Woe to the worker who gets it wrong — or gets it right when the customer decides it’s wrong. Very nice people get upset when they think they did not get exactly what they ordered (even when they did). Few flip out, my friend says, but many give the cold, between-clenched-teeth, wrath-barely-contained lectures to the poor worker at the window, who’s not the one who made the drink but gets the abuse.
These customers feel offended, even insulted. Her stories reminded me of one of the Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape explains to his dim nephew Wormwood the nature of gluttony, which is not exactly the thing most of us think of. In its Glossary, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines gluttony as “overindulgence in food or drink.” Or as Dorothy L. Sayers put it in “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, it’s “the overmuch stuffing of ourselves.”
I hate to disagree with the Catechism, or with Sayers, but gluttony’s more than overindulgence and it has more objects than food and drink. It’s not just the desire for more when you don’t need more. It’s the indulged desire to have what you don’t need and won’t enjoy for itself, just because you want it. It’s a disordered and misdirected appetite.
And therefore a deadly sin indulged by those of us who don’t eat or drink too much. I know some very ascetic scholars who do not want to over-fill their bellies, but they do want to over-fill their shelves. They may tell you that they need the books, that the books are their tools, as a carpenter has his saws and hammers. One would take that more seriously if their libraries didn’t include books they’d bought to have, and have never used, or even opened, and if they didn’t brag about all the books they have.
C. S. Lewis was wiser. He saw how many ways we could be gluttonous. Screwtape distinguishes the gluttony of delicacy from the gluttony of excess. The second we recognize easily, the first we probably don’t recognize at all.
People joke about “first world problems,” when they’re fretting too much about something minor. There are also first world sins. Sins that arise from affluence and the ability to have things your way. The appetites, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “grow by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons.”
Screwtape, a very senior devil, tries to train his nephew in the damnation of a human soul. Wormwood’s “patient” is a young man with a difficult mother.
His patient’s mother terrorizes hostesses, servants, and waiters with her demands. “In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”
Screwtape concludes with satisfaction, “Her belly now dominates her whole life.” She doesn’t know it. She’s actually quite happy with herself. “Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others.”
Her gluttony of delicacy is closely related to what we might call the gluttony of refinement or the gluttony of taste. I think that’s the more common form for the kind of people likely to be reading this, whether the object is high-end coffee, Italian shoes, good wine, good Indian food, good books, well-tailored suits, or craft beer. Or Mass done just so.
“Her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality,” Screwtape writes, “which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?”
Even the person who eats and drinks little, who lives a rigorously disciplined life, can be a glutton, his gluttony concealed from himself because the things involved are very nice. But what does quality matter, when the love of nice things can make someone berate a young woman getting paid only a little more than minimum wage, who’s been on her feet for hours, who’s kind to others and struggles to pay her rent, because he thinks his special coffee has a little too much syrup flavoring in it?
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. His previous article for Chapter House was Be the revolutionary Robespierre, Chesterton says, not the conservative Burke. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review.
Photo credit: By Hieronymus Bosch – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148084
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