The Episcopal Church acknowledges Catherine of Siena on this day. April 29th 1380 is when she died at 33 years of age. She is an interesting figure to say the least. Ac ouple of summers ago I was with a bunch of students in Italy for some summer classes and part of my task was to speak about Catherine of Siena in advance of our visit to her hometown. She, along with St. Francis, are the two patron saints of Italy and their birthplaces draw thousands of pilgrims every year.
I found her very complicated, and I found talking about her even more so. One the one hand, her contribution to the church would seem to be important and effective. She managed to become an influential figure in the church when it was more than difficult for a woman to do so, her piety and charity drew male and female followers, she attempted to reform the clergy in profound ways. But she also campaigned for a crusade and had some quite troubling/startling dynamics in her personal life--not th eleast of which was a tendency to starve herself and deprive herself of any comfort during her life. This is what I found and continue to find very disturbing. Beginning at a very young age she seemed to use aversion tactics when her behaviour was challenged--she claimed that Christ himself appeared and gave her communion and she advocated mystical marriage, believing that people could liberate themsleves from what ailed them by complete and total abandonment to God's love--again, on the one hand, it seems quite benign, but on the other, when combined with extreme ascetic behaviours and practices of extreme deprivation, it gets a little worrying for me.
I am troubled by the way we move quickly past self-denial into self-negation, denigration even, and then seem in awe of people who do this. the way the body figures into religous behaviour and pratcie is interesting to me.
Teresa of Avila, another mystic and reformer, was said to have used olive twigs to make herself vomit, so that she could only receive nutrition from the communion host. In his book, Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell estimates that almost half of 170 medieval Italian saints exhibited signs of anorexia.
The role and view of the female body in medieval Europe is also a factor. Part of the view was that the male body was shaped and fashioned by God but the female form with its curve and obvious sexuality was shaped by women themselves. It is also said that the female body was more prone to visions, trances and even levitation, as well as stigmata and many of these factors seem to have also resulted in examples of forms of ascetism and often what today would probably be termed anorexic behaviours.
"Anorexia and other manifestations of the body provided the medieval woman a unique opportunity to affirm the true power of mystico-religious rules. A woman was destined to get married with whomever was designated according to family origin; otherwise, she entered a convent closed to the outside. In the latter case, however, the medieval woman was not allowed to study or acquire clerical power nor to speak in public or to preach. However, the complete renunciation of the body made it possible for a woman to foster, express, and experience her sensations and desires as manifestations of faith and religious expression. "Holy anorexia" was a confirmation of the role of mystical power, providing the woman with a way to convincingly affirm her sanctity to her confessors in whom she placed her trust and gave her charge. In fact, she placed her trust in her confessors in the same way that trust was placed in the family, which guaranteed in return to nurture her. Anorexia, together with flagellation and other bodily suffering, became the way for a woman to achieve holiness."
This 'empowering dynamic' is an interesting take on things. I don't doubt that it is true, whether it is necessary today, or would raise different issues about female empowerment and the like is another conversation--not that I am saying that everything is peachy for women today, just that we do live with different views of gender, sexuality and identity, and that ought to have an impact.
The other component that comes into play is the role that ascetism plays in our world today. For much of human history, Western history anyway, our view of the self was much more dualistic--soul/body etc. and it seems that for many the important part of the human was the subjective self-the soul or whatever one chooses to call it-therefore denial of the physical body seems to have been linked with ideas about refining the pathway between the soul and god--hence fasting, self-denial, and the litany of practices we adopt to get connected to the divine.
Today we use those practices still, sometimes attached to religion, sometimes just to life. One of the things that strikes me is the way we often use food medicinally--there is a lot of that here in LA--people with such particualr food habits and needs, they might even show up for dinner with their own food(I doubt that it is exclusive to this city, but its rampant). The tyranny of certain physiques or body-shapes is still governed by strict practices of diet and exercise--we put ourselves to extremes for the sake of body and self. I was watching one of the recent editions of A Day in the Life, Morgan Spurlock's weekly documentary on Hulu, and it featured Tim Ferris, author of the Four-Hour series of books, who uses food as a means to an end, way beyond simple nutrition.