The National Catholic Review
The fourth in a series for Lent
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Every year, like millions of other people, I resolve to lose weight. Often I work hard and shed a few pounds, but then fail to keep them off. While I’ve won battles against the bulge, I am losing the war. Even so, I think of myself not as a glutton (since weight gain takes just 100 calories extra a day) but as a “foodie”—I reward myself with food and love to eat, cook, grow and even paint food. By genetic predisposition and by temperament, I am a person of big appetites, prone to enthusiasms and excesses. Often I have had to force myself to the dinner table, loath to leave whatever I was doing. That is no contradiction, but another manifestation of the same vice: intemperance.

Some of my intemperate traits—excessive enthusiasm, being loyal to a fault—are qualities that I like not only in myself but in others, and that others like in me. Which could explain why, when I first learned about temperance as a young adult and a new Catholic, it repelled me. If it meant moderation, temperance seemed gutless, fence-sitter-ish, bland, lacking passion—totally uninspiring. It also sounded oxymoronic when applied to the noblest ideals: What is a temperate martyr? Is it temperate to give up one’s life? Would temperance have stopped St. Martin de Porres from dragging the ill into his monastery for care—can it impede holiness? What is temperate about giving a beggar not just your money but your cloak too? Maybe the beatitudes need editing: Blessed are those who mourn a little, but not too much…. Could Jesus have pled temperance to rationalize his way to old age and avoid the cross? How temperate is love?

For decades, I hated temperance with a passion and joked that it should be allowed only in moderation. Yet while I argued that lack of restraint—the kind that withholds nothing and gives all—sounded Christ-like to me, I wondered whether people of big appetites must learn restraint to follow Christ. Must I renounce my temperament? Then I read the prayers of Blessed Pope John XXIII, asking God to help him lose weight.

Temperance is much more than moderation. It is one of Plato’s virtues, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, one of the cardinal virtues of Catholicism and one of the precepts of Buddhism. It acknowledges the power of the appetites, then governs them through self-control, not outside restrictions. And St. Augustine saw temperance as “love giving itself entirely to that which is loved.” Ihad that part right!

Aging has a tempering effect on a person who has experienced the hazards of excess. Obviously one cannot always feast or fast, and one needs much ordinary time to understand the meaning of fasting and feasting, holidays and holy days.

Temperance enables balance, which in many respects is a metaphor for perfection. Maintaining a graceful balance takes effort, skill, timing, creativity and considerable maturity, for one must juggle personal matters with one’s relationships and responsibilities to family, work, church and community. The best jugglers smile, almost dance, enjoying the thrill of rhythmic balls in motion, careful to drop none. In life such balance requires not just temperance but prudence, courage and the other virtues.

Even love for others must be balanced with competing demands for one’s time and energy. That was as true for Jesus in his day as it is for us in ours. Today I hold lightly a Bible verse I cherished as a child: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl 9:10). Many tasks do not need much might. These I relegate to late evening when my brain is fuzzy, saving my peak energy for important work. I pray in the morning before the sun comes up these days, though I used to pray best at night as I recalled my day hour by hour. Now if I try that, I fall asleep.

Temperance allows us to toss some things into the air while we do what is urgent or foundational. It also urges us to keep attempting the virtues, despite years of defeat. Those attempts might include losing weight, exercising more, tending to someone or fulfilling a commitment. Learning the virtues takes a lifetime. Lent is the best time I know to begin, again.

Karen Sue Smith is editorial director of America.

Comments

Linda Astuto | 3/10/2009 - 11:56pm
Praise God! Someone I can relate to! I'm printing this article and keeping it for future reference!