Temperate in all things?

Everyone who strives for the mastery is temperate in all things.

We are continuing a thematic approach to these evenings, focusing on the virtues of the soul. Tonight we are considering “Temperance”, the cardinal virtue that has been associated with the appetitive aspect of the soul.

A week ago Tuesday night, Simone led the Bible study on Temperance and prepared a wonderful summary and excellent questions for reflection, which has helped me prepare tonight.


T09 - Temperance - GiottoDiBondone 13c
Temperance, Giotto di Bondone 13th century

A virtue is a quality that adorns the soul through the practice of a good habit.  Temperance is a virtue that has been widely commended in Christian and non-Christian circles – the philosophers and leaders in other religions agree it is a necessary gift for coming to know the good. Christian teaching has suggested that even the cardinal virtues can only be perfected as the soul is gifted by God with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.  (St Paul says that “self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit.)

How to define Temperance?  I like the definition Simone chose from a book The Sacrament of Evangelism: Temperance is “the habitual ability to resist the enticement of immediate pleasure in order to gain a greater though more remote good.

The immediate pleasure we know well – the senses of the body being stimulated in some way to bring us satisfaction – taste, touch, a full stomach, a new toy, a warm embrace.  But what is that “more remote good”?  The greatest good is God, and we know that God is Spirit – and is to be worshipped or enjoyed in spirit and in truth.  But it is not that God is more distant than the chocolate that is in the kitchen cupboard, or the thrill of a new gadget that is at hand, or the earthly lover nearby, but that it is often the case that it is only in time that we come to know a kind of intimacy with God that meets our deepest longings and puts all more immediate pleasures in a secondary place.  I think St Augustine speaks of this more remote but more profound experience of spiritual pleasure in his writings…

Sometimes you allow me to experience a feeling quite unlike my normal state, an inward sense of delight which, if it were brought to perfection in me, would be something not encountered in this life, though what it is I cannot tell.” [Confessions. x, 40]

The virtue of temperance is needed so that we can learn new ways of knowing pleasure and contentment. Relying too much on the comfort known through the body, will short circuit the stretching out of our desire for God and entering into his rest.


 Jesus gave us these most basic desires of the body and made them pleasurable. How would he have us deal with them?

Jesus tells the parable of the unjust steward and I think it is relevant for us on this question.

God, who is the maker of all things, is the rich man, and we, who are given all things in this life by God (100%), including desire or love, are called to be good stewards of those things.  The steward is asked, give an account of his stewardship – which is another way of describing the judgement each of us will face of how we spent our lives, our loves.

The steward in the story makes deals with two of the rich man’s debtors. He tells them to give a portion back and to keep the rest and then the steward will mark the debts as paid. To one he says, give 50% back and keep 50% for yourself, to another he says give 80% back and keep 20% for yourself. Jesus commends, not the steward’s fraud – it wasn’t really his to decide to give back less than all that was owed – but his wisdom in trying to make friends of these debtors.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.  And I say to you, Make for yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. [Lk 16:8-9]

In the context of our reality – living embodied lives – the most basic desires for physical comfort and nourishment and the desire for intimacy and for children through sexual relations (these “debtors”) are God’s gracious gifts to us.  Yet it is difficult for us to get it right, we either trust in these appetites excessively to bring us peace (spending too much on them) or harm ourselves and others in some way by spending them in the wrong way.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be miserable – He would have us enjoy the good things of the creation.  I believe he’s suggesting a certain making friends with these appetites – but we are to do that always in the light of the bigger picture, which is, that we are stewards of God’s gifts. He’s calling on us to be temperate in all things.


Illustration by Kees de Kort

So what is the right amount when it comes to food and drink?

Gluttony is an over emphasis on food – either eating more than is necessary for bodily sustenance, or eating too often, or being excessively concerned about taste.

In the reaching forth with our hand for more than we need physically, can we take a moment to reflect on that insatiable longing in our soul – is it really for food, or is my body tricking me by suggesting I need more than I really do?  Remember Jesus, sat down exhausted by the well, the disciples begged him to eat some food, and he said, I have food of which you are not aware of…My food is to do the will of my Father. [John 4]  Think about how when we get very involved in some intellectual problem, some sort of work, or if we suddenly had to help somebody in trouble, getting them to hospital, we can completely forget about food.  We say after a while, rationally – oh, I better eat something… that physical desire was completely replaced temporarily by a spiritual fulfillment, love filled us.

But Temperance is not just about not having too much, it also means not too little!  Some of the early hermits died through too rigorous fasting.  Today, some suffer anorexia, becoming irrational and denying what is needed for the body’s health.  After a fast sometimes one has to choose to eat to restart the appetite for food.  Sometimes people who are sick need to be encouraged to eat even if they don’t feel like it.

Temperance when it comes to food and drink is different from abstinence.  It is a golden mean – not too much, not too little.

What about sexual desire?

