A minister and psychiatric chaplain explores how shifting his perspective on spiritual suffering helped him heal from an eating disorder.
“The body of Christ, broken for you…” My palms sweat as I shuffled forward, the wayfaring anorexic amidst a line of worthy worshippers.
“The body of Christ, broken for you.” The aroma of freshly-baked bread intensified as the ritual continued, teasing my starved soul as I stepped up to the plate.
“The carbohydrates of Christ, but not for you, the broken.” The words stabbed at me like a nail in the same hand that I used to break off the most minuscule possible crumb of Christ. It’s amazing how mental illness can manipulate a message. I bowed my head. Outwardly, a portrayal of piety and prayerfulness, but inwardly, an acknowledgment of my deeply-rooted ascetic inclination towards self-impoverishment. Alone and empty, I sauntered to my seat, an outcast amidst a commun-ity of faithfully-fulfilled Christians.
The voice that blessed that loaf of glutenous-gluttony that Sunday wasn’t of the minister, nor Christ whom he quoted, but that of an old acquaintance, or adversary, named Ed—the personification of my misguided quest for piety through self-punishment. Yet, despite the growing popularity of eating disorders in contemporary culture, Ed’s origins extend far beyond the mirrors, scales, and magazine photos of superficial society, and deep into the age of antiquity.
“Holy anorexia,” or the “miraculous lack of appetite” known as anorexia mirabilis, was a practice prevalent with medieval mystics who sought opportunities to suffer like Christ, based on the belief that pain allowed them to participate in the passion of Jesus and salvation of the world. Though, Ed’s influence didn’t cease with Christianity. This self-induced “spiritual suffering” wound a thread that weaves together bodhisattvas, Sufi’s, and diverse spiritual sojourners of religion past to present.
I can still feel the “holy” weakness that came with skipping lunch in response to learning of Jesus’ fast in the desert. I still struggle to accept the image of the middle-class white male that met me in the mirror after reading about Jesus’s love of the least of these. And unfortunately, what I’ve always struggled to grasp in those stories of suffering is the selfless love that the Buddhas, Jesuses, and Gandhis of our religious ancestry represented. Instead, I’ve always yearned to bear the cross—to weave my own crown of thorns and seek suffering instead of salvation due to my eternal indebtedness to another of Ed’s faithful friends: a false-prophet named penance.
“Paying penance” through self-punishment was a prominent practice of starving saints and mystics such as St. Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and St. Catherine of Siena, who viewed grace through a lens of guilt, not gratitude. “Penance should be but the means to increase virtue,” wrote St. Catherine, an exalted ascetic whose devotion to self-starvation resulted in her premature death at the age of 33.
However, should this ancient inclination towards suffering really come as a surprise? Take, for instance, Nietzsche, who claimed that “pain and suffering [were] the key to all windows…without which, there is no way of life.” Or the Apostle Paul, who told the Roman Church to “rejoice in [their] suffering” as a source of endurance. Because “endurance produces character and character produces hope.”
With teachings such as these, maybe our question lies in why some seek suffering out of guilt while others praise those who suffered for us in gratitude? Why do some find fulfillment in the fast while others claim comfort in communal meals?
The answer lies in Paul’s call to hope…or our response to losing it!
It’s hard to argue that we live in a broken world—and brokenness is a close cousin of hopelessness. Unfortunately, the anorexic-inclined ascetic, from antiquity to the present, often responds to this brokenness by seeking ways to break themselves, instead of embracing our call to love the broken whole again.
On February 22nd, just before the start of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Christians commence the Lenten fasting season, while Ramadan starts on March 22nd. But Lent, Ramadan, or the Buddhist Danjiki are not times to dwell on the brokenness of the world. They are times to reflect on our response to it! Spiritual fasts should be a time to feast on forgiveness. It should be a time to love and accept ourselves and share in abundance, not try to pay penance through self-punishment.
But there is another side to the extreme fasting and exertion practices of the Gnostic Christian, Islamic Sufi, or Jewish Kabbalistic traditions. Whereas the ascetic seeks purification and piety through self-starvation, the mystic uses self-impoverishment to induce an experience of mysterium tremendum, or union with the divine.
However, as Meister Eckhart taught following a transcendental encounter of his own, one need not induce divine union. This oneness is already a given. Instead, one has to do the thing that is often the most difficult for the anorexic-inclined ascetic: enjoy and accept it!
Let this season be that: a time of gratitude, not guilt, during which every crumb further nourishes your soul and unites you with the love of the universe.