Scanning an online news source last week, my eyes grazed across the headline, “Swiss woman starves to death.” ‘How could this have happened in a first world country,’ I wondered. Allowing my curiosity to get the better of me, I clicked the link and read the article.
The unnamed woman had embarked on a spiritual journey, guided by the tenets of Breatharianism, and had undertaken an extreme fast from all food and drink. Breatharians claim that by practicing rigorous meditation, adherents can free their bodies of the need to live on food and drink and begin to survive on sunlight alone. The documentary In the Beginning There was Light (2010), which investigates the testimony of various witnesses who claim to have the ability to survive without food or drink, inspired the Swiss woman to begin her fast. Now, as one might expect, much of the Breatharian teaching has been discredited by media investigations. The lack of legitimate scientific confirmation of practitioners’ purported abilities rightly labels the religion dubious. The Dominican tradition, however, marshals even more evidence to indict the Breatharians.
The tenets of Breatharianism ring discordantly in Dominican ears for a number of reasons. Among these, the first is historical. Saint Dominic founded the Dominican Order to help the Church combat a particularly gruesome sect of heretics known as the Albigensians or Cathars. The Albigensians viewed the material world as evil and therefore renounced many created goods in deference to the spiritual world.
Among the Albigensians, there was an elite group known as the Perfecti, who practiced extreme fasting and other rigorous physical penances. In fact, Albigensians even lauded those who starved themselves to death intentionally in order to liberate the soul from its bodily captivity. Now admittedly Breatharians do not openly intend or advocate suicide, but there is a deep connection between the two groups: Breatharians, like the Perfecti, totally ignore the body and its needs in favor of the spirit.
Some may defend the Breatharians, saying, “Christianity advocates fasting, so in a way Breatharianism develops a Christian practice.” Herein lies a second reason why Dominicans oppose Breatharianism: Breatharianism distorts the proper understanding of penance, specifically fasting. The purported Breatharian ability to go without food is a fruit of meditation. Breatharians supposedly consume the energy of light and air and therefore don’t really fast. They simply stop eating food and meditation allows them to be nourished from the more spiritual sources of rays of sun and wind. Christian fasting, on the other hand, moderates the excess desires of the body so as to nourish one’s spiritual life. In the Christian tradition fasting is directed toward ordering the passions and encouraging growth in the spiritual life. In Christianity, fasting tames unruly desires and aids one to develop one’s spiritual life, but for the Breatharian, transcending the needs of material food and drink entirely is the result of a developed spiritual life.
In addition to the Christian perspective on fasting, Dominicans treasure the Catholic view of the mystery of the Incarnation and viscerally object to Breatharianism’s exclusion of it. By taking flesh and living among men, God sanctifies the material world. The Scriptures tell us Christ was hungry (Mk 4:2) and that he ate with the disciples and even tax collectors (Mt 9:10). Even after the Resurrection, Christ eats a piece of baked fish before the apostles (Lk 24:42). Breatharianism misses the affirmation of creation’s goodness bestowed by the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, ultimately culminating in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the powers of heaven intersect the realities of earth and make eternal salvation possible for all men. And so for the Dominican, the Breatharian need to transcend the flesh is simply a non-issue, because the Dominican sees the goodness in the created order itself and the way in which Christ’s offering transforms it.