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What is an “attachment”? What are “disordered” attachments?

January 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Attachments, Fr. Bartunek

Dear Father John, I would like to learn more about the idea of attachments. What is a disordered attachment and what is the difference, say, between a normal need for food and a disordered attachment for it? How can I tell the difference? Also, this is kind of a Christ the Healer - Mary Katsilometesrelated point but is there a point at which indulgence in over-eating moves from a venial sin to a mortal sin?

A disordered attachment is an emotional dependence on some person, object, or activity.  We say emotional dependence, but we could also say psychological dependence. The point here is that my dependence on the object in question is more than what reason would dictate. Reason, for human beings, gives us access to the proper measure of things – the measure in accordance with God’s design.

“Ordered” Means “Reasonable”

For example, it is reasonable, for adults, to sleep seven hours a night on a regular basis. It’s reasonable because that’s more or less the amount of sleep that most people need in order to function in a healthy, normal way. If someone habitually sleeps twelve hours a night, something is probably wrong – that’s a disordered sleep pattern. There may be a physiological issue, or there may be an emotional issue, and sleeping too much is an escape from reality in some way or another. And if that escape is a symptom of some unresolved violation of conscience that has made life unbearable, or simply a well-developed habit of laziness and indulgence, then it could very well be a disordered attachment: I am overly dependent on sleep, using it as a shield to avoid facing the normal demands of life.

In any case, however, the standard for healthy dependence vs. unhealthy (disordered) dependence has to do with what is reasonable. And what is reasonable is always related to – ordered to – what is the God-given purpose of the object in question. Sleep is meant to help a person recover energy, not to help a person escape from responsibility.

It is reasonable, to take another example, to enjoy movies or sports as a form of recreation. We need relaxation and recreation to keep a healthy psychological and emotional balance. But when my football team’s loss throws my life into disarray for an entire week, or when I can never miss watching a game, no matter what duties it may require me to neglect, I may have a disordered attachment to that form of recreation. If I spend twenty hours a week playing online video games and only three hours a week playing with my kids or enjoying time with my wife, it is safe to say that I am attached in an unreasonable – or disordered – way to video games.

Eating with Reason

To move on to your example of food. The purpose of food is nourishment. We are dependent on food for life, and life is a good thing, because we are created in God’s image. The goodness of life is actually reflected, in God’s plan, in the pleasure that we get from eating good food. The pleasure is not evil or sinful; it is part of the nourishing experience; it is part of God’s plan for life. We give glory to God by enjoying the good things of his creation! And so, it is reasonable to eat amounts and types of food necessary to stay well-nourished, and to enjoy eating them.

Now the actual reasonable amount will vary depending on the needs of individuals. A seven-foot lumberjack who fells trees nine hours a day will probably not have the same diet as a petite copy-editor.

We can know that we are deviating from the reasonable use of food if we habitually eat in such a way as to cause damage to our health. Over-eating, or only indulging in the kinds of foods that give us the most pleasure, will interfere with the healthy functioning of our minds and bodies, instead of contributing to it. And that is unreasonable – or disordered. An unhealthy (disordered) attachment to food shows itself when eating is no longer ordered to enjoyable nourishment.

As in the case of sleep disorders, eating disorders can be symptoms of sinful self-indulgence (a manifestation of the root sin of sensuality), but they can also be symptoms of deeper problems. Habitual sins, for example, can lead to the disintegration of healthy self-respect, and cause vanity or pride to show itself in making food or physical appearance into a kind of idol. On the other hand, emotional or psychological wounds, when unhealed by God’s grace and his unconditional love, can fester in a person’s soul and eventually manifest themselves in these types of disorders.

Can Over-Eating Be a Mortal Sin?

As regards your specific question of whether over-eating can ever become a mortal sin, I think it could if it were habitual and serious to the point where someone is putting their very life in immediate danger. Remember that for a sin to be mortal – in other words, for a sin to sever our friendship with Christ – three conditions are necessary. First, the person has to be fully aware of the gravity of the sin. Second, the person has to choose the sin with completely consent – not under any compulsion. Third, the matter of the sin has to be grave and serious in itself (stealing $5 is not the same as stealing $5 million).

In the area of over-eating, I would hesitate to say that the matter itself is grave, unless the amount is a direct and immediate threat to one’s life. In related areas, however, the abuse of alcohol or drugs, for example, the matter is indeed grave. First of all, because abusing those substances puts your life (and others’) in immediate danger, and secondly, when someone purposely gets drunk or high, they knowingly forfeit or impair the use of their reason – they make themselves less than human, in a sense, defacing the image of God.

