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Challenging the link between skinny and holy

13 March 2015

Ascetics have no monopoly on godliness, argues Ben Stephens, and we should celebrate God's abundant gifts


Hands full: the famously ample St Thomas Aquinas by Crivelli (c.1435-95)

Hands full: the famously ample St Thomas Aquinas by Crivelli (c.1435-95)

MOST of the saints depicted in our churches and in the works of famous artists are united not only in their sanctity, but by the fact that they are all apparently perfectly built. They gaze down on us benignly with their promise of prayers, without a hint of double chins or rounded bellies, modelling a perfection - both spiritual and physical - that we must strive to attain.

This dovetails nicely with prevailing secular beliefs about the body beautiful - and also with the skewed misconception that Lent is as much about weight loss as it is about prayer. It seems that we instinctively associate holiness with skinniness, and vice versa.

The "theologian's theologian", St Thomas Aquinas, is the exception who proves the saintly rule, and he must have known what it was to be suspected of over-indulgence, although it appears more likely that he suffered from a metabolic disorder. He was reportedly so colossally fat that his Dominican brethren cut a semicircle out of their refectory table to enable him to reach his meals (though G. K. Chesterton called this a "sublime exaggeration", and suggested that this was a story that the Angelic Doctor might well have told against himself). In any case, Aquinas argued that gluttony was a venial sin rather than a deadly one.

More typical, if we are inclined to associate sanctity with asceticism, is the 18th-century Redemptorist St Alphonsus Liguori, who claimed that "excess in eating is the cause of almost all the diseases of the body, but its effects on the soul are even more disastrous." But both saints would have agreed about the spiritual dangers: even Aquinas taught that "irrational feeding darkens the soul." "Irrational" feeding might include the habits of St Catherine of Siena and other medieval mystics, who starved themselves - in ways that we would now consider dangerous - for, or so they believed, the glory of God.

THE recent exhibition of the work of Rubens at the Royal Academy (Review, 30 January) should act as a corrective to any obsession with the need to be stick-thin in order to appear beautiful. When Rubens was not painting true-to-life portraits of sitters, he seems to have let his fondness for the larger lady - what Are You Being Served's Mrs Slocombe called "Junoesque" - run wild. His Three Graces of 1639 is typical: all fleshy folds, saggy thighs, and wobbly bottoms, and yet still beautiful, charming, and joyful.

Perhaps Rubens's contemporary successor is the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who has made a life's work of portraying overweight subjects. This includes depictions of our Lord - even crucifixion scenes - in which Christ appears, to put it bluntly, as a very fat man indeed. Judged by Alphonsus Liguori's doctrine, Botero's paintings appear sacrilegious. Should we be shocked by this? Other cultures have freely appropriated the features of Christ and the saints (Feature, 19 December 2014), and it seems only reasonable that those who are overweight should also be able to identify with the incarnate Son of the God, in whose image we are all made. 

TEMPERANCE, or self-control, may be one of the fruits of the Spirit, but scripture also encourages us to celebrate the abundance of Creation. Isaiah prophesied "a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined" (Isaiah 25.6). St Matthew compares the Kingdom of heaven to a great banquet (Matthew 22.2), and, with St Luke, makes a point of noting that the Son of Man comes "eating and drinking" (Matthew 11.19; Luke 7.34).

In the miracle of the wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11), St John presents a number of images of the Kingdom of God, including the wedding banquet (a precursor of the marriage-feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19.7b). When the six ritual-purification jars are put to new-covenant use, we are told that those jars are filled to the brim; and the water becomes not just any old plonk, but the finest vintage wine - delicious, addictive, strong, and calorific.

Even St Paul - for all his body-as-temple emphasis in 1 Corinthians - told Timothy to drink less water and more wine (1 Timothy 5.23), and urged the Romans to avoid criticising the trencherman: "Let not him who abstains pass judgement on him who eats" (Romans 14.3b). 

PEOPLE fast for many reasons: as an exercise in self-discipline, or in prayerful solidarity with those who do not have enough, for example; or to make better use of the earth's resources. For Christians, however, it is not legitimate to fast because of a misconception that delicious food and drink are in some way not part of God's generous plan - that would be heresy.

On Refreshment Sunday, and as we look ahead to the treats of Easter, we should remind ourselves that enjoyment of abundance can also have a place in the Christian life. God will continue to delight in us, whatever our shape; for our diverse forms speak to others of the contradictory and kaleidoscopic nature of the image of God. Heaven, after all, must be full of saints of all shapes and sizes. 

Dr Ben Stephens is a freelance writer and theologian.

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