Jesus tells us there are two ways open to us – either marriage or the celibate life. The call to be chaste, whether we are married or not, is not easy – especially if we have been in the habit of continually stirring up sexual desire because we think, wrongly, that that is what it is to be alive (like, for example, the person who keeps feeding his or her anger, by remembering some injustice, because it can make one feel alive).

In the case of those not married, being temperate, means abstinence, it is a redirection of desire to a reaching out for contentment in God and in the loving of our neighbour in non-physical ways.  And just as we can forget about food when we are attending to an emergency, or are completely engaged in some work, so we can forget about the fulfillment of sexual desire if we are engaged in acts of love that do not involve physical intimacy – by grace, Jesus says, it is possible for some.

If you are married, St Paul counsels spouses sometimes to have periods of abstinence, that they may devote themselves to prayer – acknowledging the unity of loves.  But then he says the couple should come together again so they are not tempted from without – he acknowledges our human weakness. [1 Corinthians 7] He is counselling temperance – the right use of this gift.

What about the desire for wealth?

Temperance is needed in our decisions about a job, a career, a lifestyle, and in decisions on spending – how much is enough?  What am I losing out on by binding myself to this work, what responsibilities do I have to family? what other way can my desire for fulfillment and for peace in my soul be met?  Again, temperance is not to never spend – we are not to be hoarders, nor spendthrifts – temperance is somewhere in between, the golden mean.  I should spend money so that I can be more effective in loving my neighbour – in hospitality, in acts of charity, in buying a computer that will match the needs of my work, in a proper enjoyment of the good things of this life etc.

Some practical suggestions to grow in Temperance:

St Paul suggests in that first reading that in our lives we engage in a kind of spiritual training – like an athlete.  Think of what an athlete gives up in order to perfect his or her sport?  They take extreme care about what food and how much, about sleep and about physical training in order to compete for earthly prize.  We are promised the riches of heaven!

It is no happy coincidence that we are thinking about Temperance as we prepare to enter into Lent next Wednesday.  We could think of a Lenten discipline, as a means inculcating temperance – of discovering how our souls work, how desire can be redirected, and learning better habits, holy habits, that they might become “natural” to us.  At first the habits need to be thought about, but when temperance adorns the soul, the appetites no longer cry out unreasonably.

  • Fasting and prayer – in that moment of reaching forth, for some immediate pleasure, we practice holding off, we think on God, and his grace saves us, we form in ourselves new patterns of living, a more temperate pattern.  Fasting doesn’t need to be just from food, but could be related to our engagement with technology or from images – we can rethink what is a better pattern for use of television and the internet.
  • Consider some engagement in charitable action – so that in the midst of it we realize another way, a more spiritual way of finding fulfillment of our restless desire.
  • Be more deliberate in enjoying and reflecting on the gift of the Sacrament of Holy Communion – a kind of union of physical and spiritual – and a way of reflecting on physical and spiritual desire – think of the entire sense of fulfillment and peace in the soul after receiving the smallest piece of consecrated Bread and only a sip from the Cup – being perfectly reconciled with God is the soul’s deepest longing and here we can taste it!

Simone asked a good question – Isn’t temperance boring? Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Doesn’t he love us?

The appetitive aspect of the soul, that strong horse that leaps towards a perceived good, actually is a good thing to help us in our pilgrimage to the kingdom of heaven if it is adorned with the virtue of temperance, because it helps us to flourish as an embodied soul. If we are temperate in all things we can think better, we can study better, pray with greater alertness – we are more able to love God and others around us as ourselves.

Remember that God also does not want us to be over scrupulous – that is, to be so focussed on every single act that we become obsessed or can never enjoy a feast or other pleasure worrying that we may have gone too far!  Instead, what is being suggested is the developing of an overall healthy relation to the good things of creation.

Jesus concludes, just after telling us the parable of the unjust steward, with this:

Whoever is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and whoever is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.  
If therefore you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?  [Lk 16:10-11]

God wants to entrust us with the true riches – and the true riches are not boring.  Think of how pleasurable bodily pleasures can be – God made them so. Think of the incredible variety and beauty in the created order – all of that reflects something of the wonder and glory of the mind of God.  Do you not think that when God tells us to be temperate because that in Him we will find lasting joy and heavenly pleasure that it will not be so much greater?  The beatific vision is not boring…it awaits us!  The mystics speak of a kind of ecstasy beyond any earthly pleasure.  And Jesus tells us that the way to it is by being temperate in earthly things.

Practicing temperance or self-control in our daily lives requires much grace, and no doubt we will mess up regularly – when it comes down to it, we are all unjust stewards.  When it comes to our appetites, is it 50/50 or 80/20 or 100/0 or some other portion of a bodily appetite that we restrain to offer back in love to God and our neighbour?  In the parable, Jesus suggests that our Maker is merciful towards us as we struggle to be better stewards of our God given desire (he commends the unjust steward for trying).  Each one of us in our own circumstances must come to the maturity to discern what God is calling us to.  We must pray for grace to think clearly in the choices we make and in the actions we take so that we might be entrusted with the true riches and be received into the everlasting habitations, into the kingdom of heaven that is opening up to us even now.