In the area of eating disorders, I would hesitate to say that a person’s actions are performed with full consent. Almost always, these are compulsive behaviors. Other factors are subconsciously pushing someone to over eat, or under eat, or induce vomiting after eating. These root factors may be symptoms of sinful behavior that have wreaked havoc in a person’s soul, in which case repentance will be needed to break the cycle. But they may also be the result of having suffered some sort of serious neglect or abuse, in which case the person is not culpable for the eating disorder, and healing will come through discovering the merciful and transforming love of God, which can repair any damage done by the sins of others.

A Note on Fasting

It is worth noting in this context that the Church has always encouraged voluntary fasting as a spiritual discipline. We are only required to fast every Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but all spiritual writers recommend including this spiritual discipline as a regular part of our lives. Making a small sacrifice at every meal, for example, or avoiding snacks between meals, or abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the year (not only during Lent) is a healthy way to keep this area of life ordered. Fasting is also a fruitful way of offering up sacrifices in union with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. For more on that point, you can read this post.  This is a good topic to bring up in spiritual direction!

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Theresa

    This is an excellent question and one that I ponder especially in the use of my computer.  I blog, email and do a lot of homeschool research as well as have a connection to other homeschoolers since I do not have support in my area.  I sometimes wonder…am I attached to the computer…is my use disordered?  How would I know?

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  • Diane. E.

    The link at the end of the column appears to be broken and gives this errorr:
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    The requested URL
    /2009/05/11/redemptive-suffering-part-i-the-mystery-of-merit was not found on
    this server.

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    ErrorDocument to handle the request.

  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    Thank you, Fr. John for this illuminating response. I shall definitely read it often, especially in relation to inordinate and disordered habitual sleep patterns. I do seem to recall that Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Capital of which is Pride.  And this Capital Sin is the Mother of the other Six Deadly sins and nearly all sinful tendencies which afflict mankind. Am I right, Father??

  • Mary

    Do you have the link for redemptive suffering? 

  • Lee Anne

    I would say if you use the computer in PLACE of your relationship with your children then it would be disordered.  Or if you stay up way late to the point you struggle the next day again interfering with your relationship with your family.

  • Joe Mulvihill

    “…when someone purposely gets drunk or high, they knowingly forfeit or
    impair the use of their reason – they make themselves less than human,
    in a sense, defacing the image of God.”

    As someone who has worked with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts for the past 20+ years that I have been in recovery, I have yet to find anyone who has been made “less than human” by any chemical substance. I believe I understand your point; however your choice of words is most unfortunate, in my opinion.

    Read more: http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2012/01/23/what-is-an-attachment-what-are-disordered-attachments#ixzz1kNcZ9dFx

  • Jcsmitty1212

    This excellent article says that some attachments stem from “unresolved violations of conscience..” What does one do if one is still bothered by woundedness from past sins which have been confessed, forgiven and seemingly forgotten until some circumstance or stress brings it back to the surface? Aside from frequent reception of the sacraments and tons of prayer, how do you confront such wounds so that they can be permanently healed?  

  • Jeanette

    Thank you for this article Fr. John. I’m interested in learning more about fasting as a spiritual discipline. In the Note on Fasting area of your article, where it says for more on that point, you can read ‘this post’, unfortunately I am brought to: URL Not Found. Any other help?

  • judeen

    been there done that… and have seen others do this , the escape …. the emotional feeding of 1s self… to fill the emptyness of wounds or feed pain.. or lonelyness… alot of people are taught from childhood with the reward of food, or get to watch tv, for a babysitter… so on balance needs to be taught.. also even in excersis.. – leading to vanity how one looks.. control over eating.. seen this , and wonder if some girls will be able to have babies later. it is in finding the wound of the heart.. to heal it , then things start to take on a different way to live , more balanced.. fasting- scripture.. 1st day on bread and water purifys the body- anything wronge with the stomack- 2nd day is spiritual cleanzing anything attached to you has to leave. add confession with that – it is powerful

  • Louis

    A brief comment on your initial definition of a disordered attachment. An emotional or psychological dependence on another person or object is not necessarily unreasonable, and may be dictated by reason. Further, just as we can have a reasonable emotional dependence, we can have an unreasonable rational dependence. A person can adhere unreasonably to a certain object through a process of reason (just not right reason). Thus, I think it is better to define a disordered attachment as any kind of attachment which right reason would reject. I think you were trying to say this, but the question of it being an emotional attachment or not is irrelevant to this point.

  • Razzleberry

    Wonderful post and I learned a lot.  For anyone suffering from compulsive issues around food, I suggest visit oa.org, a 12-step spiritual program for anyone wishing to stop compulsive overeating.

