On Ash Wednesday, after we’d filed into our high school gym one by one so Father Tom could smudge a cross on our foreheads with the pad of his thumb, we sat in prayer. Once a month, the gym became a church for us. Chairs faced center court in neat rows, the marching band played hymns, and the bleachers held the wafers and wine for the students selected to bring it up to consecrate into the Eucharist. Ash Wednesday was no ordinary Mass, though. It marked the beginning of Lent, and all morning the students in my high school had considered what we’d give up for the next 40 days.
“Reflect on the sacrifice you’re making to feel closer to Christ’s suffering,” Father Tom instructed us after he read the story about Jesus fasting in the desert. In three of the four Gospels, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Judean desert, surrounded by wild beasts and protected by angels. According to the story, during this time of self-denial, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him three times. The first temptation was to turn stones into bread, which would satisfy a starving man’s body, but not his spirit. Food was a distraction as a hungry soul felt its way through the wilderness. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus tells the devil in Matthew 4:4, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” For years I’d been fingering the fringe of my own starvation, keeping it at arm’s length in case I ever needed it. That day in Mass, I decided to let it take up residence in my body. After all, physical suffering, according to the priests, brings us closer to God.
My whole life I’d read about the saints, my hungry heart considering the ways I too could feel the churning of my appetite. But that day, sitting under the basketball hoop, I listened to Father Tom asking us to spend Lent preparing our hearts through our own forms of self-sacrifice. I thought back to the things I’d given up for Lent in the past few years: fighting with my brother, watching Happy Days on Nick at Nite, and, for one long and terrible Lent, buttered toast. That year, I remembered, was the hardest for me. “I should give up food again,” I thought. It was the biggest sacrifice I could think of, and I was good at not eating. God, and others, would surely be impressed. My mouth watered at the thought of the food I wouldn’t eat. I’d eat enough to stay alive, but I’d stop before I felt full, and eat only as much as I needed to stay upright. By the end of Lent, I vowed, I’d be so thin you could watch my heartbeat through my rib cage.
Anorexia mirabilis, or holy anorexia, refers to a “miraculous loss of appetite.” It was a diagnosis given to medieval saints and mystics who starved themselves to share the suffering of Jesus’ crucifixion. Unsurprisingly, the condition afflicted almost exclusively girls and women, who, had there not been a spiritual component to their fasting, might have been called hysterics several centuries later.
Like most Catholic children, I was 8 years old when I was first allowed to taste Communion, dressed from head to toe in embroidered white, my small lacy gloves cradling the wafer as the priest handed it to me.
“When we eat this bread, when we drink this cup, we proclaim your death, until you come again,” we sang. Our parents and godparents were somewhere behind us as we put the wafers in our mouths, shoes pinching and veils pinned in tightly. That was my first sip of wine too, which was sweet and, I remember distinctly, made me feel like I was floating on my way back to my pew.
Then, we knelt down to say the prayer we’d each written in the year’s preparation leading up to this day. I said mine each time I took Communion, from that Sunday forward.
“Dear God,” it began. “Thank you for nourishing me with the body and blood of your Son.” I don’t remember what came next — maybe I thanked God for other things, too.
This first Communion was in a church called St. Joseph’s, named for the man married to Jesus’ mother, Mary.
She became a saint too, of course. In order to do this, the Bible tells us, she had to have a baby as a teenager, and eventually watch him die. St. Joseph had the decency to stay with her while she went through it.
Their sacrifices, to me, do not seem equal. What does this say about what it takes for a woman to be holy?
Catherine of Siena first used fasting as a form of protest when her parents wanted her to marry her older sister’s widower. It was impossible for her to eat any food besides the daily Eucharist, although she reportedly drank pus from someone’s cancerous sore, nourishing herself with the dregs of another person’s suffering.
She was not the only woman to starve her body so that her soul might be fed. Beatrice of Nazareth claimed that even the slightest whiff of meat would make her throat close up. Columba of Rieti once thwarted a gang of rapists who, when they pulled her clothes up, saw her emaciated form and mutilated breasts and hips, and retreated. Marie of Oignies starved herself too, hermiting herself away and cutting off small pieces of her body, which allowed her to empathize with the crucified Christ.
