Inhabiting Our Feeling Bodies
Inhabiting Our Feeling Bodies

Inhabiting Our Feeling Bodies

Eating disorders, emotional bodily experience, and the body of Christ.

Appears in Summer 2021

I recognize the feeling as it begins. It’s a visceral sense of hollowing-out, as if something is gripping my internal organs and stretching them apart. It’s at once a feeling of tightening suffocation and gnawing emptiness.

And once again, I feel that I am dissolving into the world, and cannot survive the encounter.

The feeling has no name or object. Perhaps if I sit with it long enough it will reveal itself as fear, or loneliness, or anxiety. But it arrives, anonymous and unbearable, and there is no sense that there might be an “after” or a “later.” There is only the nauseating immediacy of all this feeling, and the need to be safe, to be numb. In these moments, my eating disorder seems not just inevitable, but part and parcel of survival.

Strange as it may sound to speak of illness in the language of survival, experiencing an eating disorder in this way is not unusual. Others’ stories recount similar refrains: the fearfulness of these bodily shifts and movements, the need for safety. As the anthropologist Rebecca Lester reflects, “One of the core features of an eating disorder is extreme ambivalence about embodiment and difficulty being in one’s body—that is, feeling oneself as grounded in the fleshiness of existence.”

It is not surprising that many individuals who struggle with eating disorders associate this “fleshiness of existence” with emotional experience, or surges of feeling. Emotions are, after all, bodily. Think of all the things our bodies do when our emotions change: muscles tense, heartbeats quicken, hands sweat, guts sink, stomachs flutter, skin prickles. The world and the other people in it are constantly moving our bodies to emotion. More than that, feeling emotion entails being pulled or pushed to response. Fear, for example, might ready our bodies to flee; delight or awe might enrapture us and sharpen our focus; anger might give us the boldness to interrupt or challenge a situation. Emotion entails being “moved to move,” as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone puts it.

Emotional experience is, then, not only bodily but also relational. We feel in relation to a shared world, and our feelings draw us deeper into that world. Far from being contained behind our skulls, our emotions demonstrate the porosity of our fleshly bodies, constituting a site of intimate entanglement with the world and with other people.

This fleshly entanglement is often experienced as intolerable for eating disorder sufferers. Many use language of leaking, seeping, or dissolving to describe their experiences of emotional feeling. As the body is moved in emotion, the individual may experience their embodiment in terms of threat and profound vulnerability, feeling that they are bleeding into the world and being transgressed by the nearness of the world. Emotional bodily experience endangers their very sense of integrity. Many eating disorder sufferers describe this experience of vulnerability in relation to histories of abuse and trauma, grief and loss, or rejection and neglect. They often speak of the deep sense of shame that has been etched into their flesh, of feeling that they take up too much space in the world. Many feel that their bodies are not only threatened by the world but also threatening to the world.

In this context, people often characterize their eating disorders as forms of anaesthetic. Food restriction, bingeing, and purging can be means of deadening emotion and cultivating numbness. This numbness carves out a safe space: it provides a “cocoon” or “protective bubble,” a “buffer” or “screen” standing between oneself and the world. Through that numbness, the eating disorder disentangles sufferers from the fleshly intimacy of feeling, drawing them into a protective space that mediates their presence to the world and to others. As the anthropologist Anna Lavis reflects, this numbness provides “a safe way to be in as well as apart from the world.” Though the eating disorder itself brings pain, fear, and despair, it becomes, as Lester summarizes, “the gravity that holds a person together.”

Recovery, in this light, entails continual commitment to being “in” the body, and daily discovery of new ways to inhabit the emotional, feeling flesh. Recovery is thus a creative process that requires a foundational sense of hope: hope that the intimacy of emotional bodily experience might mean more than transgression; hope that bodily presence in the world with others might be worth the risks of vulnerability. For one whose embodiment is permeated by a deep sense of shame, threat, and fear, such hope does not come easily. Lester emphasizes that it is sustained in mutual relationship: “Healing occurs when someone comes to believe that they deserve to exist, that their being is valuable and good, that their presence is recognised by others, and that they matter. There are many ways to get to this place—there is more than one path. But there is one shared feature: it happens in relationship.”

My struggle to be “in” my body has necessarily shaped my theological interest in embodiment. Though my eating disorder has not granted me any automatic theological wisdom, it has formed in me a particular mode of attention to embodiment. Embodiment is not just a given; it is also a calling. There is a difference between living with our bodies and really inhabiting them. If we are to respond well to the suffering entailed in eating disorders, we need not only theological discussions of “the body” but also a theology of praxis that helps us to discover new ways of inhabiting our feeling bodies, and to recognize God’s presence in that process.

Augustine, the Feeling Body, and the Body of Christ

There are many theologians on whom we could draw. I turn to Augustine of Hippo as one who grappled, throughout his life, with the question of how we are called to inhabit our feeling bodies. His doctrine of the totus Christus, or the “whole Christ,” offers a rich account of our calling to embodiment on Christological terms.

