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Beavering on a manuscript about art and spirituality, I searched in vain for one of Sister Wendy Beckett’s earliest books, a crucial research tool for the project. In the end, my only recourse was to write to the author herself – at her hermitage in the grounds of an English Carmelite monastery in rural Norfolk. Within a few days, a package arrived with the elusive book wrapped in brown paper, along with a little card which read: ‘Here you are, dear Michael Ford, my very last copy.’ The spidery handwriting reminded me of the ‘holy work’ which lay ahead and the assurance of her prayers. Naturally, after taking copious notes, I sent the book straight back, even though she hadn’t asked me to return it. In a similar situation, many writers (including me) might well have urged the recipient to take great care with the treasured volume and ensure its safe passage home. But Sister Wendy was not at all possessive. In an act of selfless kindness, she gave up something close to her so that she might help another in need, surely a paradigm of the authentic spiritual life.
Sister Wendy, who has died at the age of 88, rarely left the seclusion of the evergreen spinney in East Anglia, except when television came calling and, though for her a sacrifice in terms of time and energy, the unexpected invitation propelled her into the international spotlight as the contemplative’s perceptive insights into all forms of art held people spellbound. She tended not to see herself as an art critic as such, but her natural performances - and more than 30 books - soon established ‘one-take Wendy’ as a hugely respected authority on paintings, ancient and modern. Before standing up to perform from the heart, she would enter a state of deep concentration. There were no notes or rehearsals but she was always word perfect. Filming was always an ‘aberration’ from her normal routine but still a form of prayer. Asked once if the experience of fame had ever tempted her to abandon her caravan for a more glamorous life, she responded gently but emphatically: ‘No, no. What I was tempted to do was to give up the television series. There is no doubt in my mind that there’s no greater joy than to live in solitude because, remember, that is not loneliness. It’s a rare choice and it’s a life of complete happiness.’
Essentially, Sister Wendy’s passion for art was a way of loving God. Art is beauty which can draw us into the truth of our own being, she would say. And wherever we have truth and beauty, she would say, we have God. For her personally, art was revelatory, exposing parts of the self she was unaware of ‘so there is more of me laid bare for God to possess.’ Art was therefore a means of making her human; and no one was more convinced than she was that true prayer wasn’t possible unless you were rooted in the truth of your own humanity. Prayer was never escapism but always an exposure when the real self is held out to the real God. In prayer, we give the self to God ‘for Him to take to Himself.’ If you can give it to God, he uses it all, she would say: ‘You take what comes and you give it to God. If it hurts, He will use that for the world as healing. We’re only important to God not to ourselves.’
Whether it was Paul Cezanne’s, The Abduction, Filippino Lippi’s The Wounded Centaur, Georgia O’Keeffe’s White Rose with Larkspur or Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool by David Hockney, the South African-born guide made the study of painting accessible and gripping, believing art was for everybody and explaining that we all needed to give it time, allowing a certain work to affect us by taking us out of our preconceptions and into somebody else’s world. God gives each of us, in our different ways, the gift of time to grow into the fullness of what we are meant to be. Artists, like most of us, have an awareness of something greater than themselves. Art draws us out of our own smallness into a vision for which there are no words. It is precisely the skill of the artist which enables us to grasp this; but in order to reach the experience it is necessary to study what the painter or sculptor has done. The deep joy of looking at art can be an alarming challenge when we see things in ourselves we would rather not notice, but Sister Wendy believed that, through it, we are ‘emboldened’ to look deeper into our lives. Appreciating and understanding art is actually a profound form of prayer. But it has to involve self-abandonment. We are changed by art or rather, as she put it, ‘it will change us if we allow the Holy Spirit to utter within us the total yes of Jesus to the Father’.
In terms of the life of Jesus, the artist is attempting to make a Gospel event visible, so those who look at paintings receive ‘great grace,’ she said in an Arena television documentary for BBC 2. Studying an icon of the Virgin and Child from the sixth or seventh century, she observes Mary withdrawing herself –‘she’s there to bring forward the wonder of her child.’ The Baptism of Christ by della Francesca urges her to reflect on how different Jesus must have felt from other people because he lived to do his Father’s will. ‘But he still wasn’t sure what he should be doing. He was waiting with love and trust for the Father to make it clear.’ Observing Duccio’s The Transfiguration, she is aware of Jesus’s immense need of prayer and regards the picture as a portrayal of trust. In our own lives, she tells viewers, we may not be conscious of the fact that a certain experience is actually preparing us for something, but trust will help us accept whatever comes our way.
Any audience with Sister Wendy Beckett brought people into the presence of the holy, each commentary more a graphic meditation than a history lesson. The nun might have made some viewers blush when she chatted enthusiastically and unashamedly about the curves of the body or the beauty of nakedness, but she was matter-of-fact and betrayed no embarrassment. If God created the body, there is no part of it which is dirty, sinful or unclean, she attested. Only human minds and human attitudes make it so. This outlook permeated her commentaries and endeared her to millions, often overturning in the process some people’s perceptions and prejudices about the religious life.
