony – or, in modern language, our relationship with food and drink – was not a bad choice for the list of seven deadly sins.  It is one of the most dangerous shoals on which the ship of our lives can become grounded, stuck, immovable, sluggish, flabby….  (Something another bite of a muffin might help us deal with.)

Our relationship with food is a fundamental relationship in our lives.  A long time ago, I had a dear friend who was bulemic – in other words, she went through periods of gorging herself and periods of starving herself.  For her, this eating disorder was manifested in weeks of eating prodigiously – and consequently gaining weight – and then weeks of minimal eating, resulting in weight loss.  What was noteworthy for me, and sad to watch of course, was that when she was in the part of the cycle where she was eating too much, she was aware that she had a problem – the problem, to her, was the weight gain.  When the cycle shifted and she would begin starving herself, she was convinced that she was doing well.  She could not see that the weight loss was as much a part of the problem as the weight gain.  No matter which part of the roller coaster she was on, she was still on the roller coaster; still in an unhealthy – and literally potentially deadly – relationship with food.  Saint Thomas would have said that she had allowed food to take the place of God in her life.  It was food that was ruling her; food that oriented her thinking about who she was; food that ordered her day – whereas it ought to be God, it ought to be our highest aspirations that rule us, that orient us, that order our days, if we wish to be truly happy and blessed.

In our wealthy nation – getting less wealthy by the day, but still awfully wealthy –, our relationship with food is a bit distorted.  In our animal nature, we are hard-wired to make food a priority whereas in reality, food is for the most part available to us when we want it, and how we want it.

Our youth here at SNUUC have gone on a couple of Midnight Runs and will probably be going on more of them in the near future.  This is a program where volunteers go into Manhattan late at night to distribute food and clothing to men and women who are sleeping on the street.  The truth is that, thanks to social services and especially religious institutions, there are meals available every day for free for those who need them.  Even the folks on the street in New York City do not have to starve.  But what is true is that their ability to choose their foods is greatly restricted.  When we cannot choose our foods, how deprived we feel, how we yearn to sneak out and beg, borrow or steal for those items we crave.  Epicurus contended that “they have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury who stand least in need of it,” but I beg to differ.  It seems to me that the truest pleasure comes when we have been deprived of it, by circumstances or self-discipline.

MLK Fisher, whose confession of gluttony Rita read earlier, tells about her gastronomical pains and pleasures during in the school year 1927-8.

The small college my cousin Nan and I went to was riddled with tradition and poverty….  Rats ran through the walls of the big brick dormitory where we lived.  The meals were bad.  We ate them ravenously, because classes were almost a two-mile walk from the hall, and by the time we had sprinted home for lunch we were hungry indeed.  By the time we had walked back and then to the hall again for dinner we were frankly starved, and would joyfully have wolfed down boiled sawdust.

The only actual thing I can remember about any meals but breakfast is that once I walked by mistake through the back lot of the hall, and passed a pile taller than I was of empty gallon cans labeled “parsnips.”

Breakfasts every Sunday morning consisted of all we could hold of really deligious hot cinnamon rolls.  We had to eat them by a certain time, undoubtedly a dodge to get us up for church.  Nan and her roommate Rachel and I used to dress in our church clothes, eat cinnamon rolls until we were almost sick, and then go back to bed.  By mid-afternoon, we were indigestibly awake and the day usually ended with headaches.

I shudder wholeheartedly and without either affectation or regret at what and how we ate, nine tenths of the time we were there, and remember several things with great pleasure: the dishes of pickled peaches like translucent stained glass, at the inn when we were taken there for Sunday dinner sometimes, and best of all the suppers that Nan and Rachel and I would eat in their room.  We ate them the way puppies chew grasstops.  They probably saved our lives.

We would buy ginger ale, rolls, cream cheese, anchovy paste, bottled dressing and at least six heads of the most beautiful expensive lettuce we could find in that little town where only snobs ate anything but cabbage, turnips and parsnips in the winter months.  We would lock the door and mix the cheese and anchovy together and open the ginger ale.  Then we would toast ourselves solemnly in our toothbrush mugs, loosen the belts on our woolen bathrobes and tear into that crisp cool delightful lettuce like three starved rabbits.

