A southern minister was completing a temperance sermon. With great expression he said, ”If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” With even greater emphasis he said, ”And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” And then finally, he said, ”And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” Sermon complete, he then sat down.
The Choir Master stood very cautiously and announced, ”For our closing song, let us sing Hymn number 365: ‘Shall We Gather at the River?”’
Last week the dean of Worcester Cathedral mentioned how pleased he was to be here and to be invited, and added that once his slot as a preacher here had been confirmed, that he was a little disappointed to find himself preaching on Prudence: ‘The dull virtue’ he called it. ‘Never mind’, he said, ‘it could have been worse. It could have been Temperance!’ Well, this week it’s temperance, the even more boring virtue, you might think. But you’d be wrong.
For some of you may be thinking that I am about to attempt to make you feel guilty about the lovely formal dinner with wine that you are going to have, or the night cap later on perhaps. For there is a popular conception that temperance, as in the joke we heard, is only about abstinence from alcohol and a synonym for prohibition. In fact, these are two misconceptions, as Temperance is not primarily concerned with alcohol and it is not about abstinence, even with Lent approaching. It is merely, as St. Iganatius of Loyola, that great spiritual writer relates, about the use of created things. We ought to make use of created things just so far as they help us to attain our end, the end for which God created us, and we ought to withdraw ourselves from them just so far as they hinder us.
So, the purpose of the virtue is to enable us to attain the end for which we were created, that is to say, it is directed towards the fulfilment of the will of God, rather than the production of a strong ego. Of course, this is a religious point of view. Anyone can practise temperance in a completely secular way, and any other of the cardinal virtues for that matter. There is natural prudence, temperance, courage and a sense of justice in just about everyone. The point about practising temperance as a Christian virtue is twofold: firstly, it is for the higher purpose of serving God and neighbour, rather than simply keeping one’s own body in good condition for selfish motives and, secondly it is an ‘infused virtue’, that is to say, it is practised in the knowledge that when our spirits are weak and we are likely to over indulge in something or other, let’s say, over eating, drinking, not enough eating perhaps, smoking, too much exercise, too little exercise, too much rest or not enough, then we are helped by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, because we offer our lives to God an we are his.
Now you might think this a bit morbid, but Emma and I have this idea that, if one of us dies first, which is almost certainly inevitable, that the deceased will wait for the other one in a heavenly version of the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar, a place we frequented in our London days and to be highly recommended. And as time is of no consequence in these arrangements, how ever long the surviving one, me or Emma, lives after the other one, it will only be a second in heaven so, just as the drinks are served and the piano plays in the celestial bar, we will be together again.
Temperance is, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, about freedom, not about guilt. Don’t become a slave to unfettered gratification and addiction, for these things limit our lives, not only in terms of their quality, but sometimes in their longevity and that is not the purpose of a God who came to bring life in all its fullness. Self control, practised as an offering of oneself in service is immensely powerful and empowering. Through self control, God’s love can shine through in the most amazing circumstances to help others and can bring wonderful spiritual enlightenment to the soul. Self control is often simply the most loving action we can take, for in seeking self control, temperance, as an infused grace, with the help of the Holy spirit, we are best prepared to love God and our neighbour, which are the primary commandments.
Now I’m younger than some of you and older than some others of you and, to make a little confession, I think I’ve participated in my fair share of indulgence and over-indulgence over the years, and perhaps I won’t tell you whether I inhaled or not, but in my experience, it is certainly not worth letting things that we consume having mastery over us for that leads to St. Paul’s now clichéd list in Galatians:
Fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
Rather the practise of self-control means that we can focus on the much greater things in life. Things that Paul call the Fruit of the Spirit:
22 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These are the things that really matter and, ultimately, the things which make life worth living. But remember, temperance is not about abstaining from anything. After all, isn’t Jesus the one who turned the finest water into wine and isn’t the afterlife supposed to be a heavenly banquet?
Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain
7th February 2010