Health becomes one of the powerful metaphors in early Christianity, especially in terms of the relationship between the newly healthy body of the Christian and the sick body of the Jew (Avalos 1999). Jesus's cures are his most powerful miracles. Fasting, practiced among the Jews, becomes a means to salvation, as Paul writes in the epistles, "we gain nothing by eating, lose nothing by abstaining" (1 Cor. 8:8). With the establishment of the early Church (most readily seen in St. Augustine's Confessions), the submission to the temptation to overeat was written on the body in the form of fat. "Gula" is one of the seven deadly sins (Sawyer 1995). In many ways, it is the most difficult of the deadly sins to combat.
Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, struggled against lust and begged for chastity in his early youth: "But I wretched, most wretched, in the very commencement of my early youth, had begged chastity of Thee, and said, 'Give me chastity and conti-nency, only not yet.' " (Augustine 1961: 235-7). When he turned sixteen, Augustine moved to Carthage, where, again, he was plagued by desire:
Where there seethed all around me a cauldron of lawless loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and I hated safety . . . To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness.
(Augustine 1961: 235-7)
He writes that he struggles each day with the desire to eat and to drink even more than he does with sexual lust: "In the midst of these temptations I struggle daily against greed for food and drink. This is not an evil which I can decide once and for all to repudiate and never to embrace again, as I was able to do with fornication" (Augustine 1961: 235-7). For the seduction of food and what it signifies, the fat body, haunts Augustine's sense of himself. He sees food as both necessary for health and a force for healing, but only in strict limits:
I look upon food as a medicine. But the snare of concupiscence awaits me in the very process of passing from the discomfort of hunger to the contentment, which comes when satisfied. For the process itself is a pleasure and there is no other means of satisfying hunger except the one, which we are obliged to take . . . Health and enjoyment have not the same requirement.
(Augustine 1961: 235-7)
The desire for food is itself the Devil present in the body. He cites Paul in that "we gain nothing by eating, lose nothing by abstaining" (1 Cor. 8:8). This is a basic struggle to control desire and the very form of the body.
Augustine makes the ideal body the body divine, much as in the Platonic notion of beauty it is beyond the material.
In his City of God, Augustine links the carnal pleasures of the flesh to sins of the soul. They are the same. He condemns with equal verve the Epicurean philosophers who "live after the flesh, because they place man's highest good in bodily pleasure" and the Stoics who "who place the supreme good of men in the soul, live after the spirit" (Augustine 1957: II, 247). The Epicureans also claim that "pleasure is very largely a matter of physical health" and the Stoics that "only the wise are beautiful" (Augustine 1957: III, 37). Augustine quotes Paul over and over again on the need to control carnality and the fallen nature of the soul. There is a compelling case for understanding the Pauline letters themselves as sites of a thoroughly allegorical anthropology. Among the binary oppositions of Pauline allegory stand the analogous pairs, flesh-spirit, literal-figurative, signifier-signified, in which the first element is a mere pointing to the privileged, second element. And so, for Paul, the Torah is but pointing to its fulfillment in Christ (Boyarin 1994). The ideal body is to be found only in Heaven when he describes heavenly bodies as possessing "a wondrous ease of movement, a wondrous lightness" (Daley 1991: 144). Here the image of the perfectly light and slim body of the divine is in contrast to the mortal and sinful one.
The crucial early Christian text is again from Paul's letters in 1 Cor. 8:1: "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Fat, as a sign of gluttony, is a reflection of prideful nature of humans. It is often linked to acedia, sloth, the deadly sin which is part of the tradition of the representation of madness in the West. The puffed-up body is also the spirit that is so unwilling to act as to be a sign of moral decay and mental instability. For Augustine, it is his body, in which all desires seem confused and interchangeable. It is the body most at risk from inaction and desire.
Here it is St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) who must rethink these limitations in Pauline terms when he preaches that "meditating upon all these things, let us not give our minds to delights, but to what is the end of delights. Here on earth it is excrement and obesity, hereafter it is fire and the worm" (Toal 1957: III, 315). If for Paul all humans are damned by their flesh, Aquinas needs to stress this once again, by seeing us trapped in our fallen bodies by our natural functions—eating and excreting. And yet it is St. Teresa who says, that the soul "finds everything cooked and eaten for it; it has only to enjoy its nourishment" (St. Teresa 1957: 90). This now being the pure food of the spirit, not of the flesh.
See also Jews
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