  • Jerry Malone71

    Could you comment on Disorder attachments with friends.

    • judeen

      do in prisons and retreats -has too do with forgiveness, and we are not junk.. everyone is a gift… tempations .. and sin ,, the difference

  • Sr Pattifcr

    It has been my experience that people who live with such issues are in deep psychological pain and are not “disordered” ,and are not sinning in any way!   

  • Pat

    Very enlightening; thank you!

  • Brahms8

    Hi Father,

    Thank you for this informative post! Like Jerry Malone71, I would also be interested in understanding better the nature of attachments to friends and how they can be disordered and how one can avoid these pitfalls. God bless you.

  • Dave

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your comments. This is a question I have wrestled with myself most of my life. Your comments regarding pleasure is something St John of The Cross mentions. He seems to take a hard line on experiencing pleasure, especially in the first book of the Ascent of Mount Carmel. He says to detach ourselves from things we must go through the dark nights. In the Ascent I-III:1  he says “night (is) the privation of every kind of pleasure which belongs to the desire” He does say that pleasure is something from God and that there is a proper use of it. He says in order to know if one is using pleasure properly there is a test. And that test he says is on experiencing pleasure if the soul is raised to God and takes pleasure in God and forgets the pleasure of the temporal thing than pleasure has played it’s proper role. He says to desire pleasure is inordinate. So from what I understand from St. John of The Cross it has to do with the desire of the person rather than his emotional dependency. Although I think the emotional dependency can be part of desire it isn’t the whole of desire. It may be a good test to see if you desire inordinately. So yes things can be useful to us and if God grants them to us for say recreation than they are good. But recreation I would think would have to be defined properly. The word I think should be pronounced re  creation, rather than rec  reation. Re creation  means to be re  created in the image and likeness of God.  Rec reation  can mean to people have as much fun as your heart desires. I may be splitting hairs  and we might be saying the same thing. I guess what it boils down to is St. John says that if we desire something for the sake of the pleasure and the pleasure doesn’t raise us to God than we need to rid ourselves of  that pleasure. Don’t desire the pleasure for the sake of pleasure, allow the pleasure to point you to experiencing God. One is hedonistic the other sacramental.   

  • judeen

    drinking and drugging.. isnt this a way to run away… if they were happy with their life and had a goal , they wont do this. would they… ? the attachment is feeling numb , free to not care.. but it is just a slavery worse than the 1st… running away .hanving some one hold you up.. never goes anywher but worse… to get over fear.. one has to have God and a helping hand.. and courage to do it alone

  • Jan England

    Just heard John LaBriola of St. Joseph Radio Productions address this subject.  Briefly, he said the MOST HEALING thing we can do is pray for the person who caused the wounds – and make other acts of love for them that would be appropriate to the circumstances,  (i.e., it might not be appropriate to send flowers to someone who has abused you, but praying for that person or even having a Mass offered for them will actually go a long way toward healing!)  Forgiveness, love and service are antidotes to our woundedness.  Look to Christ on the cross – “Father, forgive them” – even as He was being tortured to death.

    • Anonymous

      Great advice!!  What we pray for others comes back to us!

      I would also suggest praying for your own healing…..adoration is a wonderful place to do this.

  • latin4all

    Trying to fit behaviour into the little pidgeon holes of “mortal, grave, or venial” leaves out the context and the position of those who suffer with their relationship to food.  Not trying to let folks off the hook for their unhealthy uncompelled choices here, but I am trying to widen your approach.  You never said the A-word:  Addiction.  Some people may use “addiction” as an excuse.  But its prevalence in American eating behaviour is undeniable.  We now know that the food industry–a powerful lobby and political force–makes products from food which is addictive.  High fructose corn syrup.  Salt.  Saturated fat.  Your mind and will may want to avoid these foods, but your addicted body will overrule you every time.  What we need is not so much abstaining from food, as finally getting around to eating the foods that support our health and are not addictive.  We need to fast from foods that are killing us, and ‘pig out’ on the healthy, unprocessed, whole foods that God Himself created for our good.  So, Lent is coming.  DON’T not eat!  Do clean out youir pantries and refrigerators.  Spend your hard-earned money on a whole food organic plant-based diet.  Stuff your face, people!!

    • Anonymous

      You make a good point, yet remember that addictions are the result of the devil making us slaves to our passions.

      Our attachments or inordinate desires are the first steps to addiction.

