Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Food, Faith and Flesh

Of late, in the process of trying to vanquish the demons of body-hatred and self-negation that have once again reared their ugly heads (strange how they can slumber, or appear to, for months or years, then resurrect themselves at a moment's notice), I've been looking at the ways in which eating disorders are not just emotional or psychiatric maladies, but spiritual ones. Some of my thoughts--more or less coherent--follow.

I grew up in a church where "the flesh" was shorthand for all the evils of humanity's fallen nature. In our teen Bible study we read Galatians, where Paul exhorted us, "Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its desires..." and "Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are immorality, impurity, sensuality..." Simultaneously, of course, I was teetering on the cusp of adolescence, with all its associated bodily chaos. For a variety of reasons I was intensely, painfully self-conscious, and my body especially frightened me. I was able to keep the rest of my life in order; I made straight As, played first chair flute, captained the  volleyball team. My body, however, resisted my attempts to force it into line. Of their own volition (and it seemed specifically to spite me) my hips spread and my thighs thickened. Flesh appeared where none had been before, complete with untidy appetites and shameful desires. Struggling in an unwinnable fight--but no less valiantly for that!--I tried to bring my body, "the flesh," under control through epic deprivation and exhausting exercise. My body shrank, true. Yet the hunger, that base desire, that fleshly weakness, persisted. I could never be good enough; I could resist temptation, but I could never not want, never not need. This is the self-flagellating attitude of false piety and misguided contrition that I think drives many eating disorders, especially among those influenced by Western Christianity. The idolization (a carefully chosen word) of self-abasement and starvation--particularly for women--has a long history, particularly in the church. St. Catherine of Siena, for instance, starved herself to death and routinely forced herself to purge with an olive branch. St. Angela Foligno and St. Margaret of Cortona both subsisted on little more than Communion.

However, this idolization of self-punishment, of restriction, of penance, is just that--a false lionization of our own power. It is based on an assumption that we have to be good enough to be loved, that we have to save ourselves, that we have to earn grace. In fact, not only are none of these things required, they are impossible. If humanity could attain salvation on its own, a Savior would be superfluous. Grace, by its very nature, is extravagant--it is not earned. In theory, this relentless pursuit of self-negation (in the presumed service of piety) places us at the center of the universe rather than The Divine. We imagine that we can suffer our way into acceptance or into Paradise. Like the mirror image of the narcissist who declares himself a VIP because he feels secretly, deeply inadequate, we--in our abject self-loathing, our desire to make ourselves holy, to make ourselves good--have strayed dangerously close to hubris.

 And speaking of hubris, there is something to be said for eating disorders--whether they manifest as over- or under-eating--as sin. Not 'willful' sin, not intentional misdeeds, not something more to feel guilty about, but as a marker of profound alienation: from Divinity, from others, and from ourselves. I remember a long-ago conversation with a Jewish friend who stated that smoking was a sin. Curious about his particular perspective (and hoping to compare it to the reasoning I'd grown up with, which could be summed up: If it's fun, like drinking, dancing, smoking or sex--it's probably a sin), I asked why. "It's an abuse of the body God has given you," he said. "Your body is entrusted to you, but there is an expectation that you will cherish it and use it to do good in the world." Not castigate it, not starve it, not engineer its destruction one calorie at a time--Cherish it! Imagine that.

Beyond that, Christianity, or the Episcopalian sect to which I belong, is in fact a powerfully embodied faith. Jesus was incarnate--"enfleshed"--as human. He ate and drank (quite a bit, in fact; he was decried more than once as being a "glutton and a drunkard" in the Gospels). We use our bodies in worship, kneeling, standing, crossing ourselves. There is the spicy-sweet smell of incense in our nostrils as we pray, and hymns and chants echo in our ears. Most important, the beating heart at the center of it all--the center around which everything holds--is a meal. We come together as a family around a table to share freshly-baked bread and experience the dusky tang of wine on our tongues. It is difficult to lose yourself in the Paschal Mystery if you are wondering how many calories are in a mouthful of bread. It is difficult to reach out your arms and enter the embrace of that family when you are clutching your private, painful secret to your chest. It is difficult to come to the table for solace or strength when the very phrase "come to the table" fills you with panic. Yet it is for precisely those reasons that it is essential to lose oneself, to reach out. It is for the healing of ills just such as these that we come to the table of grace.

Intellectual understanding is one thing; living it is another. To quote Paul again, "For I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...so now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me."

1 comment:

Tracy Crowe Jones said...

Wow, Anne. This is beautiful and spot on. Thank you so much for writing and sharing. - Tracy