Margaret of Cortona said, “I want to die to satiate the poor.” These women wanted to substitute their own bodies for others whose pain was not optional. They all became saints because their hunger spiritually enlightened them. They learned that holy women took up less, not more space — that they were demure, slight acolytes whose inner yearning was big enough to swallow their frail bodies.
If we consent to our own suffering, maybe that makes it more bearable.
The month of May is the month when a girl from each class at our Catholic elementary school was selected to crown the Virgin Mary during a special Mass in her honor. There was something about the little girls, in matching plaid jumpers, bringing the circlet of white roses up in front of the whole parish, that made me almost writhe with longing. All eyes trained on her as she kept her own eyes on Mary, her own beauty and holiness the center of everyone’s attention. I was never selected for that role, my primary attributes never sweetness or reverence. But each year, even after I outgrew the desire for such a performance of holiness, those little girls chosen to crown the statue seemed aspirational — the picture of pretty, obedient devotion. I saw what it took to become holy.
I was chosen to say the rosary over the intercom in October of eighth grade, another month of devotion to Mary. And later that year, in our performance of the “stations of the cross,” a narrated tableaux of Jesus on his day of crucifixion, I played the angel who greeted Mary Magdalene when she looked for Jesus at the tomb where he’d been buried. “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive?” I asked, a sheet draped over my head, popping up from behind the altar at the very end of the stations. “He is not here. He is risen.”
There were never very good parts for girls in these reenactments. We were only ever supporting characters. So while the other students rehearsed their own stations — Jesus falls for the first, second, third time, Jesus meets the weeping women, Jesus is stripped of his garments — I read about Joan of Arc, Clare of Assisi, Mother Teresa in our religion book, their own devotion kindling a small blaze within me. I read twice the passages about their fasting, their corporal austerity, the devotion to these saints that lasts to this day.
As I bloomed into adolescence, I learned new ways women’s bodies were dangerous, ways I hadn’t fully considered until I started developing breasts and hips. In our religion class, we avoided any sexual education other than a scant week on “natural family planning,” the method our religion teacher, with eight children, told us he used. An older woman in our parish’s daily Mass prayed “for an end to abortion and euthanasia” so regularly that her prayer became background noise. When I got a boyfriend, I wasn’t allowed to close the door to my room when he came over. I was afraid of how much he wanted me, and how I was the one in charge of how long he kissed me, how far up my skirt his hand went. The power of this made me nauseous, as I thought about the women I was supposed to be like, and how devoted they were to goodness, piety, acts of charity. But my superpower was my hunger, which, when I let it, focused my mind and shrank my breasts and hips, keeping me from tempting the boyfriend I was afraid to be alone with. I was afraid of my own desire and his, afraid of the abortion that would surely befall me.
As a teenager, Catherine of Siena — the saint who stopped eating — had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, focusing instead on her devotion to her faith. She scalded herself to look uglier; eventually, she became a nun. Shortly after she took her holy orders, she had a vision of marrying Christ in which he placed a wedding ring made of his own foreskin on her finger. Her virginity protected her from marriage to a man she didn’t love, from a life she didn’t want. Instead, she got to live fully in her mind, her ecstatic visions taking shape and transporting her to safety.
In high school, I was confirmed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I wore a pale pink dress and a white flower in my hair, and tugged on my neckline, not used to being allowed to show my clavicle in a dress. The day was hot and the stone church seemed to bake us all like small iced buns.
Confirmands choose a saint’s name as a new middle name. One friend, a gifted pianist, chose Cecilia after Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Another friend chose Barbara, after the town we lived in, Santa Barbara. I chose a male saint, though — Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi. His miracle was that he fasted for 40 days during Lent, just like Jesus. What I didn’t tell anyone was how close I’d come to doing the same thing.
Like my first Communion, we filed up, one by one, to be confirmed by the bishop, who was a friend of my family’s. Some teenagers shuffled, reluctant to have to go through the ritual at all. But I felt certain. My godmother was behind me and when it was my turn, the bishop touched my cheek and gave me my spiritual seal, a gift from the Holy Spirit. Stained glass saints looked down on me, each one nourished, satisfied.
