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It’s the Fast that Makes the Feast

If we want to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming, we must detach ourselves from all the goods of the earth…retire into the interior desert of our heart, far from creatures to await the coming of Jesus in deep recollection, silence, and solitude, insofar as the duties of our state in life permit. 

Father Gabriel of Saint Mary, Divine Intimacy


I was surprised, when I started researching customs around Advent, to discover that it was traditionally more of a sober season than I had initially thought: that it had some of the feel, in fact, of Lent.

Joyful as it was, Advent was also understood by our spiritual ancestors to be a time to examine one’s life, take stock of one’s allegiances and attachments, and assess their value in the light of the coming Christ. Those things that were deemed unbecoming or superfluous to the divine life were to be discarded, and a season of fasting and prayer was recommended in preparation for the feast of the Nativity.

In the writings I studied, two words kept recurring: recollection and detachment.


We live incredibly fragmented lives. The ease of transportation and communication means we can belong to multiple disparate communities at once: church, work, sports, family, political, artistic – none of which needs to be organically connected to the others. Each community has its own set of social obligations and ideological commitments. Balancing them all is, unarguably, a profound stress.

In addition, with the ascent of the Internet, we are now engaged with almost every corner of the globe at once. We have immediate access to news in other lands. We maintain friendships on other continents. We have remote opportunities to consider. And we have knowledge of terrors and tragedies over which we have no control. The cumulative effect of all this information and activity is the gnawing feeling that we are spread too thin, and that the centre cannot hold. Anxiety and distraction mark our days.

Advent recollection is the hard spiritual practice of stepping away from the fray, gathering back the fragmented bits of ourselves that we’ve scattered across the multiverse and finding ourselves once again – calm, collected and of sound mind – in possession of ourselves and ready to receive the Christ child.


The practice of detachment comes up over and over in the writings of the great spiritual athletes of history. Simply put, it is naive to think we should have the capacity to attach to Christ if we are endlessly entangled by myriad lesser attachments.

Expectant parents, living in limited space, instinctively know they must let go of certain things to make room for their new child. Some things are packed away and put in the garage; others are discarded altogether. Often they recognize that significant lifestyle changes are also necessary. But those who fail to manage some degree of honest detachment from their old reality will find the new reality more of an obstruction to life than a fulfilment of it.

To the modern ear, austerity sounds a dour tone; restraint is cheerlessly counter-intuitive; contentment is pointlessly counter-cultural. Ironically, however, the saints who sincerely practised recollection and detachment were often renowned for their child-like joy. I have met contemporary ascetics whose countenances bear this out. They understand that when we give ourselves over to things that are neither restorative nor life-giving, we soon find ourselves greasy and glutted with paltry pleasures and petty distractions rather than exuberantly satiated with a nutrient-rich fare. In our day, I suspect one reason we increasingly find the season of Christmas a time to endure rather than celebrate is that we come to the table already full.

So, from the more contemplative wing of the Church comes the encouragement to take time and step out of the fray into silence, solitude and fasting; move into the desert, where there is little to distract; give ourselves time to detox from the culture of endless, empty consolations and fruitless attachments; provide ourselves with the opportunity to feel what it is we are really hungry for.

A hearty hunger makes a banquet supremely inviting. An honest thirst makes a draught of wine a profound pleasure. And the absence of company makes coming together a festive joy. In short, it is the fast that makes the feast.

Music by Steve Bell
Lyrics by Steve Bell and Jamie Howison
Appears on the 2012 CD release Keening for the Dawn 

Purchase Original Album   Purchase Pilgrim Year Companion CD

Fashion for me a desert of peace
A land that is empty of endless dis-ease
With no one to suffer, hate or appease
With nothing to covet, desire or compete
But You alone.

Grant to me Lord, by Your sovereign hand
To wander forever in this boundless land
Where all of my yearnings, fears, and demands
Are abandoned and lost to the great desert sands
Surrounding me

Fashion for me a desert of peace
Where Father, Son, and Spirit meet
Together as one, together release me
Free from sin, to enter in, to life forever more.

Fashion for us a city of love
Where the lamb and the lion together lie down
Where all of the long-lost pilgrims are found
Rejoicing in song for the Saviour is crowned
As Lord and King.

Grant to us, Lord, by Your sovereign hand
A city of joy in the heart of the land
A home for the weary alien man
The fatherless children, the widow whose hands
Are tired and worn.

Fashion for us a city of love
Where Father, Son, and Spirit live
Together as one, together allow us
Free to take and celebrate
The love forever more.