Inedia, the alleged ability to live without food, is a fast-based lifestyle originally established within the Catholic tradition. In Christianity, the notion of inedia holds that certain saints and mystics were able to survive for extended periods of time without food or drink other than the Eucharist. The Catholic saints and mystics claimed to have fasted for weeks to months beforehand.
Scholars have come to refer to this type of prolonged fasting as miraculous abstinence. Numerous religious mystics and Catholic saints have claimed to be able to live in this manner, making them the focus of admiration and skepticism.
Fasting saints and mystics were thought to have been affected by anorexia mirabilis, which literally means a miraculous loss of appetite. Anorexia mirabilis differs from the more modern anorexia nervosa in several ways.
In anorexia nervosa, people usually starve themselves to attain a level of thinness, which is why the disease is associated with body image distortion. By contrast, anorexia mirabilis was frequently coupled with other ascetic practices, such as lifelong virginity, flagellant behavior, the donning of hairshirts, sleeping on beds of thorns, and other assorted acts of self-mortification.
Many mystics and saints were stigmatists, people whose bodies are marked by religious stigmata, such as marks resembling the wounds of a crucified Christ. Stigmata was often associated with long periods of fasting and sleeplessness.
In his book, Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell (1985) noted 261 cases of women who fasted to the point of starvation for religious reasons between the time period of 1206 and 1934, many of whom were elevated to sainthood. Of course, not all mystics and saints were women and not all were Catholic.
Religious mystics were men and women who believed in the existence of realities beyond normal human comprehension. Mystics were usually followers of religious or spiritual traditions and were known to have had dedicated ascetic practices.
Most religions have texts that describe fundamental mystical experiences. One example is the Catholic mystics, who followed the models of Jesus’ asceticism and disciplined their bodies through activities ranging from sleep-deprivation and brief fasting to more extreme forms, such as self-flagellation and fasting to the point of starvation.
There are numerous mystics who became saints or achieved saint-like status by remaining alive despite fasting for what appeared to be impossible lengths of time. Portuguese anthropologist João de Pina-Cabral (1986) called these women “non-eaters.” Religious mystics had a variety of exceptional human experiences brought about by fasting, including visions, feelings of ecstasy, and physical transformations such as stigmata.