The Breaking Bread
Communion vessels: bread and wine
What’s missing in our ministry to Christians with eating disorders?
by Ryan Althaus
“The body of Christ broken for you.” The words are faint—mere background mutterings hiding behind a stream of anxious voices that surround the sacrament of communion. Communion… Community… Unity… Not for me, not today, not here, not now.
I usually skip church on Communion Sunday, unable to bear the guilt and isolation it brings—but I had forgotten that today was the first Sunday of the month and now, once again, I’m stuck. Reaching out, my fingers touch the soft crust of freshly broken bread, the carbohydrate-packed representation my savior’s body. I break into a sweat as the pastor’s unknowing eyes await my action, eyes unconscious of the battle being waged behind my own. The bread touches my tongue and instantly starts to dissolve, allowing the array of sweet flavors to dance amongst my starved taste buds. In that moment, as in Sundays past, the guilt and fear inside me strengthen and wage battle against my faith. That’s when, as I turn back toward the pews, a well-rehearsed movement lands the bread back into my open palm which then closes it into darkness.
Once again, the disorder has won, and as I walk back to a lonely seat, I look toward the ground with a gaze weighed down by the belief that on this Sunday, as in communions of the past, Christ’s love was not for me.
It has been a long and winding road full of ups and downs, but after five weeks of inpatient treatment at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Baltimore, several years of continuous counseling, and intense study resulting in a masters degree of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, I am finally able to commune again with Christ and my congregation on Sunday mornings.
It was not a particularly easy path, and for many silent, struggling congregants filling the pews of our churches, the battle still rages on. For many, the old saying that, “Eleven a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week,” bears much truth. Despite church efforts to reach out to ethnicities, sexual orientations, and faith traditions different from our own, Sundays continue to isolate because one particular group still lies in the margins: the anorexic.
The ritual of Communion, along with fellowship meals, serves as a major isolation point for those who battle eating disorders within our communities
Cattle were considered among the clean foods for ancient Israelites
Food has been a point of obsession in the religious traditions of the Judeo-Christian world since early in Jewish history, recorded through writings of the Torah, and that obsession has carried over to the present. Ancient Jewish culture taught that certain foods and means of preparation have the ability to set us apart or bring us closer to God. Atop Mount Sinai, the Israelites were given a set of dietary laws dealing with clean and unclean or holy and unholy foods. Though modern Christianity does not pay too much attention to these Old Testament laws, the restrictions do flow into the New Testament in passages such as 1 Cor. 10:25-28 and Acts 15:29, which both recognize ritualistic food rites.
Though our culture has largely moved past ancient laws of food consumption and preparation, there is still an extreme emphasis on food as a means of fellowship and worship in our faith lives. The ritual of Communion, along with fellowship meals, serves as a major isolation point for those who battle eating disorders within our communities. Whereas ancient Jews found hooved animals to be unlawful for consumption, the anorexic sees a loaf of carb-packed bread—the theoretical representation of Christ—as a halting challenge due to the coupling of secular culture’s obsession with calories and the Christian tradition’s fixation on food as sacrament.
In seeking to understand the disorder in the context of faith, we find that anorexia often has religious roots. It is largely in religious circumstances that children first learn that strict adherence to dietary restriction, self-control, and self-inflicted suffering is a prominent way in which saints and martyrs past and present have strengthened their relationship with God.
Fasting has been a common spiritual practice for devout Christians throughout history, in part because of a deep ecstatic pleasure found in the emptiness that accompanies starvation or fasting. The sufferer understands this feeling to be a spiritual connection. “No matter what people around her said or made her eat,” writes an anxious teen’s therapist, “she came to believe to the depths of her soul that God was directly at work in giving her opportunities to suffer for him, and that was exactly what she had wanted for herself all along” [i](Bell 76). These words were spoken of a teen that had become addicted to that “empty” feeling of depravation, or “opportunistic suffering,” that a Sunday school class fast had introduced her to.
Unfortunately, the starvation patterns of the anorexic, like the physical endorphin highs of the athlete, are temporary and often harmful, because the body can no longer detect the damage being inflicted.
Skinny Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines of our ascetic traditions, along with prayer and almsgiving. Fasting, understood as self-denial, brings with it a feeling of starvation that becomes an addiction to many preconditioned practitioners. Through starvation, one can take away the guilt of sin and identify with Christ, whose suffering saved us. This attempt to find salvation in emptiness and self-punishment, instead of in the grace of the Cross, pushed the aforementioned teen to her death two years following her first fast.
We often think of Generation X as a group that is drifting away from Christian tradition, leaning towards “spirituality” instead of “religion.” But as researcher Tom Beudoin has found, this culture, fittingly enough named with a cross, identifies with the sacrificial Jesus more than any in recent history. Why would this surprise us when the most popular religious film of the decade was The Passion of the Christ, a deeply moving and graphic account of the last days of Jesus?
