Spirituality and Eating Disorders
“Feed them and they will come.” This is the mantra of many churches and religious organizations. Growing up, a church service was not complete without the fellowship after the worship service that included coffee, tea, lemonade for the kids, and an assortment of cookies. I never questioned the relationship between snacks and fellowship, but on weeks when, for one reason or another, the food was absent, the fellowship was as well. Upon discovering that food and beverage were not available, crowds of worshippers would disperse and emptiness echoed in the atrium.
After worship, food permitted joy to resound in the form of flowing conversation and friendship. These days, I attend a church where food is not served after the service. There is coffee, regular and decaf, and lemonade for children. While I find this beverage-only atmosphere disorienting, the culture of the church permits fellowship over beverage alone.
Food can be a spiritual experience. I cannot recall the names of the cookies I ate growing up or the brand of coffee served but I remember with fondness the friendships I developed in that multi-generational setting. Spirituality and religion are linked concepts but not the same. It was not religion that occurred at “coffee-hour” but spirituality. Spirituality can be defined as the way individuals seek meaning, purpose and connection in their lives to the self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred. Religion is the practice of beliefs, behaviors, rituals, and ceremonies that pertain to an organized system of faith. At its essence, spirituality is about meaning making and connection. How do we make meaning out of our lives and our experiences? How do we make connections? Whether they be connections to the self, our higher power, however we define higher power, or connections to our communities. The means by which we make meaning and connections has everything to do with how we nurture ourselves. And the primary way that we nurture ourselves is through food.
In my work with women struggling with eating disorders, I am consistently aware that eating disorders are not merely a physical or emotional issue. Spirituality is at the center of the eating disorder experience. Women struggle to make meaning out of their relationship with food. Food is fuel and nurture. Our sense of self and connection flow from the experience of food. In order to cultivate a healthy relationship with food, we must see it as that; a relationship. How do we partner with food to get our needs met? How does food serve our emotions and our sense of self in relationship with others? Are we in conflict or at peace with the presence of food in our lives and bodies? In food we find memory; we remember favorite meals and times shared with loved ones. Those memories are spiritual memories. These memories can challenge us, harm us, or comfort us.
It is good to examine our relationship with food. Do certain food remind us of people we loved, places that made us happy? Do certain foods remind us of fullness in our bellies, homes, or hearts? Or do certain foods bring forth memories of pain, where we were forced to eat something we didn’t want to, or we ate something then experienced pain or loss? Connecting food to our spiritual understandings of ourselves and our world can free us to overcome those beliefs that trap us in our eating disorders. We are more than physical beings, we are our spiritual beings. Our connections and meaning-making capacities are essential to our humanness and empower us to restore hope and healing in our relationship to food and ourselves.
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hulford, DMIN, BCC is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and an ordained PCUSA Minister. She has been serving as a chaplain for over 13 years and specializes in providing spiritual support to persons grieving and struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse, and mental health issues. She is the author of Whispers of A Parent’s Heart, a devotional for parents with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She resides outside of Chicago with her loving family and is a proud CUBS fan. CLICK HERE for more information about Timberline Knolls.