We can never escape the ever-recurring question: What am I going to eat today? The necessity to continually fuel our physical bodies consumes a large portion of time. According to a study done by the USDA, adult Americans, on average, spend just over 80 minutes per day eating or drinking, however, I believe this is significantly higher if you count how long it takes to decide between 15 different sandwiches on the Jimmy Johns menu. in my experience, most Americans eat whatever is cheap and easy and treat the task as another item on the to-do list. The simple task of eating, however, should not be treated as merely a task of refueling. God has been teaching man how to eat and revealing to him the importance of self nourishment since the beginning of creation. From the Garden of Eden, Passover, and the Levitical dietary restrictions to the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, and the wedding feast of the Lamb, God has revealed to us the importance of eating as a human and as a Christian. Self nourishment, or eating, is a necessary capacity for human existence and a cornerstone upon which the Lord calls us to build a life of discipleship.
The Hunger of Life
Man’s ability to self-nourish is the foundational capacity for life which is found in all living things. According to Aristotle, living things have souls which bring form, actualization, and various capacities to these now living things according to the type of soul: nutritive, perceptive, and rational. The nutritive capacity of the soul (self-nourishment) is foundational to all life for, “the other [capacities] cannot be separated from it in mortal beings” (Aristotle). Without the ability to self-nourish, the living plant, animal, or human would cease living. A dog may lose its sight, or a woman may lose her memory, but they still go on living as long as they retain the capacity of the nutritive soul. This capacity is most easily observed in plants as it is the only capacity of the soul that exists within plants. A plant interacts and relates to the world according to its highest power, the nutritive soul. Roots sink deep into the ground for water and leaves multiply towards the sunlight in order to maximize the potential for nourishment. Constantly consuming that which is potentially nourishing is the fulfillment of what it is to be a plant. The continuous necessity of self-nourishment exists in man; however, it is not the fulfillment of what it is to be man.
The ceaseless necessity for self-nourishment deeply affects how man relates to the world as rational creature. Eating is required to build, rebuild, and energize our bodies so that we continue to do what it is that we do: act as rational agents. Human beings are entirely dependent on the world around them to maintain existence and are among the few creatures that eat omnivorously. “Freedom (and the human difference) is demonstrable in diet” (Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul). Every meal that we eat involves choice which is not present in the life of a caterpillar or a tiger. The lucky animal, like the grizzly bear, may have the opportunity to choose between berries or fish, but the large majority of animals have deadly consequences when turning away from their narrow, pre-determined diets. (Don’t feed your dog chocolate) Man, on the other hand, can sit down at any restaurant and choose between any number of options. We have freedom to choose what we eat and when we eat it. Man’s freedom to choose among nearly countless options exhibits both his rational nature and his dominion over creation. God gave man dominion over all the wild animals, fish, birds, and all the plants of the world (Gn 1:28-30). This dominion over all potential food requires responsibility and stewardship of the resources given to man. Thus, we are constantly required, with every bite we take, to make a decision on how we relate to the world around us. The body’s ceaseless necessity for self-nourishment pushes it beyond itself and reveals our dependence on the world around us. Rational man is required, by bodily necessity and status, to be a steward of all living creatures. As you learned in your first economics class, man is not merely a consumer, but a rational consumer.
The nutritive capacity within the rational soul of man becomes something much greater than a necessary capacity for bodily subsistence. St. Augustine in his Confessions claims that, “there is no pleasure in eating and drinking unless it is preceded by the discomfort of hunger and thirst.” The perceived lack leads us to eating or drinking through hunger and thirst. The desire for sustenance calls us to action, “for lack, experienced as desire, is the spur to all aspiration, to action and awareness, to having a life at all” (Kass). The basic desire for food informs our other, deeper desires for sustenance of the soul. “You, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger” (Augustine). Our rational souls can use our nutritive capacity to recognize the lack of spiritual sustenance within us. The nutritive capacity of the soul is foundational for existence and foundational to a well-formed soul. “Here, in the germ of hunger, is the origin of all the appetites of the hungry soul” (Kass).