Back at our pews, we listened to the bishop’s sermon, and by the end it was time to file up again, this time to receive Communion as adults, on equal footing with our parents for the first time. But when my row stood, it was like someone had dropped a black veil over my eyes, and my head felt loose on my neck. I slumped down and began to dream. When I woke up, several people stood over me with cups of water.
“She’s just overcome with the Holy Spirit!” someone joked. I managed a smile.
“It’s too hot in this church,” my godmother said, fanning me with her hymnal.
What I didn’t say was that I had fainted from hunger. It felt like my first miracle, private proof of my own devotion.
I was 20 when my doctor finally diagnosed my hunger, labeling it “anorexia nervosa.” The words, which she wrote on a form from my college’s study abroad office so they could sign off on my year in Paris, seemed to define me. It felt less like holiness and more like mental illness, once it had a name. How, I wondered, had the saints kept their fasts? If I broke mine, had my own suffering been in vain?
But gaining a few pounds, the doctor’s recommendation before I studied abroad, seemed worth it for a year in Paris. As soon as I arrived, I walked into Notre-Dame de Paris, named for the Virgin Mary, during a Mass. Although my French was still shaky, I knew enough to figure out what part of the Mass I had interrupted. I had not been to church regularly for a few years, but something about its predictability, its familiarity, felt like home. I lit a candle to the Virgin, and asked her to watch over me during my year in France.
By staying small, I had kept my life small. But that year, I realized that feeding myself allowed me to do so many more things than I had been able to do when I was hungry. Eating food was a pleasure, a blessing, a miracle. If this wasn’t a conversion, a visitation from some divine realm, then I don’t know what to call it. That lit candle, illuminating the Virgin Mary’s stone face in a side chapel, and all the days that followed, saved my life. Seeing the cathedral catch fire this week — on the first day of Holy Week — was like watching another death, and the pledges to rebuild it by the next morning, another resurrection.
When Therese of Lisieux lay dying from tuberculosis, she dreamed of banquets. Reportedly she cried out, on her deathbed, "I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me." I hope heaven was that banquet. I hope it’s a place where women can eat as much as it takes to satisfy their hunger. But I find such a place impossible to imagine.
When I read the stories of the hungry saints as an adult, I see so clearly what I missed. What’s remarkable about Catherine of Siena’s life is not that she fasted herself to death, but that she convinced the pope to leave Avignon and return to Rome, reuniting the Catholic Church during a schism. She’s one of only four women to become a Doctor of the Church, and her writing has shaped doctrine and literature. She advocated for peace in the most violent regions of Italy, risking her own assassination. She died at only 33 years old, the same age as Jesus at the time of his death, and the age I am now. In that time, she performed enough miracles to become a saint.
In recent years I’ve begun to treat Lent as an opportunity to sacrifice or add only what will improve my life — less time on social media, for example, or taking a daily walk before dinner, or listening to more music. This year, I will go to Easter services with my family as usual, because I love the incense and the singing and the joy of so many people turned in the same direction in worship. But it will always be hard to shake the ways the church has hurt me and others — the abuse of other children by priests I knew, for example, at my elementary school and church, the effects rippling out for years like a stone in water. The ways that abuse was minimized or covered up. The ways I learned to think about my own body, keeping it safe and small while I learned lessons about purity from priests — some of whom did evil things and some of whom were always kind. This Lent, for the first time in a few years, I didn’t give up anything.
Starvation can transform a woman in a way that lets her hide, which, for many, is a strategy to survive life’s suffering and reframe it as holy. Once I realized the power I was giving away, it took me five years to practice breaking my fast. All starvation, whether in service of devotion, control, or anything else, is treated the same way in the end — by learning to eat until we feel full.
Mine has been transformed each time I ask, What will feed me today? Today, what feeds me is the lengthening days and the choices I trust myself to make.
With the answer to this question, I’ve found all miracles, including the making of saints, are possible. ●
Ellen O'Connell Whittet's writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Lenny Letter, the Rumpus, Lit Hub, and the Ploughshares Blog, where she is a contributing writer. She is working on a memoir about ballet and the female body.