Holy Week: a High Fast, or an ingredient in the recipe for an eating disorder

By Mriana

Today's ImageImage by charluna via Flickr

I have mentioned a few reasons, including disbelief, as to why I left the Church and can never go back even just to attend for the social aspects, like Bob Price does. Here is yet another reason as to why I know I can never go back. The Episcopal Church, as well as other churches, has major fasts and feasts, as well as minor feasts and fasts. Except for Easter, because I have always loved chocolate and the new life Spring brings, I never did celebrate feast days. At one time, when I went to church regularly, I could name all the fast days and seasons. Lent is another one in which fasting is involved, but the majority of healthier people do not literally go on a forty day food fast and for me, religion was a part of my own eating disorder.

This year, I did not realize that it was Holy Week nor did I even pay attention when it was Ash Wednesday this year and therefore took no notice that it was Lent. I had completely forgotten it until someone mentioned Easter is next Sunday. So, here it is Maundy Thursday and somehow I have been oblivious to it all. I have been for a few years now. The liturgical calendar has no importance to me anymore. (Yes, I wrote this towards the end of Holy Week, thus why it’s late)

However, I was not always that way. I use to revel in fasting for days and the weight loss during this time of year would be quite noticeable to many people in the church, especially towards the end of forty days. Most in church did not say anything, but two people did. One, who was a psychologist, approached me directly with concern, but the religious aspect of it all was never addressed or even discussed. I was a perpetual faster, but a few of my adult years were extremely bad; almost as bad as when I was a teen. It did not even go unnoticed by Mother Kathy (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/34318_34129_ENG_HTM.htm?menumenu5260 ), who takes what she knows people are struggling with, weaves it into her sermons, “so that those listening almost always feel like the sermons speak to them”, and oddly enough she gave a Thursday night homily to a very small group of parishioners, during a time of fasting, concerning her name sake and Patron Saint, Katherine.

The story about this saint, as far as I can remember her telling it, went something like this: This saint was very intelligent, seemed to fast all the time, was always sickly, and when she died, she was extremely emaciated. (I think this is the link, except it begins with a “C” not a “K”: http://www.3op.org/stcatherine.php, some details seem different though.) From what I gathered from Mother Kathy’s version, this saint died, probably much like Karen Carpenter- heart failure. The thing is Katherine was not the only person in religion to do herself harm. There were many men and women, who were self-abusive and ironically became saints or noted in some manner within Church history. Martin Luther whipped himself. The Buddha even fasted to emaciation until he became “enlightened” and started eating again. Religion and self-abuse seem to go together, just as religion and abuse by others seems to go together.

As far as an eating disorder goes, I realize there are nay-sayers who believe one can still chose not to fast as part of the worship. However, the temptation for those who enjoy the feelings that come with fasting is too great a temptation, especially when people are being encouraged to fast, almost like permission, a free ticket, to not eat. Not only that, once one, who is prone to anorexia, gets started, it is difficult to stop. In this case, permission to fast in the name of religion is practically handed to them on a crown of thorns- metaphorically of course. However, one should not think that the anorexic is only thinking about the religious purposes of fasting, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and God. Not just God at least. In fact, the thoughts are a long ways from God, except maybe when they feel the overwhelming feelings of transcendence and then there are those calories in the communion wafer and the sip of wine. So, the Church’s observance of fasting is only the start and the observance feeds into the eating disorder, which is just as twisted and bizarre as religion itself. Who tries to count the calories in communion wafers and a sip of wine? Besides someone with anorexia.

The thing is I actually did revel in the fasting, especially when I attended a service after several days of fasting. Everything within the service was more vivid and sensual to the point of being surreal. The transcendent feelings brought on from the regal smell of incense, the majestic sounding music, vivid haloed candles, and even going through the motions, especially with the lay minister’s robe was intensified by the fasting. The feeling was almost like a drug that is better than sex. I doubt any of the ancients who did schrooms or soma could have had a better experience, because theirs was not natural, at least not in the sense of the body itself producing the chemicals. Then again, I have never done drugs so who knows, and I even doubt those who cavorted had a better experience. Regardless, it is very questionable that one actually gets the treatment they need when religion is so tied up in their disorder due to how people view religion.

However, during fasting one does not have visions, or rather what is said to be visions. I didn’t. I just had euphoria and numinous feelings that felt so damn good. I had the very same experience at a sweat lodge I attended. Fasting was involved before and during the Sweat, so it was no surprise to me when I had the same feelings after it was all said and done. The only difference is the feelings lasted longer, probably due to the addition of being a bit dehydrated from the Sweat.

