SOPHIE: Hello all! I am doing some research and writing on women saints and blesseds from about the twelfth century to the present and have found a terrific number of them who are celebrated for what we in the 21st century would consider extreme and bizarre penitential practices of self–mortification. Eating next to nothing, drinking pus from the sores of the sick they cared for, sleeping on beds covered with potsherds, wearing hair shirts, etc. Caroline Walker Bynum has written some books on this question – to paraphrase part of her thesis: basically, there were so few things that women of medieval Europe could control, since they generally were not able to be in positions of leadership and had little self–determination in male–controlled church and society, and their bodies were one thing they could control. Links to articles, authors, and book titles welcome, as well as your own personal responses to the question of how we as thoughtful 21st century Catholic women contextualize and make sense of so many women saints and blesseds who were extreme ascetics. Is there something to be learned from their example? Is there a way to reimagine their stories in a way that is liberating? I don’t think it is intellectually honest to celebrate St Catherine of Siena (for example) for her spiritual writing, care for the poor and courage in calling church leaders to task without also grappling with the fact that she essentially starved herself to death – and I’ve seen some feminist readings of Catherine that do just that. Thanks, in advance for any thoughts you all have to share – I always appreciate this forum as a place to explore questions!

EMMA: I can’t wait to read your work! Looking at these women from more than one angle can give us a well needed perspective on them and what we now call anorexia, depression, bi–polar disorder etc. They were creative and brave as they strained against the bonds of their ‘place’ in their world. What an exciting road you are travelling.

LEAH: I assume you have read Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia? It is also worth reading ….

SOPHIE: I haven’t read the whole thing, but have read reviews. I am tracking down a hard copy. Thanks.

ANITA: I’m not sure if there are any official saints in it, but a book by Gertrud Jaron Lewis I found fascinating into the life of 14th century monasteries. She “discovered” one of the Sister Books.

JUDE: It is scary that women were canonised for suffering from anorexia – not something we would be encouraging 21st century teenage girls or young women to emulate.

SOPHIE: Hi, yes, it is certainly of pastoral concern if women are lauded as models of holiness for what we would term today anorexia, bulimia, and self–injury, especially given how prevalent these issues are among young women today in the West. I think the struggle is two–fold. First, to contextualize these practices and understand (as best we can) what they meant to those women in their own place and time. Secondly, to discern what (if anything) “translates” to our contemporary context.

I just made an interesting discovery. Looking specifically as St Rose of Lima. Some scholars see her extreme asceticism as a response to the unjust treatment of workers (primarily) Indians in the silver mines of Peru. Rose’s father worked as the administrator of a mine. Placing these ascetical practices in the context of resistance to or rejection of unjust social structures that marginalize minority populations is most intriguing!

CANDACE: I have long had a devotion to Rose of Lima, and completely agree with the statement ‘It would be impossible to understand the ascetic life of Saint Rose of Lima if it is not thought of within a context of oppression, servitude and slavery’. Her practices of mortification (not just fasting but also what we would call self–harm, piercing her own flesh with thorns etc.) can only be understood in a world where Hispanic men like her father were running amok in various ways, causing huge suffering. Some of what she did was also meant to prevent herself being married off (as with Catherine).

MONICA: A floating thought has occurred to me that the suffragettes starved themselves in protest.

SOPHIE: Yes – Simone Weil is another 20th century figure who comes to mind.

DEBORAH: Men also have used the hunger strike as a political weapon …

LISA: Gandhi also practiced fasting and celibacy as a type of somatic liberation, communion with others, and availability to God.

DEBORAH: Most of the world’s religions incorporate ascetic practices of various kinds into their spiritual practice …

JULIETTA: This is probably much earlier than you’re looking for, but the first saint that came to mind is St. Mary of Egypt .
I discovered St. Mary of Egypt about a year ago. Frankly I find the wording ridiculous: “in the hope that life on board ship would afford her new and abundant opportunities of gratifying an insatiable lust.” Her Wikipedia page isn’t much better.
When I taught sex education to adults, I saw just how much money and time and energy that some people will put into pornography and/or anonymous sex when they’re really just lonely and/or socially anxious. I’m not saying that everyone who uses these things are doing so out of loneliness/anxiety; porn and/or anonymous sex can become unhealthy coping strategies. Maybe if St. Mary of Egypt was approached in a less ridiculous and shameful way, she could instead be a guide for these people? That instead of using porn/sex to distract oneself from loneliness/anxiety, learn how to be comfortable alone and to take these issues to God?

