Holy Anorexia

An idealised image of St Catherine

An idealised image of St Catherine

“The link between women’s sinfulness and food is made at the very start of the Bible, when Eve’s desire for the apple brings about the destruction of paradise.”

This quotation is from a newspaper article about a Carmelite nun, 61 when the piece was written in 2008, who refers to her anorexia as a ‘friend’. Though her illness was not the direct consequence of her religious beliefs, there are plenty of cases through convent history of nuns who starved themselves, to death in some cases, in the name of God.

Religious fervour or a clear-cut case of mental illness?

St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a Dominican tertiary (a tertiary lives according to an Order’s ideals but is not a nun) living in Italy at a time when women’s control over their bodies was seen as a step towards becoming Divine. There are anecdotes from that period of women with what we’d now call anorexia having transcendental experiences, though the practical cynic might suggest these are more to do with lack of food than the presence of God.

When Catherine was 15, her older sister died, followed shortly by her baby sister. Catherine responded to the survivors’ guilt she felt, and to her parents’ suggestions that she marry her sister’s widower, by fasting until she’d lost half her body weight. Her parents sent her to a priest, who couldn’t decide whether she was a saint or mad. He tried to get her to eat, and according to her she did do her best to, but she was sick when she tried: “God did not make me eat to correct the depravity of my throat. I pray in order to return to eat, but it is His wish for my expiation in this way.”

After two years her exhausted family agreed that she could dedicate her life to the Church, helping the sick and needy, which she threw herself into; she remained a public figure for the rest of her life, involving herself in politics and advocacy.

Santa Maria Delle Grazie Dominican convent, Milan. Leonardo's 'The Last Supper' is on the back wall.

Santa Maria Delle Grazie Dominican convent, Milan. Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ is on the back wall.

Her writings suggest that she felt disillusioned by the political situation in Italy at the time – for a while during the 14th century there were two Popes, resulting from a schism in the Church – and her fasting was a reaction to both these external sins and the sins she felt she committed. She also clearly had a difficult, tempestuous adolescence, which Rudolph Bell, in his book Holy Anorexia, holds partially responsible for her anorexia/bulimia. Her family had let her down, but God never had. To eat was to betray God, because to eat was to yield to temptation and therefore sin.

Catherine continued to refuse food, taking only the Eucharist, and vomiting up anything else that she did eat. She died, aged 33, in April 1380, after a stroke.

There are obvious parallels to be drawn between so-called ‘holy’ anorexia, which at least superficially has its beginnings in genuine religious feeling, and the anorexia most people now recognise as a mental illness. According to a paper from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, anorexia nervosa displays certain features of ‘spirituality’ such as ritualistic behaviours, self-denial and obedience to a higher power, and the ‘Ana Commandments’ (several of which begin ‘Thou Shalt’) and ‘Ana Creed’ that are part of the pro-anorexia community are based on Christian doctrine.

The ex-nun and theologian Karen Armstrong wrote a memoir in which she discussed her own and her fellow sisters’ anorexia – it’s a phenomenon that still apparently haunts nuns with alarming frequency.


One thought on “Holy Anorexia

  1. I think the sense of control is very satisfying when you are having other issues in your life. Sometimes food is the only thing in this world that you can control so you control it to your death. I used to do this in my 20’s but have long since overcome it.

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