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When St. Augustine spoke about anorexia

When St. Augustine spoke about anorexia

What does a 4th century bishop have to say to a 21st century girl in her twenties about such an (apparently) contemporary issue as eating disorders?

In my first summer of recovery, I read Confessions by St. Augustine, because I’d heard it was one of the most important books of the history of Christianity. Instead, I came across one of the most important books of my personal history. The impact was so deep that the next thing I did was devouring City of God, and then I chose him for my end of degree project’s topic, so I could get to know a lot more of his works. He’s been the saint I’ve turned to most in my recovery, and that’s why I appointed him as the patron saint of it.

Why St. Augustine?

I relate to St. Augustine mainly for two reasons: because he was a truth-seeker, but at the same time he was lost in things that weren’t the truth and that enslaved him; when he found the truth, he had to painfully move away from those things that were his life, and he couldn’t, and he wanted and didn’t want to at the same time, until he realized that the only way was not doing it by himself, but letting it to God’s grace. All of this is very similar to the process of choosing and starting recovery.

Before, when I was deep into my anorexia, I was convinced that it was the good thing and others were wrong. And I believed I was very close to God. St. Augustine, in his quest for truth, also ended up in a false religion: Manichaeism. He tells us how instead of truth they offered him lies, “And yet, because I supposed them to be You, I fed upon them”, he believed they were God. However, they were actually the opposite of God. “How far, then, are You from those phantasies of mine”. “Woe, woe, by what steps was I dragged down to the depths of Hell, toiling and turmoiling through want of Truth” (III, VI).

Another detail we had in common is a mother that saw how wrong we were and did all she could and prayed to get us out of our mistakes. How much did we make our mothers suffer! But they too rejoiced beyond measure when we finally got out of the hole.

"Saints Augustine and Monica", Ary Scheffer. © The National Gallery, London 2018

Choosing out

Let’s go to that point, when one wants to get out, which is the most difficult part. Even if St. Augustine confesses that he had never been fully happy in his life prior to his conversion —marked greatly by sexual sins—, as it happens with any addiction (including an eating disorder), one doesn’t realize up to what extent he’s enslaved until he wants to give it up. Therefore, his problems don’t end right away with conversion, as an eating disorder doesn’t end right away when one chooses recovery.

St. Augustine tells us in those moments: “Nor had I now any longer my wonted excuse, that as yet I hesitated to be above the world and serve You, because my perception of the truth was uncertain; for now it was certain” (VIII, V). I couldn’t keep telling myself that I didn’t know whether God’s will was anorexia or recovery, because I’d seen clearly how the lies of the first one fell down, and especially when I started spiritual direction, because since then, even if I often felt the opposite, I knew what rules I should follow.

The struggle of leaving the evil behind

“[I] was as much afraid of being freed from all embarrassments, as we ought to fear to be embarrassed” (VIII, V). I had a terrible fear of being free from anorexia, both for physical reasons (I believed I was going to get fat) and because it was what defined my whole worldview and —I thought— myself and my vocation. How could I imagine myself without it? That way, paradoxically, I was afraid of leaving the evil behind instead of being afraid of the evil itself.

“Yet it [the soul] drew back; it refused, and exercised not itself. All its arguments were exhausted and confuted. There remained a silent trembling; and it feared, as it would death, to be restrained from the flow of that custom whereby it was wasting away even to death” (VIII, VII). That’s how St. Augustine felt after a friend of his told him about the life of the monks. That’s how I felt every time that my moral arguments were refuted in spiritual direction, as well as every time that I visited the blogs and instagram accounts of girls that were already recovered and invited us to jump with them to the other side.

Wanting to want

“The mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeys not. Whence this monstrous thing? And why is it? I repeat, it commands itself to will, and would not give the command unless it willed; yet is not that done which it commands. But it wills not entirely; therefore it commands not entirely. For so far forth it commands, as it wills; and so far forth is the thing commanded not done, as it wills not” (VIII, IX).

This might seem like a tongue-twister, but when you read it slowly, it holds so much truth… I was like that: I wanted to want recovery, since I’d already understood that it was good, that my fears were unfounded, and that it was the way for me to give glory to God. But, with all that, I wasn’t able to want it; but the important thing is that I kept choosing it despite everything.

“It is, therefore, no monstrous thing partly to will, partly to be unwilling, but an infirmity of the mind, that it does not wholly rise, sustained by truth, pressed down by custom” (VIII, IX). It wasn’t worth it to beat myself up because of my lack of wanting; I’d been to many years completely immersed in the other thing as to be able to suddenly change. Wanting to want was enough, and little by little I’d take flight.

