Before entering recovery for my eating disorder, hunger was the enemy. I chased after diets that promised, “You’ll never feel hungry!” When those diets didn’t work, I did all I could to avoid ever feeling that grumble and its accompanying pangs. The times I would feel actual physical hunger, I’d literally go into a panic. I felt like I was going to die if I didn’t get the food I wanted when I wanted it, which was pretty much all the time—sometimes even when I was sleeping.
When I finally came to recovery, after about four decades of disordered eating, one of the first lessons I needed to experience was that I could get through wanting to eat at unhealthy times and in unhealthy amounts without giving in to those urges. How was I ever going to do that if I had a minor panic attack every time I couldn’t get the food I wanted in the moment?
This task felt insurmountable. Since recovery, I’ve talked to countless fellow food addicts who felt—and still feel—the same way. We can’t seem to get past this fear of hunger, this desperation to escape our own neediness.
I think Saint Maximilian Kolbe holds a special place in his heart for people like us because he knows how it feels to be hungry even to the point of death—and to see beyond that anguish into the loving, eternal heart of Christ.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest during World War II who was sent to a concentration camp—Auschwitz—for his anti-Nazi activities. To deter inmates from escaping, the camp’s brutal practice when a prisoner turned up missing was to select at random ten remaining prisoners and deprive them of food and water until they died in agony. People who had this fate inflicted upon them were understandably known for crying out in torment, screaming, and cursing. It was a horrific, drawn-out way to go.
Three months after Father Kolbe’s arrival at Auschwitz, one of his fellow prisoners escaped.
As the ten prisoners were being selected for this torture, one of the ten cried out that he was a father with children—what would become of them? Koble stepped forward and offered to take the man’s place.
His offer was accepted.
In the cell where others previously had died cursing their starvation, Father Kolbe led his fellow prisoners in songs of praise and joy. When the guards checked on the condemned, they found Father Kolbe standing or kneeling, smiling peacefully at the very monsters brutalizing him and his fellows.
After three weeks without food or water, Kolbe remained alive and so was condemned to die by an injection of deadly acid. He is said to have presented his arm for the needle calmly, with great serenity.
And how often have I been in a comfortable home stocked with food, unable to withstand one second of denial?
Today I am learning through the hard work of recovery the lesson that empowered him to sacrifice his life for another in Auschwitz: that there is joy beyond hunger. Even if hunger does actually and literally kill us, when we cling joyfully to Christian hope through torture—real or imagined—there is a resurrection guaranteed to us on the other side.
We don’t need to panic. We just need to praise God, get on our knees, and stand at peace until the Lord rescues us. Just beyond the hunger, there is new life.
Because a needle was ultimately the instrument of his death, Saint Maximilian Kolbe is considered a patron of drug addicts. I think we food addicts can turn to him as well. In life and death and sainthood, he shows us that we need not fear the worst that human hunger can do to us. It is in our neediness that God gives us life that no kind of torture can destroy.
Could you use inspiration in your war against compulsive food behaviors? Find virtual and in-person meetings supporting those of us with food addiction.
Erin McCole Cupp is grateful to be recovering from compulsive overeating, binge eating behaviors, and developmental and betrayal trauma. She writes and speaks about mental health and addiction recovery from a Catholic perspective. Check out her course “Filled with Good: Theology of the Body for Food Addicts” at erinmccolecupp.podia.com.