Pleasure, Pain, and Purpose of Eating
Self-nourishment must, firstly, confront the internal desire for food and the emotions that come with this desire. As noted above, man recognizes a lack of sustenance through an internal inclination of hunger and thirst. The conscious inclination of hunger moves us to choose some type of food to satiate our hunger and, in so doing, must interact with our emotions. Food, in most cases, is perceived as a simple good that can be attained without difficulty. John sees some food, bacon, that he likes, he desires the bacon to satiate his hunger, he then feels enjoyment or pleasure after having consumed the bacon. These three emotions (like, desire, enjoyment) are a part of what St. Thomas Aquinas calls the concupiscible appetite. Heather, at the less fortunate end of the buffet, encounters brussels sprouts that display the other three concupiscible emotions: dislike, aversion, and pain. Many meals are developed through the concupiscible appetite by maximizing the foods that we enjoy and avoiding foods that cause us pain. This simple approach, however, does not adequately describe our eating experience as rational consumers.
Eating comes with greater difficulties that deepen man’s emotional response to the task. We all know that a healthy serving of green beans at Thanksgiving will help us lose our appetite, but as soon as the pecan pie shows up we are ready for more: the concupiscible appetite in action. The presence of green things (kale, broccoli, and other vegetables) shows that self-nourishment does not only address the concupiscible appetite, but the irascible appetite as well. We understand that eating is not simply about pleasure and avoiding pain, there is an aspect of health involved in self-nourishment. The irascible appetite deals with goods perceived as difficult to attain. The perceived difficulty of health may pertain to what is eaten, when it is eaten, and how much is eaten. For example, the difficulty of eating less-than-appetizing, healthier foods as opposed to eating delicious, not-so-healthy foods. The difficulty of only eating at mealtime or only eating the amount which is needed. The good of health acquired, or lost, through self-nourishment make eating a much more emotional task than originally described. Hope or despair play a role when trying to maintain well-being through a healthy diet. Fear or bravery become present when confronted by those foods, like brussels sprouts, which taste bad yet sit on the dinner plate. The emotions move us to the action of eating, but are not proper guides on what, when, and how much to eat.
Man is a rational consumer whose will, and reason must overcome and control the emotions when eating. This seemingly simple task is extremely difficult as most know from experience. Relegating eating to the emotions as an act of pleasure-seeking is an easy trap to fall into. St. Augustine admitted to seeking pleasure through the necessity of self-nourishment, “Although the purpose of eating and drinking is to preserve health, in its train there follows an ominous kind of enjoyment, which often tries to outstrip it, so that it is really for the sake of pleasure that I do what I claim to do and mean to do for the sake of my health.” The unspoken upshot here is that we must approach eating as something beyond merely pleasure-seeking, beyond the emotions. As discussed, humans are rational beings who get to choose what we eat, when we eat it, and how much we eat. All of these (what, when, how much) are questions of means, but we cannot deliberate between means before we have considered an end. We are, thus, looking for the final end and not merely a proximate end such as a positive taste sensation.
The final end of self-nourishment must be considered within the context of man created in the image and likeness of God. The perceived, final end of self-nourishment is often energy and health as mentioned above. Health, for its own sake, is good, however, it cannot be a final end spoken by a Christian disciple. Energy and health are proximate ends that become the means by which we are able to seek God. “You made us for yourself,” says St. Augustine, as he speaks to both our beginning and our end in God the Father. Our final end must always be spoken of as the beatific vision, full communion with the Most Holy Trinity in the age to come. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to, “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). The entire soul must include the nutritive power of the soul; thus, our nutritive soul must be oriented towards the love of God. As a Christian disciple, we are given the end and commanded to love with our entire being, but what means should we take to accomplish this through the nutritive power of the soul? How do we love God in our eating?
Eating for the Lord
The first step to self-nourishing as a rational consumer, disciple of Christ is to avoid eating in ways that lead to sin. We established above that we cannot allow our emotions to lead the way when it comes to eating for this leads to mere pleasure-seeking. Neither pleasure, nor bodily health, can be said to be the final end of our self-nourishment because our final end is always found in God the Father. It is important to note that the original sin involved improper eating. It was God the Father who, at the beginning, instructed Adam and Eve on how to eat properly. The two of them, however, disobeyed and consumed too much of the wrong food at the wrong time. Tradition names this as the sin of gluttony.
The sin of gluttony is ever present and acts as a starting point for all other forms of sin. Because the need for self-nourishment is ever present, the temptation to do so incorrectly persists as well. St. Augustine asks the very question, “But is there anyone, O Lord, who is never enticed a little beyond the strict limit of need?” Everyone experiences the temptation to gluttony and it is gluttony, according to St. John Cassian, through which Adam took the forbidden fruit. Additionally, the devil uses the same temptation of gluttony as his first test of Jesus in the desert (Mt 4:2-3). Gluttony appears to be the first temptation that the devil uses against man as it is an attack on the foundation of living things, self-nourishment. Thus, avoiding gluttony is not only vital to avoiding sin within self-nourishment, it is also vital to avoiding sin altogether.
