Feasting and Fasting
The virtue of temperance or moderation is often thought of as primarily the ability to find the “middle ground”. Temperance is the ability, we say, to enjoy one or maybe two glasses of wine without feeling the need to have six more and be carried out on a stretcher. We often think that moderation is the ability to partake in ‘medium-sized’ quantities. It is the spiritual gift of seeing past the foolishness of teetotalers on the one hand and drunkards and frat boys on the other. And in some ways, we’re right, but in another sense, this way of thinking has drastically reduced the value of the world, the goodness of creation. Thinking about temperance as merely a measuring cup, a ‘creation-quantifier’ spoils the world of its richness. To reduce the world to right and wrong quantities and expect holiness or piety is to castrate the world and still expect fruitfulness.
Temperance has historically meant something broader; it has meant simply, the right use of creation. So for instance, in the case of sex, temperance doesn’t mean taking ‘medium-sized’ portions. It means if you are unmarried that you are required to completely abstain, you are called to fast. Being temperate means, on the other hand, that if you are married, you are called to regular, joyful, sexual communion with your spouse, a continual feast. And the only exception of course, is where Paul instructs spouses that they may occasionally abstain from one another for “fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). Temperance means, with regard to sex, either feasting or fasting and never anything in between (foreplay notwithstanding: appetizers lead to the feast!). The marriage bed is to be honored by all and wholly undefiled.
This is one of the points that Edmund Spenser makes in the second book of the Faerie Queene with his hero, Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance. Sometimes the right use or affection is a middle ground, but often temperance means ‘all or nothing.’
Robert Farrar Capon makes a similar point in The Supper of the Lamb. He laments our calorie-counting culture, our soul-less obsession with looking at food and things as necessary evils, purely chemical values that are likely to have adverse effects on our hips and gut. Having succumbed to the social pressures for a short while, Capon records how he was able to lose some weight and generally meet his dietary goals. But then he came to his senses. It was spaetzle, a boiled, salty noodle dough wrapped in butter and gravy that brought him to his senses. He uses “Harry” as a generic, joe-American, health-idolator, and he puts it best in his own words:
A man who takes a small helping is a man without eyes to see what is in front of him. Accordingly, I passed my plate back for seconds and then thirds, and made a vow then and there to walk more, to split logs every day and, above all, to change my religion from the devilish cult of dieting to the godly discipline of fasting.
I have never regretted it. To eat nothing at all is more human than to take a little of what cries out for the appetite of a giant. One servingspoonful of spaetzle is like the opening measures of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Any man who walks out early on either proves he doesn’t understand the genre–and he misses the repose at the end. To eat without eating greatly is to eat by halves. While God gives me meat in due season and the sensibilities with which to relish the gift, I refuse to sit down to eat and rise up only to have picked and fussed my way through the goodness of the earth. My vow, therefore, was beautifully simple: If I ate, I would eat without stint; and if I stinted, I would not eat at all…
To begin with, real eating will restore his sense of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value… To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world…
But second, he will, by his fasting, be delivered from the hopelessness of mere gourmandise. The secular, for all its goodness, does not defend itself very well against mindless and perpetual consumption. It cries out to be offered by abstinence as well as use; to be appreciated, not simply absorbed: Hunger remains the best sauce. Beyond that, though, it cries out to be lifted into a higher offering still. The real secret of fasting is not that it is a simple way to keep one’s weight down, but that it is a mysterious way of lifting creation into the Supper of the Lamb. It is not a little excursion into fashionable shape, but a major entrance into the fasting, the agony, the passion by which the Incarnate Word restores all things to the goodness God finds in them. It is as much an act of prayer as prayer itself, and, in an affluent society, it may well be the most meaningful of all the practices of religion–the most likely point at which the salt can find its savor once again. Let Harry fast in earnest therefore. One way or another–here or hereafter–it will give him back his feasts. (pp. 114-115)