Now and then one or another of us would get up, go to a window and open it, open her robe to the cold sweep of air and intone dramatically, “Pneu-m-o-o-o-nia!”  Then we would all burst into completely helpless giggles, until we had laughed enough to hold a little more lettuce.iii

In her time of deprivation, MFK Fisher recalls with relish… ah, relish… the times when she and her friends could break free and indulge.  But when the world is our oyster, when we can imbibe in anything we desire, then the challenge is not getting the food we want, but in learning to have a healthy relationship with it.

I’ve never been so much a milk chocolate eater as a dark chocolate eater.  When I worked at Manhattanville College, in the campus ministry office which I ran, we always had a table of fair trade items for sale.  Students who had little gifts to buy would stop in and purchase a little something.  One of our best selling regular items were the milk chocolate bars for one dollar and twenty-five cents.  There was a constant supply, right there in my office….  Staring me down….  Made from fair trade cocoa, farmed responsibly using fair labor practices…. And I quickly became a fan of these ridiculously good, “dainty” and “sumptuous” milk chocolate bars.  I began eating two or three a day.  And it wasn’t long before one of the secretaries at the college walked by my office and spontaneously blurted out, “My, you’re getting chubby, aren’t you?”

Yes, yes, I was getting chubby, and I continued to get chubby because I continued to eat those devilish temptresses.  Mind you, I was the person who ordered the fair trade goods, and so I could have stopped ordering them….  But could I, really?  In truth, they ordered me.  And so I grew into the voluptuous woman you see before you today.

Then, a couple of years ago, a ministerial colleague of mine mentioned that she had made  a choice in her spiritual life to eat only what she needed to eat for sustenance, and she made every effort to eat no more than she needed.  Instantly, what she said resonated with me, because I had become so undisciplined in my eating, so at the mercy of my cravings, so… gluttonous.  She did not speak in terms of the sin of gluttony, but rather the virtue – the spiritual virtue – of taking only what it was necessary for her to eat.  Like the voice of God or Saint Thomas whispering in my ear, I immediately knew that what was stirring in me was a desire for a healthier relationship, a more ordered relationship with food, where God was my god and food was food and I was rightly oriented.

How we eat and what we eat is a spiritual issue.  For many, this means being vegetarian or vegan.  For me, any degree of discipline that I bring to my food choices is a degree to which I am living a more spiritually centered life, for I begin to align my highest aspirations to include a respect for my body, a respect for my ability to choose, and a choice not to be enslaved by my cravings.

Although on its surface, eating is a purely personal affair, it does become a social virtue when we eat mindful of what influence we are having, however minor, on the way that food is produced and distributed.  We can choose fair trade foods and organic foods, locally grown and minimally packaged, and our enjoyment can be enhanced by the awareness that we are becoming more aligned, physically, socially and spiritually.

In this land of Cockaigne – for, I believe that any visitor from Medieval Europe would believe that they’d wandered into that mythical land, if they could just see our cupboards, or stop into a Waldbaum’s or Trader Joe’s – in this land of Cockaigne, each choice we make at table shapes the world and also our souls.  Even Epicurus didn’t believe that the pursuit of pleasure meant gluttony.  “By pleasure,” he wrote
we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry,not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies at a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoiding those beliefs which create  the greatest tumults of the soul. The greatest of pleasures is wisdom; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honorably, and justly; nor live wisely, honorably, and justly without living pleasantly. iv

The muffins I have with me were made with pumpkin.  They are high in fiber and low in cholesterol.  Enjoy coffee hour; for there is always more food somewhere.

i Found at  Translation re-written by Catherine Torpey (who does not know Middle Dutch, but speaks English pretty well).

ii Francine Prose Gluttony (Oxford University Press, 2003).

iii M. F. K. Fisher The Art of Eating (Wiley Publishing, Inc. 1954, re-issued 2004).

iv Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus found at