These things are, again, neurology pure and simple, but the chemicals in the brain can be very much like a drug and while feelings of transcendence are part of the human condition, too much of a seemingly good thing is a bad thing. Overindulgence in anything is not good. Moderation is the key, even when it concerns religion. Skipping a meal or two here and there is not harmful to most people, but religion has a tendency to emphasize fasting a great deal in part because the human being is never good enough and has to sacrifice something, even if the supposed ultimate sacrifice was already made for them-via yet another God-man myth. The thing is it is possible to fast to the point that one intensifies the feelings of transcendence, which are triggered by external sources, and even cause them to happen more easily in certain settings, such as church. All too often though, people believe they felt the present of God, the Holy Spirit when they have these feelings. Truth is, it is nothing but external stimuli triggering brain chemistry and the person who is deprived of food is more susceptible to the dramatic stimuli. They become more sensitive to external stimuli, which would not necessarily be a bad thing for one without an eating disorder. However, keep in mind that God is not actually the focus or at least not the total focus for one with an eating disorder. They might call it God, but they might not necessarily be talking about the same thing as other people.

The religious rituals that included fasting were, in a sense, my drug of choice, but it was not illegal, not technically in the DSM-I, II, III, IV, or V, and technically there is no recovery program either because such religiosity is not actually considered an illness, which gets confusing at this point. Religion itself is not considered a mental illness, just the illness it contributes to, in this case anorexia, and it is not even recognized as contributor either. The eating disorder is the mental illness, but one of the causes goes unnoticed by the masses because it is religion and is even denied as being something that contributes to a mental illness. People close their eyes to the one ingredient that contributes greatly to “the people pleasing, perfect little angel’s” eating disorder.

Two things about a person with a predisposition for an eating disorder: perfectionism and striving to please, yet at the same time be in control of something. In this case, when it comes to religion, especially in Evangelical circles which I came from before becoming an Episcopalian, nothing about the human is good enough, because Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge, whatever that is. They have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Of course there are a multitude of verses in the Bible that talk about food and the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit to go with this too. If one adds to that the idea that God is in control of people’s lives and not them, mix it with how the rest of their life and family dynamics are going, and no control over much of anything in their lives, you have the whole recipe for an eating disorder. So, I’m not saying religion is the only contributor to the problem. Eating disorders are very multi-faceted and religion is the one ingredient that is neglect in treatment.

Pick your poison- addiction, substance abuse, eating disorders, mental illness… I believe you can find it among the masses in the various churches, but in many respects, the Church perpetuates and encourages eating disorders and for addictive personalities that is not good whether the Church knows and admits it or not. It did not matter if I was pre-teen in the Evangelical Church where the adults frightened me, because there I had the various verses I pulled out of the Bible to justify and keep myself in such a mentality. In the Lutheran Church as a teenage acolyte or in the Episcopal Church as an adult participating in higher and lesser fasts contributed, along with the religious ideology behind the fasts. Religion was essentially giving me permission to fast.

While religion might not be the cause of eating disorders or any other mental illness, it certainly contributes to the illness. Genetics is a big part of most any such illnesses, as well as environment and nurture. In many cases, religion is supposed to be nurturing in a specific environment, but it does a very poor job of that, regardless of what the devoutly religious say. Granted, by the time I became an Episcopalian I was an adult, but I was still concerned about pleasing others and the idea of someone else being in control instead of me was still there. Even in early adulthood, I did not feel I was in control, except when I fasted, which was a habit I began around eleven years old. So, from the age of eleven to sometime close to my mid-thirties, I believed the only thing I did have control over was whether or not I ate, BUT religious fasting is suppose to penitence, self-sacrificing, self-denial, “act of discipline”, and basically just beating yourself up for not being perfect “in the eyes of God”, thus why we fast during Lent, Holy Week, Advent, and other times during the liturgical season. No matter what “tools” I was given to help me “grow and change”, even if they were handed to me with a communion chalice and a license to lay minister, it all still fed into my eating disorder because the permission to not eat was still there.

It was not until I left the church I actually started getting better and staying at a healthful weight. I have been away from the Church for almost 7 or 8 years now. I have lost count, just as I have lost track of the liturgical year. Do I miss it? Sometimes I miss the sounds, smells, sights, and even going through the motions very badly because I want that overwhelming surrealistic feeling of being at one with my surroundings, but I realize I cannot go back. If I want such feelings, I can listen to music, go on a nature walk, or even just sit near a river as I commune with nature. It is not as intense, but there are no fast days or seasons to encourage and/or contribute to unhealthy behaviours. However, to go back even just to have those transcending feelings or social interactions could very well trigger old habits and I do not feel that is productive or even living a fulfilling life. The two are too much intertwined that it would be regressing instead of progressing. In my opinion, because these things and more are intertwine it would behoove those leaving the Church to avoid too many activities that strongly resemble religion.

Regardless, fasting is not celebrating life and since I left I try to avoid extremes in everything. I try to celebrate and cherish life right down to the food I eat. I do not fast now, unless the doctor requests I do for some medical purpose, like a blood test, and view fasting as being extreme. Easter has become Chocolate Day and I celebrate life being renewed within nature during this time of year, AKA spring, not the barbaric crucifixion, death, and resurrection. As Deanna Troi said in Star Trek, “Chocolate is a serious thing” and “I’ve never met a chocolate I didn’t like”, so therefore I have even more to be happy about this time of year. All my allergies aside, I find the new springtime sun, vivid colours of various plant life, and lively animals celebrating spring very energizing, because it is life.

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