When it came to recovering from an eating disorder, mere faith wasn’t enough for me. What I needed was a Eucharistic faith.
I learned that lesson 16 years ago, during my battle with anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. For six years, between the ages of 19 and 25, I tried and failed to heal. I went to therapy. I read my Bible.When it came to recovering from an eating disorder, mere faith wasn’t enough for me. What I needed was a Eucharistic faith.
I begged God for help. But nothing changed. No matter how much I prayed, I still hated my body, feared fat and used food as a means of controlling my world.
Underlying my battle with food and self was a tangled skein of anxieties and insecurities, made worse by a materialist vision of the universe I’d acquired from the culture around me. Despite my Catholic upbringing, I didn’t see the world with Catholic eyes. I didn’t see a world made by a loving God. I didn’t see a universe teeming with grace, where everything — from butterflies to bread — bore the mark of its Maker. Nor did I see my body as the living image of God.
To me, my body was a problem to be erased; the less of it there was, the better. Likewise, food was the enemy; it was evil matter that had to be controlled. When I succeeded at denying myself food, I felt strong. When I didn’t succeed, I felt weak; I had failed yet again.
Through it all, I believed in God. I knew on some level that he loved me. I also knew it was wrong to starve myself or eat too much. That knowledge didn’t stop me from seeing my feminine form as a problem or food as an opponent. With time, however, it did help me change my behavior. I didn’t want to offend God, so I began trying harder to eat what I should — no less, no more. Slowly, I started gaining back the weight I needed to gain.
But the world inside my head never changed. The same destructive thought patterns replayed themselves over and over again: My body was a problem; food was the enemy. By the time I turned 25, I looked well on the outside. On the inside, though, I was as sick as ever.
Then I started going back to Mass.
In college, I’d fallen away from the Catholic faith (a faith I’d never really understood to begin with) and fallen in with a group of Protestants. They were wonderful people who helped me know and love Jesus better, but their understanding of the world was colored by the same materialism that infected the culture. Matter was just matter, never graced, never a means of God pouring out his life to us. Baptism was the only sacrament my friends recognized, and even that was on the fringes of the Christian life they led; barely talked about, rarely acknowledged.
In short, the ideas my Protestant friends embraced couldn’t thwart my eating disorder. Their love for Jesus was strong, but their theology was thin. It didn’t challenge all the wrong ideas I had about my body and the universe. Nor, without the sacraments, could it connect me to the grace I needed to heal. All it could do was make me feel guilty for abusing my body — something obviously not pleasing to God.
But the Mass was different. Catholicism was different.
After six long years away from the Church, a co-worker helped me find my way home. And there, in the Mass, I received Christ as food. Bread became Body. Wine became Blood. God gave himself to me to eat and drink. That was the most intimate communion I had with him. That was how he gave his life to me, through eating, body to body, flesh to flesh. And that, eventually, did what no “mere” faith could do. It brought healing.
I say “eventually” because I didn’t make that connection right away. It took months of going to daily Mass, knowing I needed to be there, but not fully understanding why. It also took months of reading the Catechism and books about the Catholic faith. And it took months of sitting quietly in Catholic churches, with me looking at Jesus in the tabernacle and him looking right back at me.
The more Eucharistic my faith became, however, the more my vision changed. I started seeing how much God delighted in matter: He made it, he sustained it in being, and he used it to give his life to us. Bread and wine, oil and water, consecrated hands, and the bodies of husbands and wives were all chosen by God to be vehicles of sanctifying grace. His life passes through them on the way to us. And while this makes those particular forms of matter holy, it also illuminates all matter with a divine light and purpose.
That in turn, helped change how I saw my body. Paired with my reading of St. John Paul II’s deeply sacramental theology of the body, I started seeing my body — not just my soul — as the image of God. I recognized that it was a temple to be cared for, not a problem to be controlled. And I came to appreciate my feminine curves as the physical sign of my womanly soul. Together, as a perfect union of body and soul, I was called to image God’s nurturing, nourishing love as only a woman can.
Those curves both signified that call and helped make answering it possible. As such, they weren’t something to be erased. They were something to be embraced.
Above all, through liturgy, prayer and study, I came to see my daily bread as a symbol of heavenly bread. I saw that just as ordinary food nourishes, strengthens, comforts, heals, gives joy, signifies love and builds friendships, drawing friends and family together around a shared table, so, too, does the extraordinary food of Christ’s Body and Blood.
The Eucharist nourishes us with God’s life, strengthens us in times of trial, comforts us in times of sadness, heals the wounds left by sin, fills us with the joy of Christ, continually demonstrates God’s love for us, and draws us into the ultimate family, the Body of Christ.
Everything food does on the natural level, the Eucharist does on the supernatural level.
It is a natural symbol of a supernatural reality, a sign built into creation by the Creator to help us better understand the gift of the Eucharist and foreshadow, in its own way, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Once I began to understand those truths, real healing followed. I couldn’t abuse the great gifts of my body and food. Nor could I fear such great gifts. All I could do was drop down on my knees in gratitude and wonder.
Just as St. Paul promised, I was “transformed by the renewal of my mind” (Romans 12:2). I was also transformed by the graces that came to me in the Eucharist. In that piece of transubstantiated bread, I encountered Truth. And Truth liberated me from the self-imposed prison of an eating disorder. Truth set me finally, fully and joyfully free.
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from
She is the author of The Catholic Table: Finding Joy
Where Food and Faith Meet.