This is the fifth in a seven-part series on the seven moral and theological virtues listed in the Catechism. They are faith, hope, charity (love), prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The series will take a closer look at how these virtues are tested in this life and how we can grow in these virtues.
The second of the cardinal virtues is called “temperance.” Temperance is similar to moderation, and that is a good starting word to think about temperance, but it does not contain the essential aspect of temperance that hinges on self-discipline. St. Paul’s reference to temperance in 1 Corinthians 9:27 leaves a chilling message about the importance of this virtue. He says, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” In our modern terms, this is saying “practice what you preach.” If we are only about giving advice in the lives of others, we have missed the point for ourselves and we are left in a vulnerable position.
For this article on temperance, I want to focus on stress eating, but we can all reflect on the challenges that we could grow from if we increased our temperance. Stress eating has become such a problem in our society, and it is complicated by shame. Food is an easy go-to coping skill when we are stressed. Junk food is everywhere. What is the last food item that you see before you leave the grocery store? Junk food. What is the first item you see when you enter the grocery store? Junk food. When we get stressed, we have trained our brains to go right for the soothing experience of numbing ourselves to chips, cookies, ice cream, etc. And what happens to us over time? This response gets more and more engrained in the circuitry of our brain and we find ourselves unable to stop stress eating. Then we feel shame about it, which only causes us to stress eat more.
One of the solutions that goes around is to “eat in moderation.” And this is true, but what should really be said is “eat with temperance.” It takes a great deal of self-disciple to resist buying the stress food and takes even more self-disciple to say “no” once we get it, and it takes the most self-discipline to stop eating it once we have started. Wherever you want to start, the practice in temperance is a challenge, but it is one that must be undertaken.
Temperance is so important because numbing our feelings with junk food disconnects us from our emotions (which is the point of stress eating) but also disconnects us from our bodies and our spirits. If we are numbed with food, alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, how can we have the closest connection with our Lord? We cannot.
This is St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians, and it is still the message for us today. If we are going to confront someone or advise someone about their challenges, we must be ready to answer for our own. And this is a humbling reality. But praise be to God, we have the Holy Spirit who is constantly present with us, encouraging us to increase our temperance, fortitude, faith, love, hope, etc. He is at the ready to help us, but we must do our part. We must engage with the struggle. It is only if we stop and give up that we have lost the battle. If you try and fail, try again and again. We cannot be afraid to face our demons, especially because we do not face them alone. If we can get past our shame, we can have the support of our family, friends, therapists, colleagues, priests, the saints and, most of all, the Holy Spirit. Turn to your left and turn to your right — there is not a person around who is not struggling to manage their stress at one time or another. We need to get out of the mindset that we have to hide in our living room and stress eat in shame. What a lonely experience this is. Through the continued practice of temperance, we can overcome our struggles with stress management. And at the end of the day, we will have had much practice in developing temperance. And it is through continued practice that things get solidified in our minds, bodies and souls. So practice. Practice now and often. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless you in your journey for temperance.