Let’s talk turkey … and temperance!
The Great Thanksgiving Weigh-In was a short-lived tradition in my extended family. Upon arrival at Grandma’s house, the competing cousins would trek to the bathroom scale and record their weight before eating a morsel. Then they would eagerly consume as much food as they could fit into their gullets.
After the feast was finally finished, the competitors lined up at the scale once more to calculate the results. Whoever gained the most weight that day was declared “The Winner of Thanksgiving.”
The adults never participated in this ridiculous ritual, I’m glad to say. And the cousins eventually abandoned the game when the collective maturity level increased and it became obvious that the whole thing was inappropriate. To enjoy the bounty of the earth and delight in a delicious meal are good things. Being grateful to God for these pleasures and all of our blessings is the point of the Thanksgiving celebration. But the weigh-in was not about gratitude. It was about gluttony.
Such a deliberate case of overindulgence as that Thanksgiving weigh-in is easy to recognize. But on a smaller, more private scale, overindulgence often slips into our lives without as much fanfare — and not just at Thanksgiving! While the holiday season can make it more challenging to control our eating habits, many of us struggle with dietary self-control all year long. The battle to curb our appetites and choose healthy foods can be a difficult one to fight.
For good reason, the word appetite was traditionally used to describe more than just our culinary cravings. The great philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas used the term sensible appetites to refer to our conscious desires for the good we find in activities or things. We can talk about having an appetite for shopping, video games, Facebook posts, sports, entertainment, or any number of other things that stimulate our senses.
Whatever might captivate our personal interests, the fact remains that overindulgence in these things invites a variety of ill effects. On a physical level, we can sometimes suffer from associated health problems. Psychologically, we may find ourselves losing proper perspective when we focus too much attention in one area. And in the spiritual realm, too, overindulgence — especially when it becomes habitual — is a pathway to idolatry where we no longer put God first in our lives.
We can all benefit from striking a balance between our uncurbed desires and what is really good for us. Temperance is the virtue that assists us in finding this balance. It helps us exercise self-control without totally cutting us off from the things we enjoy, and it enables us “to permeate the passions” with reason (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2341).
As with the other virtues, temperance is a habit of choosing to do the right thing. In this case, it means embracing the moderation that brings real freedom and preserves true joy.
The virtue of temperance offers us four specific benefits. First, temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures” (CCC, 1809). Pleasures are meant to attract us! That’s how God designed us to function. But we don’t want these attractions to control us or cause us harm. As St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote, “Temperance sustains your body and soul with the proper measure, lest they fail.”
God made everyone with a built-in capacity to enjoy good things. In many cases, pleasure actually helps the human race survive. For example, we eat, sleep, and reproduce with pleasure. But if the attraction to pleasure becomes too intense, it can lead us to seek pleasure as an end in itself. Too often this leads to excessive indulgence, and many times it is the origin of addiction.
The temperate person is not overpowered by attraction to pleasure. He or she enjoys the moderation that keeps everything in order. Pleasures remain pleasurable, but the attraction to them doesn’t dictate behavior. So, instead of feeling compelled to return to the dessert table to devour yet another piece of pumpkin pie, this virtue enables us to peacefully pass when we’ve enjoyed an appropriate amount.
Godly use of goods
Temperance also benefits us as it “provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC,1809). Certainly there are many things in our lives that we enjoy using. In addition to all the gifts of nature, God has blessed us with the intelligence to invent instruments that can assist us with many tasks. Sometimes, however, we can be tempted to allow these devices to monopolize an inordinate amount of our time.
Pope Francis has expressed concern regarding how electronic devices can jeopardize family bonding, especially around the table. He remarked in his Nov. 11, 2015, general audience that when family members are engrossed with a computer or a smartphone at the table instead of talking to each other, it “is a ‘barely familial’ family … it is like a boarding house.”
Proper balance doesn’t require us to completely abandon our televisions, computers, phones, or tablets. But learning to employ these goods appropriately might require us to spend some time away from them in order to regain a bit of perspective on our real priorities. St. John Paul II suggested a kind of fasting in this regard:
In how many families does television seem to replace personal conversation rather than to facilitate it! A certain “fasting” also in this area can be healthy, both for devoting more time to reflection and prayer, and for fostering human relations (March 10, 1996, Angelus address).
At times we may need to fast first in order to find the right balance. Then temperance can help free us to spend our time well and make the most of the many gifts that surround us.
Two more benefits of temperance are the ability both to “ensure the will’s mastery over instincts,” and to keep “desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC, 1809). These elements of the virtue are especially valuable in relation to sexual self-control.
Many people in our culture seem to believe the sexual instinct is so strong that it cannot be controlled. Instead of advocating chaste behavior, these folks insist on programs, products, and procedures that try to patch up the effects of promiscuity. But temperance is a much better solution!
With this virtue, single people are empowered to remain pure, and married people are empowered to stay faithful to their spouses. For those in religious vocations, chastity enables them to live out their vows of celibacy with freedom and joy.
When we become the masters of our instincts, they cease to master us. Instead of giving in to urges and passionate desires, the virtue of temperance enables us to exercise restraint and say “no” when it is appropriate. It also helps us to practice the related virtue of modesty.
St. Jane Frances de Chantal is a good example. She was a wealthy 17th-century baroness whose husband’s business called him away from time to time. During his absence, this modest woman would put away her fancy clothes and dress very simply instead of flaunting her finery. “The eyes I need to please are miles away from here,” she explained.
St. Jane didn’t give in to the temptation to try to be the prettiest lady in the castle or to arouse the interest of every man that laid eyes on her. She knew how and when to practice restraint. This is the fruit of temperance.
Training in temperance
As with all the virtues, the best place to begin developing them is in prayer. God calls us to live lives of virtue, and he promises us his grace to accomplish this. We for our part, can ask him to help us as we strive to grow in temperance. But in addition to this, we would do well to make some deliberate efforts.
Ven. Fulton J. Sheen offered practical advice on how to cultivate this valuable virtue. He suggested that we choose three small ways to exercise self-control every day, such as holding back a sarcastic comment or giving a kindly answer to a sneer. It need not be anything grand. Making a habit of this small-scale self-control can have a big impact when it comes time to restrain ourselves in more important matters.
Sheen’s advice is reminiscent of the Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She exercised temperance in the small annoyances of her day as a way of pleasing Jesus. So when a curmudgeon of a sister in her community grumbled, St. Thérèse smiled and chatted cheerfully with her, or when a lunch companion mentioned being thirsty, St. Thérèse offered her the last gulp of cider in the pitcher.
We, too, can be on the lookout for these little moments to practice temperance, whether it be in choosing what fills our plates on Thanksgiving Day or in choosing how to treat the most difficult family member sitting at the table.
This holiday season, may we give thanks for such opportunities and recognize them as gifts from God to help us grow in grace.