Sister Wendy couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a nun so she could belong wholly to God. As a four-year-old child, she became overwhelmed by the reality of God – the greatness, power and love against her own ‘infinite smallness.’ She knew she was held in that magnitude and protected, so would never need to feel anxious. God’s closeness was all too apparent. Such a sense of divine intimacy enabled her to speak about prayer with gentle authority which was always persuasive but never patronising. When we pray for something, God always hears, she explained, but ‘he isn’t going to be a magician and shift your life around. What he will do always is come and stand beside you to help you make the best of whatever is going to happen. If it’s going to be disaster, he’ll be with you, helping you; if it’s going to be joy, he’ll be with you, helping you to say thank you.’
Wendy was just 16 when she joined the Convent of Notre Dame de Namur, the order which had taught her. After formation in Sussex and the profession of vows, Sister Wendy was sent to another convent in Oxford where she read English at St Anne’s College, gaining a Congratulatory First; Professor J.R.R. Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings) was president of the examining board and among those who applauded her outstanding achievement. Although she felt a vocation to pray rather than teach, her vow of obedience took her into the classroom for 16 years. She worked back in South Africa but following a series of public epileptic fits, she was allowed to become a contemplative – a psychological need as well as a spiritual calling. She acknowledged that this life of solitude - which she began under the protection of the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham in 1970 – could be justifiably deemed selfish unless she asked to receive God’s love and compassion to pour out on a world of pain.
Initially she lived in a second-hand holiday caravan without bath or lavatory but when this became dilapidated she moved into a more comfortable prefabricated mobile home. Her prayer times varied over the years but she tended to make sure she was in bed around 5pm so she could get up shortly after midnight ‘because I think that’s a good time to pray when all the world is quiet and many people are suffering at night when they drop the mask and just look at themselves.’ She would join the community for Morning Prayer and Holy Mass, from her seat in the belfry, then collect her daily basket of provisions. Back in her caravan, she completed her seven hours of prayer, did two hours’ work, read, walked, thought and looked at art reproductions on postcards ‘trying to be completely surrendered to God, with no thought for the narrowness of self, but taking in the great expanse of God’s beauty.’
When I joined the BBC’s Religion and Ethics department as a radio producer in the 1990s, I was soon involved in preparing a Lenten series, the first of which on loneliness and isolation was to feature Sister Wendy. I remember how disappointed I was to learn I wouldn’t be needed at the London studio on the day of recording, for I longed to meet this remarkable person who had spiritually nourished me for so long. When the edition was broadcast the following day, I was surprised how this intensely private woman could be so publicly frank about her own life. ‘Yes, it is terribly strange and people are made to be living in community,’ she said. ‘God made us to be social creatures; it’s just that I happen to be one of the very few people who are inadequate. I’m not big enough as a person to cope with the stresses and the strains of normal life so, as a kind of therapy, God - who always tempers the wind to the shorn lamb (and sees that he has a real dud here) - has taken me to the one place where I can flourish … which is by myself.’
On that Radio 4 programme, Were You There?, Sister Wendy spoke about the early 16th century painting The Small Crucifixion by the German renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald. At the foot of the cross desolate women are grieving over the death of Jesus, a common portrayal in religious art: ‘Yes,’commented Sister Wendy, ‘and one that always moves me so much. Grunewald, I think, is the greatest painter of the crucifixion because he shows the reality of suffering. Everybody in this is truly in agony. People so easily tend to say “if you love God enough, of course, you won’t feel it so much,” and this is just nonsense. The dead Jesus here is ravaged by pain, and round the cross stand the three who loved him most – Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene and John. What I find so moving about The Small Crucifixion is that each is absolutely lost in the loneliness of their own pain. It’s a grief so great you can’t be aware of it: they are suffering. They’ll come out of this. It won’t have this intensity, and one hopes the three will support one another. But at the moment they’re half-dead, half lifeless, with sorrow. And yet, of course, this is very moment they’re closest to Jesus, the moment they go, as far as one can go, into another’s death. They go into his death, so it’s the most redemptive moment of all.’ Sister Wendy continued to live in solitude until the end of her life. When she became increasingly frail, she moved to a small flat connected to the monastery while a sister provided her with meals, secretarial support as necessary and general care. Sister Wendy never actually came into the community at Quidenham and most of the nuns didn’t see her at all unless they caught sight of her on her way to the daily Mass.
As she approached her own death late last year, Sister Wendy was reported to be ‘happy and at peace.’ She wasn’t well enough to write cards last December so one of her short commentaries was sent to her friends as ‘a gift from her heart to you this Christmas.’ It read: ‘He will not only bring the glory of the Son to earth but take us into it’, a promise she had lived in and hoped for all her life. Icons were in her room when she died on December 26, 2018, but it was Jesus who was her all. As she wasn’t a member of the Carmelite order, Sister Wendy hoped to be buried in ‘the belfry of the graveyard’, under a bush or behind a tree – ‘tucked away, thanking God for allowing me a life of such unimaginable happiness. Lucky me.’
All great art, through its own nature, takes us beyond what we hold already in our thoughts, and opens up a new experience (Sister Wendy's Odyssey).