When school shootings, terrorist attacks, and the bullying stories that fill our news programs couple with the image of a beaten Christ, Generation X is filled with a yearning to suffer at the side of Jesus. This is perhaps shown in the desire many young Christians have to pierce and tattoo their bodies in painful statements of faith and fashion. Food restriction, just the same, functions as an ability to symbolically take up the Cross—the anorexic attempting to control her own salvation. For anorexics, starvation is a kind of stigmata.
This temporary freedom from guilt also induces a euphoric high possibly falsely identified as a mystical experience in Judeo-Christian practice. Asceticism, the Greek word for “exercise,” is the practice that leads to the mystical experience known as “union with God.” Paul’s introduction of this exercise in his letter to the Corinthians is strictly physical in nature. This is possibly a reason why the self-induced physical ecstasy of starvation has been associated as a spiritual experience through history.
Accounts of a similar euphoric feeling, described in endurance athletics as the “runner’s high,” is a scientifically studied release of endorphins produced by the body which acts as a pain inhibitor during strenuous exercise. Unfortunately, the starvation patterns of the anorexic, like the physical endorphin highs of the athlete, are temporary and often harmful, because the body can no longer detect the damage being inflicted. Thus, the false salvation practices that mirror the ascetic experiences of saints and mystics become unhealthy counterparts to the devout fasting that our faith tradition promotes.
Both the example set by our revered saints and the super-thin photos of the celebrities that crowd our media create a very problematic scenario for the eating disorder patient. Though horrible for those who fight eating disorders, fasting from food is regularly presented to society in an almost ideological light. We praise the saints for their adherence to self-depravation and call these “acts of faith.” Internet searches on eating disorders now bring up a plethora of pro-anorexia webpages, which teach the art of starvation to those who yearn to be skinny.
For parishioners who do not fight to take the bread of Christ, do not struggle with a family dinner, or who are not overcome with guilt as they bite into a chocolate bar, the anorexic life is somewhat attractive. While the anorexic is hiding her inner turmoil and overwhelming guilt, she is at the same time being praised for the outer appearance of the disorder, which takes form as religious devotion or a small waistline.
We declare that this is an open table, forgetting that an “open table,” to some, is the basis of exclusion.
An extreme case of anorexia nervosa
As we look to guilt as an adversary in the sacrament of communion, we must seek to understand the term “Eucharist” not as “the body of Christ,” but as its true definition: “thanksgiving.” Churchgoers and their pastors often become so focused on the theology of trans-substantiation versus consubstantiation, rituals of preparation and serving, and the elements, themselves, (what kind of bread, wine, or grape juice should be used), that they overlook and fail to teach the true definition of Eucharist as “thanksgiving.”
While modern church members are beginning to argue for the offering of gluten-free wafers to those whose bread allergy keeps them from Christ’s table, they rarely (if ever) consider how to offer communion to those whose psychological “allergy” to food drives them from the Holy Sacrament. We place so much value on the physical substance that we do not relate the communal meaning to those who are unable to identify with the signs of the sacrament. We declare that this is an open table, forgetting that an “open table,” to some, is the basis of exclusion.
How, then, do we include congregants who suffer eating disorders in what the Christian church understands as the “sign and seal” of our salvation? We do it by focusing on the true meaning of the Eucharist as a thanksgiving, while striving as ministers, fellow Christians, and friends to understand the theological, social, and psychological underpinnings of the Christian anorexic. We must understand that anorexics does not desire their illness, but it, like any other addiction disease, it is beyond their control.
In the more advanced cases of anorexia, extreme identification with the physical body to convey spiritual feelings, thoughts, and emotions becomes increasingly dangerous. Losing perspective as their bodies and minds starve, they push the limits until the pain finally ends. “Death then serves as a final [explicative-you] to the world and to God”[ii] (Hornbacher 125). This excerpt comes from a letter found by a father after the death of his daughter. She had opened her message by writing, “I have no intention of making a peace pact between my body and my soul, and neither do I intend to hold anything back.”
Could it be that our words of institution are too limited and too food-obsessed? Do we need bread and wine at all? It is just a representation—is it not? Broadening our understanding, and possibly our implementation, of communion is essential in ministering to the marginalized anorexic culture, because without the acknowledgment of God’s love and forgiveness, the anorexic grows resentful and increasingly withdrawn. In every break of the bread, so is the anorexic’s sense of community broken.
Without community, without communion, without a relationship with Christ, we are left alone and with few choices. How then, do we as ministers and fellow Christians move beyond our theological limitations, beyond the bread and wine, to represent the sign and seal of Christ’s communal meal to those who may very well need it the most?
[i] Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1985
[ii] Hornbacher, Mayra. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia. New York: Warner Books. 2007.