Surprising Fasting Advice from a Hermit

Are We Becoming Holy? Leave it, This is God’s Business.

Josh Retterer / 2.26.21

There are people standing and applauding as she enters the room. J. R. R. Tolkien tips the gradebook so she can see her results, beaming with pride. Professor Tolkien wants her to stay on, to teach. She is speechless. Well, out of shock, to be sure; but mostly because she took a vow of silence

Sister Wendy Beckett was hardcore. 

Most of us take a ride on the “Wilderness Experience” of suffering sooner or later, or often. Sister Wendy made it her job. Rise at midnight, pray, eat cold vegetables and two rice crackers with milk, work, pray, bed. Also, try to avoid being frostbitten — again — while living out this experience in an old travel camper. Occasionally bed-ridden. Repeat. So, when I discovered Sister Wendy had written a couple of Lent devotionals, I was curious — maybe a little afraid — to know what this deeply sacrificial person would fast for Lent.


In The Art of Holy Week and Easter, Sister Wendy gives us a glimpse into what’s happening inside Peter’s shattered psyche the moment after the denial. Reflecting on the painting by Cristoforo de Predis titled, “Concerning the Life of St Joachim”: 

This magical little picture presents an unforgettable image of grief. It is that most painful kind of grief, lamenting of our own folly. Here we see Peter with his shamed face covered, stumbling blindly forward from one closed door to the next. There are ways out behind him, but Peter is too lost in misery to look for them. This claustrophobic despair, this helpless anguish, this incapacitating sense of shame: these are the result of a sudden overturn of our own self-image.

Peter had honestly seen himself as one who loved and followed Jesus, priding himself, moreover, on how true his loyalty was in comparison with that of others. “Even if all should betray you, I will never betray you” — it was a boast, but he had meant it. Now he sees, piercingly, that he is fraudulent. He has been unmasked to himself, he has lost his self-worth.

The crucial question is: what next? […] He will cling in desperate need and not in false strength, and will in the end become truly Peter, the “rock,” on which the Church, likewise dependent on Christ, will be built.

Imagine having your worst moment immortalized … in Scripture and in art!  I love that she writes with the voice of someone familiar with their own low anthropology. Faith comes on the other side of failure. She directs that same view of reality into some rather serious advice in her book on prayer for those engaging in a Lenten fast:

When you read the lives of the saints (I am thinking now of Bishop Butler and his tradition of hagiography), it is extraordinary that the selling point, as it were, is the saints’ devotion to penance. […] One sometimes gets the impression that these saints were canonized because of their physical penances. Forget about love and prayer: one can deduce these, the reasoning goes, from the extremes to which they brought their bodies. Fast until you faint? You must love God. Go without sleep? Ah, what devotion! Today we are more dubious about these penitential extravaganzas. We still love them; we are deeply impressed by them. They still seem to bear their own credentials blazing bright on their foreheads, yet we have perhaps come to realize the element here of the extraordinary, the UFO, that essentially impresses us, not because it comes from God, but because it is bizarre, a seemingly spiritual version of the poltergeist. True faith is something very much deeper.

Even today many people seem to think that true religion is defined by giving up things. In a sense it is far easier to deny one’s body than quietly and soberly to surrender your whole self for God’s possessing. In Lent, how much easier it is to give up wine or chocolate than seriously to tackle our impatience. A friend of mine who was prepared to fast most rigorously in Lent was horrified when I suggested daily mass and half an hour’s prayer instead. That she shrank from, compared to the athletic glory of a penitential fast. It is always not what we do, but why we do it. And our motive must always come from fixing our eyes solely on Jesus. The self-denying penitent has the comfort of saying, “I inflict so much suffering upon myself — fasting, vigils, abstinences — surely I love Him?” Our Lord asks us to love without this reassurance. We set aside time for prayer, and more and more we try to orient our whole day to prayer, but we sacrifice the comfort — the paradoxical comfort — of physical discomfiture. Are we becoming holy? Leave it, this is God’s business. Our business, again, is to accept the terrible simplicity of prayer, that accurate barometer of whether we want Him or not. Dear Lord, do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

That terrible, honest, prayer of help: “Dear Lord, do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”

My response to that prayer leaves me feeling much the same as the young Sister Wendy did in the presence of a celebrating Tolkien. Stunned silence. It’s too good to be true — and yet it is beyond true — it is reality! She chose her vocation to be consecrated in service to God, a firm wish she had since childhood as an expression of her love for Him. The way she lived seems unimaginable to us, even excessive in its piety, which might seem hypocritical given her comments about the suffering saints of old. And yet, all you have to do is read her words. She doesn’t point to physical suffering or self-denial, her own or others, as attaining anything. She knew only God’s glory in the vast need that was her life was the only thing worth pointing to, because He did what even the most hardcore among us, Peter included, could not.

“… this is God’s business.”