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What is fasting meant for?

28 February 2014

MY FIRST encounter with anorexia nervosa was at school, when the cheerful, hard-working girl who seemed most destined for academic glory gradually lost weight, until she became a skin-covered skeleton before our eyes. We had no idea what was wrong, or what it meant. All we were told was that she was ill.

Now, of course, anorexia is well recognised, and there is medical and psychological help available. There are, however, pockets of society where it is regarded more as a badge of honour than as an illness. The fashion industry, sport, and music, and, most alarmingly according to a recent lead story in The Times, girls' independent schools, where it is, apparently, rife.

Anorexia is addictive. Not only does it go with a distorted body image - typical anorexics see themselves as fat, even when they are stick-thin - it carries moral and even spiritual clout. Those with anorexia are addicted to the sense of control over their bodies. They love the pain of hunger because emptiness is a kind of perfection.

Recent scholarship has uncovered an army of women saints who amazed their contemporaries by their feats of fasting. Some were believed to eat nothing but the Host at mass; so it was claimed that they were fed entirely on supernatural food. What energy! What power!

Similar claims could be made for the wealthy achievers who are part of the contemporary epidemic. They are usually lovely people: bright, able, full of energy (at least before the illness becomes advanced and dangerous). No wonder it is hard for parents and teachers to spot the problem.

Sufferers are the hard-working stars who are going to go far and do wonders for the image of the school. But beneath the flawless image is a knot of misery. Self-harm is common, and functions both as punishment and relief. You hurt yourself to release feeling, just as ascetics used to flagellate themselves to please God.

As we approach Lent, it is worth considering what Christian fasting is meant to achieve. Is it just time to shed a few pounds, or is it a form of self-punishment, a striving for perfection? Is it solidarity with the poor? Is it walking with Jesus in the way of the wilderness?

Eating and drinking is meant to be a bodily pleasure and a sign of the Kingdom. We should give thanks for our food more than we do. Pity those who cannot control their appetites, and those who control them too well.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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