The battle against the voices

“Yet fell I not back to my old condition, but took up my position hard by, and drew breath. And I tried again […] And the very moment in which I was to become another man, the nearer it approached me, the greater horror did it strike into me; but it did not strike me back, nor turn me aside, but kept me in suspense” (VIII, XI). The old customs were calling, they were shouting, but I resisted. I hardly did some times, ending up in crying and panic. But I got up and tried again. Mind you, the more I saw that this recovery thing was serious and there was no going back, the more scared I got: what had I got into? And that made me want to slow down the process more.

“And now I far less than half heard them, not openly showing themselves and contradicting me, but muttering, as it were, behind my back, and furtively plucking me as I was departing, to make me look back upon them” (VIII, XI). Over time, the voices went to being in charge to withdraw; they weren’t the owners of the place anymore, but they wanted to reconquer it. On the other hand, that way they became more astute and devious, since it wasn’t enough anymore to just tell me “throw the food away” or other simple orders, but they tangled me up in subtle and complicated arguments.

At first I listened to them, because I was afraid to miss something important (something from God, maybe); or if not, at least, I felt like I should go fight them. But the only way to get out of their traps is not to look back, ignore them and keep looking forward in the way you’ve chosen.

The secret weapon: grace

When God commands you to recover from an eating disorder, He’s asking you something greater than your strength, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, because there’s something even greater: his grace. That’s why the secret is asking God for his grace to be able to do what He commands. Or, as St. Augustine expresses it, telling Him: “give what You command, and command what You will” (X, XXIX).

"Saint Augustine", Philippe de Champaigne. © Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org)

La Ciudad de Dios

If Confessions put my heart on fire to fight, City of God calmed down my soul with arguments to make me understand even more why anorexia wasn’t the way. I learnt quite a lot of things, but the biggest lesson was this: “For though the soul may seem to rule the body admirably, and the reason the vices, if the soul and reason do not themselves obey God, as God has commanded them to serve Him, they have no proper authority over the body and the vices” (XIX, XXV).

So the rule of the body by the soul mustn’t be for pride or false convictions of piety or purity, but oriented towards God and ordered from Him. There will be justice and virtue only if the rules are ordered: first the soul to God, and then the body to the soul, so as to in the end the plan of God may be fulfilled in the body too.

He even says that there are people who abstain from sins of the body by their sins of the soul: those who believe in heresies, like the Manichaeans, who considered matter as evil. Therefore, when I eat, it’s not that I’m losing my discipline and self-control, but that I’m subordinating those qualities of my soul to God’s will, and then I can subordinate my body to which my soul has heard from God and use food, as the rest of temporal goods, ordered towards the Supreme Good.

Throughout the different works from St. Augustine that I’ve been lucky to read, we can find certain recurring convictions that we must let seep through our soul while we go through the pains of recovery. I’m going to sum up some of them:

  • The human body is good, as is matter in general,

    since all of it has been created and wanted by God. Food is one more of the goods of this world. If we hate our body and if we consider food as evil, we’re blaspheming against God, not being more “spiritual” or “pure” (those would be heretic ideas).

  • Beauty is also good and wanted by God,

    Who is in fact the Supreme Beauty. Seeking it, therefore, isn’t bad by itself, and no one should judge us as vain for that. The beauty of spiritual things is always greater than that of the material ones, and consequently that must have priority; but the beauty of the material things, such as the body, acts as a reflection of the other one. No one would complain if an artist wanted to make a beautiful artwork. And if health and beauty are both gifts from God, they can’t be conflicting. It’s impossible that reaching a healthy weight will take away our beauty.

  • The order of love:

    We can love things for themselves (enjoy them) or for others (use them). We must love only God the first way, and the rest of things, as long as they lead us to Him. God is the end, and things are means. This helps to put things in their place. Does loving food make me a glutton? No, because I use it as a gift that God gives me for my nourishment so that I can have energy to do his work in the world. What if I enjoy it? Still no, because in this case by “enjoying” we don’t mean loving it by itself, but appreciating its good qualities, that God has put in it as a present for us.

    That “enjoyment” lead us to gratitude, and therefore take us away from the “loving things from themselves” problem. On the contrary, paradoxically, anorexia does mean we let food become the center of our life, and therefore it would be an idolatry.

Read St. Augustine. He’s a great friend to help you persevere through the difficulties of recovery. that in the end is actually very similar to a conversion. One in which God wants to save what He has created, you, his beloved daughter or son, but for that He needs you to destroy what you thought you were (but you aren’t): your eating disorder. “Blot out what you have done, that God may save what He has done” (Tractates on the Gospel of John, XII, XIII).

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