On Pursuing Virtue: Temperance

This is part of a series of articles on pursuing virtue. There are many virtues that Orthodox Christians should be working to attain. We will be focusing on the seven capital virtues mentioned in “the Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians.” As the book mentions, each virtue is the positive counterpart of a grievous sin. In order for us to grow in theosis, we must not only resist and repent from the sins in our life, but we must also desire and labor to attain the virtues. Our goal is for each of these articles to be a beginning, a place to help us start learning more about each virtue as we pursue it. May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us grace as we pursue these virtues!

Temperance is the next virtue on our list, so this post will focus on temperance. What exactly is temperance? Those of us familiar with American history might immediately think of the Temperance Movement in the 1800s, which urged people to (initially) reduce their alcohol consumption to a moderate level, and then (later) aimed to prohibit alcohol use altogether. True temperance is more closely defined by the initial urging than the latter. Merriam Webster defines temperance as “moderation in action, thought, or feeling; habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions; or moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages.” Note the recurrence of one word in all three of those definitions: the term “moderation.” So temperance, regardless what it is governing, implies moderation.

Temperance is the positive counterpart to the grievous sin of gluttony (“the habit of eating or drinking too much,” according to the “Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians”). So by not eating or drinking too much, we begin on the road to temperance. Fasting is a great help in that pursuit! And it is not just a help, it is necessary, according to St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. He said, “Temperance in eating is necessary: According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: ‘Woe unto you that are full now, for you shall hunger’ (Lk. 6:25).” (1) So fasting and/or limiting the amount of food we take in is an important step in pursuit of temperance.

We often think of temperance in terms of moderation of food and/or drink, as mentioned in the second and third dictionary definitions. But what about that first definition of temperance that was given by Merriam Webster? Does “moderation in action, thought, or feeling” apply in our Christian faith, as well? Of course it does! Temperance is not just related to our food and beverage intake, but to anything that will keep us away from overindulging! “[Temperance] is to do nothing in excess, neither speaking, nor eating, nor drinking, nor playing, nor working. It requires watchfulness of how we carry ourselves, how we spend our time, how we meet the needs of our body—in short, how we live in this world. We should be temperate in all things except our faith, our hope, and our love.” (2)

Once we begin to pursue (and, by the grace of God, attain) temperance, how can we protect and keep it in our life? In the same way that we protect any other virtue we begin to acquire: by prayer. St. Ephrem of Syria said, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance… Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us “…watch and pray, lest [we] enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) Let us pursue temperance in all things. In food, yes; in drink, of course; but also in every area of our life. May the Lord have mercy on us as we pursue temperance in all things.

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust of power and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, for
Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”
(The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian)

 

Footnotes:

  1. “On Three Degrees of Eating, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain: http://www.orthodox.net/gleanings/eating.html
  2. “The Cardinal Virtue of Temperance,” by Thomas S. Buchanan : http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=14-08-056-c

Here are some other ways that we can learn about temperance:
***

Temperance via fasting doesn’t just help our waistline: it helps to protect us from demonic attack. “Fasting is universal temperance, prayer is universal communication with God; the former defends from the outside, whereas the latter from within directs a fiery weapon against the enemies. The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.” ~ St. Theophan the Recluse

***

“We often think of temperance in respect to what it denies. It avoids sin, it sacrifices, it does without; it is simple, ascetic, poor. And all of these can certainly be true marks of temperance. But temperance affirms as much as it denies and thus the saints of God are meant practice temperance in both their fasting and feasting. Temperance is practicing right proportion. In this it stands in stark contrast to gluttony, which is taking sinful pleasure in excessiveness.” Although it is not Othodox, this blog post offers much to think about when it comes to temperance. http://allsaintschurchdallas.org/all-saints-dallas-blog/post/practicing-temperance-by-fasting-and-feasting

***

“..let the desire of possession take hold of no one, for what gain is it to acquire these things which we cannot take with us? Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us–to wit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek-hearted.” ~ St. Athanasius

***

Temperance is included among the virtues that positive psychology has identified as “contribut[ing] to emotional wellbeing and an engaged, meaningful life.” This is just one of that many things that modern psychology has recently scientifically uncovered as important to raising children. Interestingly enough, these things happen to also be things that the Church has taught and practiced since the beginning! Read the article here: http://blogs.goarch.org/de/blog/-/blogs/on-raising-children

***

St. Basil once said, “Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires.”

***

“We must not let the temptations of the world overpower us. We take our strength from God Himself Who is more powerful than anything we may encounter. Exercising self-control means having control over our bodies, our minds, and our tongues. Guard what goes into our bodies so we can guard what comes out of our bodies.” Read more on temperance in its portion of the meditation written by Fr. Christopher Salamy, found at the bottom of this page: http://saintandrewgoc.org/home/2012/2/21/daily-message-faith-truth-and-temperance.html

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