      • latin4all

        If it is true that the Devil makes us “slaves to our passions”, he does so through his main weapon:  Lies.  Just like the food industry and its advertising, we are allured by a seeming good, and then trapped into a false good that drags us down.  All addicts must face a time of detox.  Stopping the use of a poison frees your body (well designed by God Almighty) to heal itself.  But, there will be a time when the ‘cushioning’ that the drug or food gave you will leave you vulnerable to the pain you were trying to numb.  Also, refraining from the self- or other-generated lies that keep folks in denial and in whatever abuse in which they’re involved is a kind of detox.  Anyone out there ever heard of Paula Deen? 

        • Anonymous

          Sometimes it may be that we fall for the lies.  Other times it is simply that we enjoy something, and even thought our inner voice – reason – tells us we shouldn’t indulge whatever it is we’re considering, be it gambling, shopping, eating, exercising too much, looking at pornography, etc….WE CHOOSE to do it anyway.  Nobody ever forces the drink through our lips……..or drags us to the store forcing us to buy things.

          I am not unsympathetic to the plight of addicts…..I have an addictive personality – my sister died in a homeless camp due to complications from alcoholism.  There are five different family member (within 7 miles) whose homes she could have stayed at if she remained sober….we spent 20 years watching her slowly kill herself.

          It didn’t happen over night…… in the beginning she knew the risks  and drank anyway.

          • latin4all

            Becky313:  I’m sorry for your loss.  This is not the best forum for figuring these things out.  And, maybe I read too much into your words.  But, you said:  “There are five different family member (within 7 miles) whose homes she could have stayed at if she remained sober….we spent 20 years watching her slowly kill herself.” 
            I hear a condition in this statement and evidence of a response that strikes me as cold and un-Christian.  I don’t know the facts, just your words.  I hope you learn from this to stop putting conditions on sick people, and come off the sidelines and get involved in truly helping them or helping them into detox and rehab.  20 years just “watching”?  I find that hard to believe.  Perhaps, for your sister, it was less painful to die drunk among strangers than be with a family that did not offer unconditional love or effective help.  I am shocked.  The Devil cannot be blamed for the indifference and judgmentalism I perceive in your words.  It didn’t happen over night…… in the beginning she knew the risks  and drank anyway.

          • Anonymous

            You’re right.  This is NOT a good medium for explanations.

            We watched as she refused everything we offered – intervention, paying her rent until we had no money left, letting her stay in our homes, etc. Much of this is simply enabling…….

            Yes, you are reading just the words and, talk about judging…….!!!

            We loved her enough to let go of what we wanted for her, and let God take care of her…..we never stopped praying.

            I leave it at that.

          • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

            latin4all, we do not just watch our loved ones committing suicide slowly…oh, no…we do everything to help them… and above all we pray for God’s intervention. I also feel these forums are the best venues God has given to us to share our experiences, help one another, build one another….and above all pray for one another.  We are the Family of God.  Children of one Father…..when one of us has a problems one should feel free to share it with us so that we can walk together….So, Becky, this is a GOOD medium to bond even better… in this medium Jesus will bind us with His Cords that can never be broken… the cords of love, compassion and love for one another….even though my son was not an addict, we watched him live in limbo for 14 years…the Doctors had mistaken a growing brain tumour as a mental case….the medication did slow the growth of the tumour…..but by the time the right diagnosis was made, it was too late to save him….but the support, compassion and encouragement from family members and our Family friends helped us to live through those very difficult years….and in the end I had to care for him the final three years after my husband left us….it was not easy…but once again, Family members, relatives, friends and my beloved Mother Church was there with us until the end….when a family is dealing with addiction, it is worse because until the person accepts they have a problem and accept help, there is absolutely nothing their loved ones can do to assist them except just pray.

          • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

            latin4all, we do not just watch our loved ones committing suicide slowly…oh, no…we do everything to help them… and above all we pray for God’s intervention. I also feel these forums are the best venues God has given to us to share our experiences, help one another, build one another….and above all pray for one another.  We are the Family of God.  Children of one Father…..when one of us has a problems one should feel free to share it with us so that we can walk together….So, Becky, this is a GOOD medium to bond even better… in this medium Jesus will bind us with His Cords that can never be broken… the cords of love, compassion and love for one another….even though my son was not an addict, we watched him live in limbo for 14 years…the Doctors had mistaken a growing brain tumour as a mental case….the medication did slow the growth of the tumour…..but by the time the right diagnosis was made, it was too late to save him….but the support, compassion and encouragement from family members and our Family friends helped us to live through those very difficult years….and in the end I had to care for him the final three years after my husband left us….it was not easy…but once again, Family members, relatives, friends and my beloved Mother Church was there with us until the end….when a family is dealing with addiction, it is worse because until the person accepts they have a problem and accept help, there is absolutely nothing their loved ones can do to assist them except just pray.

