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Letters reveal another side to Sr Wendy Beckett

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Sister Wendy Beckett rocketed to fame in the 1990s fronting a BBC series on the history of art. PHOTO: Orbis Books

The art historian and 90s TV star was a contemplative, a holy woman  and perhaps a saint says author and friend Robert Ellsberg

Sr Wendy Beckett was a religious hermit who unexpectedly shot to international fame through her TV documentaries on art for the BBC during the 90s.

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; he’s also the former managing editor of The Catholic Worker and has edited the selected writings, diaries, and letters of Dorothy Day, whom he knew personally.

In 2016 their friendship blossomed through email correspondence until Wendy’s death in 2018 aged 88. Dearest Sister Wendy is the edited collection of this almost daily exchange, which ranges from topics both varied and profound.

she would hope that [readers] would be drawn to know and love God more deeply—and to realise that to do this we don’t have to live in a monastery or spend every moment on our knees…

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Robert answered some questions from The Catholic Weekly:

Were you surprised when a friendship opened up with Sr Wendy after years of a working relationship?

I was very surprised by the relationship that suddenly took off between Sr Wendy and me in the spring of 2016. For one thing, communication with Sr Wendy in the past had been impeded by her nearly impenetrable handwriting.

But more importantly, she had made it clear that she preferred to maintain definite boundaries, which I certainly respected.

In 2013 she wrote me, “That was a lovely email you sent. I like communicating with you too, but if I’m to live a life of silence, communication without a real purpose has got to be sacrificed.”

What changed in the first place was that after moving into the monastery enclosure, she relied on a Carmelite Sister to help with correspondence, meaning that we could communicate via legible emails.

But more significantly, Sr Wendy evidently determined that our communication did have a real purpose. We began by writing about subjects of mutual interest—chiefly, the meaning of holiness and the lives of the saints. But very quickly that expanded into vaster realms.

Robert Ellsberg has also edited a new book on Dorothy Day and is seen with her earlier in his life, below at right. Photo: Orbis Books

How did it change you both?

Sr Wendy often said that I opened her out to the world. By vocation (as a hermit) and by temperament, she had chosen a quite sequestered life, allowing her to devote herself with minimal distraction to her relationship with God.

She had friendly relations with many people, but I don’t think she had permitted herself to engage so deeply with someone out in “the world” and it seemed that this effected a gradual change not only in her outlook on various topics, but even on a more personal level.

She found herself reflecting more critically on her inner life, sharing reflections on her early childhood and events that had shaped her, re-examining long-held judgements, and connecting her love of God with love for an actual person.

As for me, Sr Wendy encouraged me to look at and appreciate the presence of God in my life, both in deep experiences of grace and consolation, as well as in my struggles and experiences of loss and failure. She encouraged me to believe in my vocation, and to trust that I would find God along the path, both in my professional life and in my personal life, my relationships, my dreams, my daily tasks.

Publisher and author Robert Ellsberg on a 2017 visit to his correspondent, famed ‘art nun’ Sister Wendy Beckett, who died the following year.

At what point did you both decide that your correspondence should be shared more broadly?

Partly with my editor’s hat on, I had encouraged Sr Wendy to write more about her personal and interior life. She dismissed such suggestions as rubbish.

But as the trust increased between us, she speculated that perhaps she could write such a book if someone asked her the right questions.

I immediately set to asking her such questions, but she was not inspired by this process, and I put it aside. Instead I wrote about myself, the twists and turns of my own life, and she began to respond in kind. It was several months into our exchanges that she said, “Again and again you’ve told me that you would like to publish something personal from me. Robert, I say this very hesitatingly, but could you cobble something together from our letters?”

Contrary to Sr Wendy’s intentions, I am very happy for people to know her better…and to benefit from her wisdom, her love, and her sparkling aliveness.

From that time, I realised that she shared my sense that what we were writing to one another might have a purpose and a meaning beyond ourselves. I don’t think either of from that point thought consciously that we were writing a book, but I think for Sr Wendy this was in some ways an extension of her “apostolate” in talking about art—a way of speaking about God, prayer, the source of beauty and goodness, in a language that people might understand.

How important is it do you think, to develop our own spiritual conversations?

In Celtic spirituality they speak of the importance of “soul friends” –the anam cara.
It is not a matter of just talking about “spiritual” topics. But seeing your life as a spiritual journey, on which it is important to have companions.

We know ourselves better through the eyes of such companions; we are able to go beneath the surface of daily life to see its deeper meaning. In Africa, they say, if you want to go quickly you travel alone; if you want to go far, you travel together. That is also true in the spiritual life.

What is the main message do you think Sr Wendy would hope readers would receive from this book, or what was her hope for it?

Sr Wendy certainly didn’t care whether people knew her better. But I think she would hope that in reflecting on our conversations they would be drawn to know and love God more deeply—and to realise that to do this we don’t have to live in a monastery or spend every moment on our knees: that God comes to us where we are, in our work, our relationships, our suffering, our joys.

We just have to train ourselves to open our eyes and pay attention and desire God.

She wanted people to see, as she did, that “this is heaven.”

What is your own biggest hope for Dearest Sr Wendy?

Contrary to Sr Wendy’s intentions, I am very happy for people to know her better—especially all those who loved her from her public broadcasts—and to benefit from her wisdom, her love, and her sparkling aliveness.

But most of all, I hope that reading this book will encourage people to look at their own lives in a new way. To see all the ways that grace has been woven into their story, both in the joys and sorrows, the obstacles as well as the opportunities to love and grow, and to appreciate the miracle of being alive.

What did you both think about holiness or sanctity, and do you think Sr Wendy was a saint?

We agreed that being a saint is not the same as being officially canonised, but that this is calling of all Christians.

It doesn’t mean being recognised by the church, or performing miracles, or being without fault. It means responding to the call to grow ever deeper into the love of God.

She wanted people to see, as she did, that “this is heaven.”

On this path some travel far; others only a few steps. But what unites even us ordinary Christians with the greatest of saints, is our desire to walk on that path. Sr Wendy devoted herself ardently and with her heart and soul to that quest. And so I have no hesitation in calling her a holy woman, a woman of the Beatitudes, a saint if you like. But no saint, whether Sr Wendy or St Therese [of Lisieux] would ever describe themselves that way, except in terms of desire and vocation.

Through all this I have seen that the forms of holiness are as numerous as there are individuals, but that there is a certain family resemblance that unites them all—they are people who remind us of the attributes of God: love, truth, mercy.

Order at The Mustard Seed Bookshop 02 9307 8350; mustardseed.org.au

The Australian launch of Dearest Sister Wendy, in conversation with Robert Ellsberg will be hosted online on 12 October 2022 at 11.30am-12.15pm (Sydney time) by BBI-TAITE. Register at this link. Enquiries 02 9847 0030.

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