The Lord calls us and draws us to himself through our soul’s foundational capacity of self nourishment. As mentioned above, Jesus says we must love him with our whole soul which includes our eating and drinking. His life and miracles speak to our desire for food and drink. Jesus draws our attention through abundance at Cana and through the distribution of bread and fish. He speaks of an end to our thirst to the woman at the well and an end to our hunger in the Bread of Life Discourse. Finally, he calls us to eat with Him in the Upper Room and to feast with Him at the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb. Jesus wants us to use our earthly desire for sustenance as a desire for communion with Him. “Here, in the germ of hunger, is the origin of all the appetites of the hungry soul” (Kass). Jesus calls us through our hungry bodies to satiate our hungry souls in two ways: fasting and feasting.
Jesus shows and teaches us how fasting can be used to glorify God and lead us to the union with Him in the beatific vision. Through the Incarnation, the Word took on a human nature in order to abolish the death for which man was bound and correct man’s neglect through His teaching. The actions that Jesus took and His teachings during His earthly life should be primary example to lead us to everlasting life and virtue. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus, “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4:2). This verse exemplifies that, through His human nature, Jesus experienced the desire and need for self-nourishment that all men face. Jesus knew that he was to be tempted by the devil and he prepared by fasting, by tempering his physical (and emotional) desires in order to face temptation with intellect and will. He successfully overcame the temptation that Adam fell to and gives us the ability to do so as well through Him. Later, in the same Gospel, Jesus instructs us to fast with a promise of repayment (Mt 6:18). Fasting is an eternally beneficial task which is repaid by the Father in the beatific vision. Through fasting, the will and intellect can learn to govern the emotions and desires of the body, thus, teaching us to do the same in all other areas of our lives. The Lord calls us to fast in order to master not only our appetite for food and drink, but all of our appetites.
Finally, the Lord calls us to Himself through our capacity for self-nourishment by feasting. We will define feasting as a celebratory, plentiful, and delicious meal. Although not a part of the definition, one could hardly call a feast without multiple people present. Man does not live by bread alone nor does he eat it alone. Man, made in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, was made to be in communion with one another. Feasting is found in almost every culture as a way to celebrate and satiate man’s desire for food and communion. “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is the cry of a lonely man who has found a companion in another human (Gn 2:23). The very next thing the couple does in the narrative is share a meal together, however, the meal does not go as planned. Our fallen nature must be shown how to properly partake in a feast. Jesus celebrated a great feast at Cana where he contributed both plentiful and delicious wine (Jn 2:1-10). He also celebrated a feast with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed. Here, Jesus instituted a new type of feast which he instructed his disciples to celebrate in remembrance of Him (Lk 22:19). The Eucharistic feast celebrates the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the feast itself is one of intellect and will. The unleavened bread and sip of wine do not satiate our physical and emotional desire for food. The Eucharistic feast capitalizes on our foundational capacity for self-nourishment and directs it towards God who will fulfill us where food and drink cannot. Jesus promised the true bread from heaven which gives life to the world (Jn 6:32-33) and water which causes one to never thirst again (Jn 4:14). This feast is plentiful and delicious to our hungry souls and its end is the beatific vision where our bodies will no longer hunger or thirst. Jesus came to restore man’s broken image that was destroyed through a sinful meal. Jesus uses the same means, a meal, to call us back into his fold, consume Him, so that we may become Him in the beatific vision of heaven.
The hungry body and the hungry soul share the same desire to be eternally fulfilled. We know, too well, the constant work it takes to satiate the hungry body and the Lord uses this to teach us how to satiate the hungry soul. The same tools used to become healthy and energized humans can be used to become holy disciples of Christ. The governance of emotions and desires through the will and the intellect is formed in the foundation of self-nourishment. The Lord shows us the importance of eating in the Garden of Eden and the Last Supper and calls us to himself through eating. He instructs us to avoid sin in gluttony, focus our appetites on Him in fasting, and feast with Him in the Eucharistic celebration on our way to full communion with Him. Man’s capacity for self-nourishment is the foundation to all living things and the Lord calls man, as rational consumer, to fix his bodily hunger on his final end, in order to satiate his hungry soul in the beatific vision.