Simply put, Augustine’s doctrine of the totus Christus refers to the “whole Christ,” which “consists of head and body.” The Head is Christ, who is “enthroned in heaven,” and his body is the church that “extends throughout the world.” Augustine develops the doctrine of the totus Christus throughout his Expositions of the Psalms, an expansive collection of sermons composed over the course of around three decades. Throughout his life, the Psalms provided Augustine with a language through which to express the confusion and flux of human existence in all its emotional hues. In Augustine’s experience, the voice of the psalmist “unseals deep places, emotions otherwise buried,” as Rowan Williams puts it. By praying the Psalms, Augustine finds his own fears and anxieties drawn up into the psalmist’s address to God. The Psalms allow Augustine to feel the transformative work of grace in the midst of emotional turbulence.

In his sermons, Augustine draws his listeners to experience this transformative power of the Psalms. He does so through a particular practice of reading, in which he “seeks to discover Christ as the speaker of the Psalms,” in Susannah Ticciati’s words. This approach, Michael Fiedrowicz suggests, follows the New Testament, where “the Psalms were shown up in new contours, which reflected the mystery of Christ.”

Embodiment is not just a given; it is also a calling.

We can see this practice on display in Augustine’s sermons on Psalm 31. Augustine frames his reading of this psalm through reference to the fear expressed by the psalmist. He considers this fear to be Christ’s own fear. This move is particularly appropriate for this psalm, Augustine suggests, because “it looks as though it is going to talk about the passion, in which fear played a part.” His connection of this psalm with the passion follows Luke 23:46, where Christ prays Psalm 31:5 from the cross: “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” But “surely,” Augustine asks, “we cannot attribute fear to Christ as his passion loomed, when we know that was what he had come for?” How can Christ, as the Son of God, really fear death, particularly knowing that he will rise again?

Our natural response to this question might be to say that Christ fears death because he is truly human. Augustine, too, turns to the humanity of Christ, but his point is more specific than an appeal to Christ’s fully human nature. In the incarnation, Augustine says, Christ “did not disdain to take us up into himself, did not disdain either to transfigure us into himself, and to speak in our words, so that we in turn might speak in his.” By taking up what is ours, Christ also “clothed us with himself,” giving us his life by drawing us into union with him. This insight is integral to Augustine’s way of reading the Psalms: Christ speaks throughout the Psalms because Christ “transfigures” the voice of suffering humanity into his own.

With this concept of transfiguration in hand, Augustine returns to Christ’s fear. He reflects on a striking scriptural example of such fear: Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane, and his words to his disciples, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38 NIV). Augustine reflects, “When he said that his soul was sorrowful to the point of death, we all unquestionably said it with him.” Augustine’s point here is not simply that Christ understands human emotion. He is saying something far more particular: by taking up the flesh of suffering humanity, Christ draws our fear and anxiety into his own address to the Father. As Williams summarizes, Christ “speaks for us, makes his own the protesting or troubled cry of the human being, so that his own proper and perfect prayer to the Father may become ours.”

Augustine expresses this unity of voice through the language of the totus Christus, language he draws from Paul’s marital imagery in describing the relationship between Christ and the church. By wedding himself to humanity, Christ truly becomes “one flesh” with them (Ephesians 5:30–32), making them his members, “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27), with Christ as their Head (Colossians 1:18). Head and body are joined through the “bond of charity,” the love that has been “shed abroad in our hearts” by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The union of love between Head and body is so close that “Head and body speak as one,” because they are “no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6).

For Augustine, this intimate, fleshly union of Head and body is not simply metaphorical. He often draws on two scriptural passages to demonstrate the real presence of Christ in the members. The first is Acts 9:4, where the ascended Christ cries out to Saul on the Damascus road: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Christ does not, Augustine remarks, ask, “Why are you persecuting my people?” but “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ the Head suffers in his members, experiencing their persecution as the persecution of his own flesh. The second frequently quoted passage is taken from Matthew 25:31–46, where Christ associates himself with the “least of these”: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (v. 42 NIV). Once again, Christ is truly present in human flesh, feeling its hunger and thirst and receiving human acts of mercy and compassion.

The totus Christus, then, offers a logic of coinherence: Christ feels in us, and we feel in Christ. This logic adds new theological depth to Augustine’s experiences of the Psalms as transformative. In his sermons on Psalm 31, Augustine emphasises the text’s power to “unseal” emotional experience: “If the Psalm is praying, pray yourselves; if it is groaning, you groan too; if it is happy, rejoice; if it is crying out in hope, you hope as well; if it expresses fear, be afraid.” As Christ speaks through the Psalms, he voices the full range of human emotion, allowing us to experience those feelings in him and in union with the whole body of Christ. The Psalms become a medium for experiencing a broader truth—namely, that by the grace of the incarnation, Christ’s transformative presence works in and through our bodily feelings and emotional experiences.

