J.M.J. The practice of self-denial has long held a prominent place in Christianity. Believers have always been called to imitate the Crucified Savior by acts of mortification. Especially during Lent, penance is emphasized and takes its rightful place among the other two Lenten works: prayer and almsgiving.
Although self-denial is not solely connected to mortification of the palate, penitential practices often center around the appetite for food and drink.
Food and drink have been much abused by sectors of humanity for centuries, but our society seems to have taken the misuse to new extremes. Gluttony is often presented as harmless. Advertisers frequently proclaim that people must eat and drink a lot in order to be happy, well-liked, successful, etc. It is no exaggeration to say that, in some quarters, the operative norm is: The more you put away, the better.
Countering the notion of gluttony, the Church demands fasting and abstinence from meat on certain days during Lent. She also indicates that some penance should be performed on every Friday of the year.
The Cardinal Virtue of Temperance should always be fostered, regardless of the liturgical season. Those who strive to be disciples of Jesus are called at all times to be disciplined in food and beverage intake.
Certainly, Temperance helps regulate the consumption of food and drink. But it is also concerned with "attachment" to these items; the Virtue of Temperance assists us in not becoming a slave to either.
Saint Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860) has a special meaning for those who are practicing temperance. This Italian priest, known for his exemplary holiness and outstanding discipline, served as the Rector of the Ecclesiastical College in Turin, Italy. In his dealings with the seminarians, he frequently exhorted them to be careful about how they approached the table.
The saintly cleric warned that overeating was not the only fault regarding food. He frequently mentioned the five failings of the table that need to be battled: eating infrequently, eating too quickly, eating too much, eating over-eagerly and eating over-deliberately.
In each case, food loses its proper place. The table either assumes a greater influence than it should have or it is nearly dismissed as being of little value.
A priest from the Archdiocese of Turin learned a valuable lesson about the proper place of food on one occasion in which he ate with Saint Joseph. That priest, known for his penchant, in his own words, "to pounce on the food and devour it with too much dispatch," was asked by the Saint if he remembered the five dangers regarding eating.
Without hesitation, the young priest rattled off the list.
He concluded, "Then I realized what I had been doing, blushed and profited by the lesson."
More than one spiritual writer has counseled that every meal should be an occasion of mortification: we should always leave the table a little hungry or thirsty. In this way, we not only share in the hunger and thirst of Christ on Calvary but also help prevent ourselves from becoming gluttons and drunkards.
God has associated pleasure with eating. The Eternal Son of the Father took part in banquets during his public ministry.
Yet, Lent reminds us of the necessity of self-denial. Any penance we do now by limiting our food and drink consumption gives us a new insight into the beauty of the same and their limitation in bestowing happiness.
All food and drink pale in comparison with our souls' delight: the Body and Blood of Christ. May our fasting, abstinence and new approach to food during these days of Lent help us to adore more intensely and love more ardently the Christ of the Eucharist who gave up His life for us.
(Slightly adapted from an article that appeared in the Catholic Twin Circle on March 26, 1995 on page eighteen.)