Eating Disorders and the Case for Open Communion

by Katherine Kelaidis

Before I go any further, let me say, I know the arguments for “closed communion,” that is, the practice of allowing only Orthodox Christians who have prepared through confession and fasting and have received the blessing of a spiritual father to receive the Eucharist. I am also aware that how this exactly plays out from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from parish to parish, varies widely. Finally, please trust me, if you get nothing else from reading this, rest assured that I have exactly the kind of personality that is predisposed to wanting to turn the Eucharist into an opportunity to sort out the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the bad. I am all about making participation in a meal the reward for being “enough.” For believing the right things and doing the right things. I am insanely comfortable with the idea that not eating, not partaking, is a way to repentance and to purification. For years, through most of my teens and into my early twenties (and occasionally my late twenties and early thirties, and frankly, occasionally now), as I struggled with an eating disorder that was my best thinking. It was my big idea. The big idea that consumed my thoughts day and night, that robbed me of any joy, that only caused me pain. The big idea that  could have killed me. And it is exactly because I know what a terrible idea it was for me to have that I cannot believe that it was ever God’s idea. In fact, there is much in the Scripture and the Fathers to suggest that even Judas got to have the meal, got to come to the table, so different is God’s idea about who gets to eat from mine. It is by looking at whom the gospel writers tell us dined with the Lord that I draw my assumptions as to how God intends to issue invitations to His banquet.

At the same time, nearly every story of pain or rejection I hear that is related to people’s experience with the Orthodox Church somehow comes back to the Eucharist. Specifically to being denied the Eucharist. How could it not? The Eucharist is at the center of Orthodox liturgical, spiritual, and communal life. It is the means by which we come to participate in the Gospel’s promise of Christ with us, not in the often abstract experience of storytelling but in our very bodies. Whatever you are told, be sure of this: denying people the Eucharist seldom causes them to repent, seldom draws them closer to the Church or to God. Instead, the vast majority of the time, the denial of participation in Holy Communion is the last straw. The final nail in the coffin of one person’s faith.

And frankly, good on them. They have just been told by a man charged with their spiritual well-being what my disease told me: you can eat when you are good enough. When you are better. This sentiment is never the truth. It is not true when spoken by the obsessive thoughts of my mind, and it is not true when spoken by a priest or a bishop. The Eucharist is not a weapon or a reward, because food is not a weapon or a reward. All food is a gift from God. This is especially true of the Eucharist, which is food for our souls and bodies. It is Christ freely offered up as nourishment for all people. I know all the arguments. I know all about the “fire that consumes the unworthy,” but I offer to you that this is the language of humanity, not God. And this language confuses purity for holiness and leaves us all hungry.

Now for those of you who currently have and have alway had a completely healthy relationship with food (which I am sure is all of you), let me explain a few things about eating disorders. First, while it is easy to see them as an outgrowth of a kind of vanity, the fact is that eating disorders are almost always about a deep sense of unworthiness and an insatiable desire for control, largely based on the false premise that gaining that control can do something, anything, to erase the unworthiness. Bulimia is my mania of choice, and so it went a little like this: you starve yourself because you do not feel you deserve to eat. You are not worthy of food; food is for when you are thinner, smarter, prettier, more successful. When you do not eat, when you skip breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you are proving that maybe, one day, you can make yourself good enough to eat like everyone else does. Of course, hunger is powerful, a base and primitive desire, that can only be denied for so long. And when you eventually break, when you eventually lose control, you lose it all. And so you binge. You eat everything. You do not eat what is good for you. In fact, you skip over the vegetables entirely and head straight to the brownie mix. You eat past the point of satisfaction. You eat hoping that you can fill the shame of not being worthy to eat in the first place. And then it is over and you feel worse than before. So, you purge. You try to erase what you have done. To purify yourself. To make yourself empty so that you can try again to become worthy.

Now, you can imagine how in the grips of this kind of madness a religious tradition centered around cycles of feasting and fasting may not be the most helpful thing. And it is not, but we can discuss that another day. Because, while the rather unhealthy focus many expressions of Orthodoxy place on the ascetic discipline around food only encouraged my eating disorder (and maybe it is just me), what I clung to as I sought to recover was our other teaching about food, the one that is about abundance, about God coming to us as food, coming to feed us: the Eucharist. “Taste and See that the Lord is God,” the Psalmist tells us. He (or she) could have said, “Hear and See” or “ Smell and See.” But no, “Taste and See”. The closest we might ever get to God on this side of eternity is by eating and drinking Him. The central act of Christian worship is a meal, a feast of love. When eating had become for me a terror-laden battlefield of shame, secrecy, and guilt, a constant reminder of being unworthy, unloved, rejected, the Eucharist offered another vision of what it can meant to eat, to be fed. In the Body and Blood of Christ offered up as a meal, I could begin to see a way in which food was a gift, not a test. And because I had experienced food as a weird stand-in for worth, a prize for being good enough, for so long, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, the Church was wrong for treating the Eucharist that same way.

I have worshiped alongside people who practice an open communion table. While I know that in many of these traditions, the theological conception of the Eucharist is very different from ours (making sure theologians will have jobs unto the ages of ages), I cannot deny what I seen there. If the Orthodox practice has served to remind me of what I experienced in the grasp of an actual mental illness, the communion at these churches has shown me how healing looks. And it is because I believe so profoundly that the Orthodox Church, the Church of Christ, is called to be a hospital for the sick that I am convinced we must change how we distribute our greatest medicine. The Church cannot be a source of healing if it behaves like a sickness. For me, it is that simple.

Katherine Kelaidis is a writer and historian whose work focuses on early Medieval Christianity and contemporary Orthodox identity in non-traditionally Orthodox countries.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.