Inhabiting Our Feeling Bodies with Hope

How, then, does the doctrine of the totus Christus help us to discover new ways of inhabiting our feeling bodies, particularly in the light of eating disorder suffering?

The doctrine of the totus Christus calls us to experience the feeling body as a site of hope for new life. Central to the doctrine is the claim that the Spirit joins the members to Christ the Head. More specifically, the Spirit joins the members to the resurrected and ascended body of Christ. By this union, the Spirit of Christ draws us toward resurrected life, even as we await its final fulfillment.

Augustine’s insistence on the real presence of the resurrected Christ to our flesh allows our feeling bodies to become sites of what Willie James Jennings calls the “revolution of the intimate.” Jennings develops this concept through close attention to the Spirit’s work as depicted in the book of Acts. The “revolution of the intimate” is the calling of God to the world, the Spirit’s desire for people. More specifically, it is the Spirit’s desire for people’s “glory,” to “draw them into the divine pleasure and joy at the sight of the creature in communion.” God works this revolution through the “divine desire placed in us by the Spirit” for joining and intimacy.

By taking up our feeling flesh, Christ clothes our emotional experiences with his own compassion, mercy, and justice. In Jennings’s terms, we might say that Christ clothes us with the divine desire for people’s “glory” that he embodies in his incarnation. Our feeling bodies are thus integral to how we live as Christ’s members on earth, such that Augustine can speak of the affections as the “feet” by which we walk the “way of Christ.” Our emotional bodily experience might, then, be one way in which we feel the pull of the Spirit’s desire for new life. Emotional experience is a particularly appropriate medium for this work. As we have seen through reflection on eating disorders, our emotions demonstrate profound entanglement with the world and with others, a fitting site for the “revolution of the intimate” that draws us toward communion.

In the light of eating disorder experience, we might also say that our feeling bodies are scenes of the Spirit’s desire for our glory, our communion and joining with others. As we have already seen, fleshly vulnerability is often a source of deep fear and shame for those who struggle with eating disorders. This fear has been etched into flesh over time, through forms of relationship that have been depleting and damaging. Hope for the feeling body, in this case, might require the presence of others who embody the Spirit’s desire for fullness of life. This desire might be embodied through mutual relationships in which the eating disorder sufferer can come to know that “they deserve to exist, that their being is valuable and good, that their presence is recognised by others, and that they matter,” to recall Lester’s words. In and through these relationships, those who struggle with eating disorders might gradually come to experience new possibilities for their feeling bodies: that their emotional entanglement with others might be life-giving, where it has previously threatened their integrity; that their own fleshly presence might enrich the world, where they have previously felt it to be shameful.

By taking up our feeling flesh, Christ clothes our emotional experiences with his own compassion, mercy, and justice.

The call to inhabit our feeling bodies is, then, a shared calling. As the body of Christ, we are drawn to embody—always partially and imperfectly—the hope that the doctrine of the totus Christus holds out: that the resurrected Christ is present to the flesh of suffering humanity, promising a form of intimacy beyond loss or transgression, ordered only to love. Christ’s resurrected presence to us does not mean that our fleshly intimacy to one another is without risk. But Christ has judged in his own flesh the death-dealing ways of a world in which interdependence becomes experienced through vulnerability to violence. At the heart of the doctrine of the totus Christus is the hope that the ultimate truth of bodily intimacy is not shame, threat, or fear, but the fullness of life that Christ embodies.

Health and faith are not synonymous; I have known God’s presence to me throughout my illness, my meandering process of recovery, and my periods of relapse. This presence does not promise me a cure. But it does sustain me in hope that being in my body is worth the risk of vulnerability. Christ calls me into this feeling body not as a demand, but as a desire for the glory of my life fully lived, and for my witness to this glory in others. As I allow myself to feel again, I experience glimpses of this work of the Spirit: real laughter shared with my family; feeling my pain and allowing myself to be comforted by others; visceral anger and sorrow at what is wrong and the energy to do something about it; genuine delight in work about which I am passionate.

Today, my body does not feel habitable. The all-too-familiar feeling of hollowness creeps in and calls me toward the safety of numbness. I steady myself and make my way to the fridge. This morning, sitting down to eat breakfast is my act of hope. I am afraid, but I know Christ’s presence with me in my fear. That presence promises me that there will be an “after,” that there will be a “later,” that I will not disintegrate.

I breathe slowly and lift the spoon to my mouth. Each bite feels like a prayer. I do not want to hide anymore. I want to be, as Lester puts it, “fully—finally—here.”

Niamh Colbrook
Niamh Colbrook

Niamh Colbrook is a PhD candidate in Christian theology at the University of Cambridge. Her work focuses on constructive theological engagements with eating disorders, and draws on contemporary research from psychology, philosophy of psychiatry, and anthropology.


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