DEBORAH: Sara Maitland wrote a very interesting essay on Rose of Lima – it is available as a .pdf file on the [UK] Open University website. Google Maitland and ‘Rose of Lima’ and you should find it. Or try this link:

SOPHIE: Thanks – this is very helpful. Just the kind of thing I am looking for. I’m a fan of both Sara Maitland and Rose of Lima, and did not know this. It’s a good piece, but I think dismisses the social side of what she did rather too easily.

NORMA: You might explore the concepts of vicarious representation and inner emigration as methods of resistance, associated with medievalists like Hildegard of Bingen through Catholic nuns during the Nazi era.

JUNE: Your question is fascinating to me, and I have no direct insights to offer. But I’m a long–time eating disorders therapist, and your phrase – “They generally were not able to be in positions of leadership and had little self–determination in male–controlled church and society, and their bodies were one thing they could control” – articulates so clearly what many anorexics and bulimics would say today to explain their own disorders. Our society continues, decades later, to exalt women’s abuses of their bodies, and their subjugations to male–ordered notions of attractiveness and “goodness.” While you name some grotesqueries that led to canonization, it’s sad to me to note that “grotesque” is socially defined, while the drive to seek male approval continues. I, too, deeply appreciate this page; and your own post for prompting this musing.

SOPHIE: Thank you for your work as a therapist. One interesting contrast between anorexics/bulimics today and those of Middle Ages – often women (like Rose of Lima and Catherine of Siena) wanted to become unattractive because they were resisting family and societal pressure to get married off. So though they weren’t trying to attain beauty – in fact, just the opposite – they were still acting in response to social expectations and male–rendered notions of attractiveness.

JUNE: Thank you! This whole thread is fascinating to me!

EUNICE: Re Catherine of Siena: This has nothing to do with an eating disorder but I understand she claimed to wear an invisible wedding ring that was made from the foreskin of Jesus.

JUNE: That’s interesting. Has anyone ever pondered the fate of Jesus’s foreskin??

DEBORAH: You might be amused to learn that when Edith Stein – who had subjected herself to a very severe regime of fasting – finally entered the Carmel in Cologne her Mother Superior immediately made her eat properly … which reluctantly but under obedience, she did. She looks much healthier and has greater vitality in pics taken later in her religious life than in her years as a teacher.

CANDACE: It’s important to note how much of the linking of women and mortification comes from the hagiographers, in my view. St Dominic was just as into mortification as St Catherine of Siena, but it’s stressed less in most biographies. Beyond that, I think you have to remember that it’s a society in which public adult corporal punishment is common, especially as visited on the lower classes and marginalised, and I think it’s partly an attempt to put yourself among the marginalised by subjecting your body to what their bodies are subjected to.

SOPHIE: Hi – thank you for your comment. Dominic did name “the discipline” as one of the modes of prayer. Perhaps the difference is that men had many ways to express their spirituality (through ordination, preaching, gaining and education and teaching, writing, etc.) whereas generally women were much more limited in their options, so physical penances became a more central focus? Yes, certainly in some cases we don’t have access to these women’s words describing and interpreting their own experience, and in many cases it is (mostly male) hagiographers telling their stories. I do very much appreciate the lens of concern for vulnerable and marginalized as motivation for penitential practices. The link I shared above re Rose of Lima claims that her extreme asceticism can’t be understood apart from her concern for Indians who were essentially slaves in silver mines in Peru – Rose’s father was administrator of the mine. Did she see her practices – at least in part – as a way of atoning for her father’s sins and expressing solidarity with those miners? Though of course we still wouldn’t go to those extremes today, that approach is much more satisfying than interpreting the practices as a need to “punish” the body which is bad or impure, or a need to please God with suffering.

CANDACE: I personally think St Dominic was a broken man for the last few years of his life, after what he had seen happen in Toulouse, and that this comes out very strongly in accounts of his prayers, especially in Rome – staying up all night and moaning and crying and seeing demons. He was still a man with a mission, which he performed brilliantly, but I think he was as bothered by what he had seen as Rose was, in his own way. Sure, he had outlets she didn’t (though on the other hand she played the guitar!), but where do you go to escape from the spectre of a city in famine and slaughter?

MONICA: St Theresa of Lisiex was discouraged from physical forms of asceticism and self–mortification. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola were all very clear in saying that only some should attempt it and under direction, that it was dangerous for many. Unfortunately, we seem to keep romanticising their stories rather than grounding them in reality and viewing them with discernment.