          • Anonymous

            Bless You Mary!!   

          • Anonymous

            Bless You Mary!!   

          • New Name!

            Sometimes people say they “watch” because they have tried everything they could and were still unable to effect a change in someone for the better.  Please be careful how you judge those here.  Your words come across as hurtful and insensitive.  I was shocked to read them…and very saddened, too, for Becky313…and also for you because the way you put it sounds like you, latin4all, may have some personal experience with folks who don’t love unconditionally, among other things.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    If you HAD to give it up, could you?

    • New Name!

      Hey!  That’s a great acid test for disordered attachment!  We can get attached to many things, including holy things and devotions, too. 

      As St Theresa de Avila would say, “Solo Dios basta!” (Only God suffices).

    • Theresa George

      Finally checking in on some comments : )  Becky~honestly…I would be upset if I had to give it up.  I don’t let it interfere with my duties and don’t stay up late but I check my email and blog often as well as do homeschool research. I think I would have a difficult time…

      • Anonymous

        Honesty is good!  :)  I would probably be upset too.  It seems like the computer is a valuable tool for you.  It might be good to simply reflect on what would happen if it crashed or was destroyed and you weren’t able to replace it.  Would it throw you into a tailspin or would you find other ways to accomplish what you use the computer for now?

        Another question you might ask yourself is if having the computer taken away would have a negative impact on your faith – or relationship with God.  Do you trust that He will get you through tough times……?  

        This might be a good thing to talk with your spiritual director about (if you have one), or bring up when you next go to confession.

        • Theresa George

          Becky~bless you for sharing your time generously and very kind and helpful words!

          Yes…I would be in a tailspin…and yet…relieved not to be *pulled* by it. I would find other ways to accomplish things. It would not negatively impact my faith…sure, I find inspiration through the blogs I read, but then that free time would then be spent listening for the Spirit’s inspirations.

          I have discussed this with my spiritual director.  The opinion is that I don’t have an attachment…but I can’t help feeling deep down that I really do.  

          Thanks again, and feel free to stop by at http://carmelitemom.blogspot.com/

  • Jack g.

    Very good post Fr. John, I even had someone drop from my mailing list because of it. 
    It might be hard on former addicts, I was one in many ways. I guess I am healed to the point I can freely talk about it. If one is too sensitive, one is not healed yet, it takes time. I ham many different addictions not too long ago including alcohol, cigarettes, weed, porn, sports, fishing, any a few I won’t mention here. When I received the gift of baptism in Holy Spirit and the initial re-conversion shock, most of them were annihilated to the point that even the pictures were taken out of my memory, or sent somewhere deep. 
    That is why I believe that with God all is possible and one needs to work on trust. Jesus will heal all that enslaves us, as long as we are sincere and we want to give it all to him. Smoking for example was the hardest for me to quit, and it took many months, but when I gave it all to Jesus through Mary, it was done instantaneously and without a craving. God is so beautiful. When we start to get how much it offends God, then it starts to get easier to fight it. Then we do it for the love of God and not just for our benefit. And I think that’s the key here. I have read some of the posts and I also believe that prayer, fasting and Mass offering for others work well, because they stem from the love of God.
    Especially praying for the people we hurt or led to sin and for the ones that hurt us or led us to sin, this helps them to meet God on their journey.
    In summary, all is good as long as it is sincere and it gets beautiful when it comes from the love of God. In my family lots of addictions, my 6 siblings, most of them are/were, so I could write a book on it, and I probably will some day, but I can see how God uses that for our advantage and His goodness has no end, I am so very optimistic that all will be well in the end. There is no worry as long as we trust in God, no addiction can take us away from him. And if there is one person in the family praying his/her heart out, all will be saved and cured. In the Bible the sentence, “do not fear” is repeated the most times, I wonder why?
    May God Bless and heal all addicted so they can experience the freedom of Christ’s Love, jack g.

  • Anonymous

    Fixed – thank you for letting me know.

  • Anonymous
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Anne-Guryn/512868260 Lee Anne Guryn

    When we do not have our reasoning power due to drugs we ARE less than human, I have seen addicts who neglect their children or other loved ones in favor of drug seeking.  THAT is less than human.  I think that drugs are a favored method of Satan because they seem glamorous and fun at first but drag you down to the gutter. 

  • MarytheDefender

    Is eating a meal till you full a sin? Even just a venial sin? It’s so hard for me to tell sometimes because I am really hungry but then I eat till I’m full… Or am I being scrupulous?

    • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      MTD – It may be a good practice to avoid eating until you are full. However, it is not a sin.

      • MarytheDefender

        Thank you! I really can’t tell if something is sinful sometimes!

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