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Beauty is very much an attribute of God - Sister Wendy
Coming towards me across the lobby of a plush Kensington hotel, the long black habit, flowing veil and white wimple, spark an involuntary smile. I am caught between immediate recognition of the "art nun", and a realisation that our only acquaintance has been solely via the small screen in my living room.
Sr Wendy Beckett greets me warmly and with great charm. Her solicitude towards this "scribbler" from Ireland probably stems from fond childhood memories of her two Irish grandmothers. Her voice and accent are instantly recognisable, to my ears quintessentially English and betraying little of her South African roots.
The self-taught art connoisseur graced television screens throughout the 1990s in a number of BBC art series lauded for their accessible and instructive format. Her obvious erudition was never heavy-handed or showy.
While the quirky juxtaposition of a hermit musing on some of the world's most sensuous paintings might have provided the initial audience hook, it would have palled rather quickly had Sr Wendy's trademark enthusiasm and expressive insights not kept the audiences coming back for more.
Popularising art appreciation might not have endeared her in the rarefied and slightly precious circles of art critics and historians, but it may well have helped thousands to rediscover their souls. Talking to me about the natural evangelising that occurs in contemplating art, she explains: "Art is beauty and God is beauty. If you can get people to look at art; you are bringing them closer to Him, even if they don't know His name."
However, getting people to look at art in the first place can be a matter of challenging that possessiveness that prevails among the "experts". She has been quoted elsewhere as saying: "The story of painting is one that is immensely rich in meaning, yet its value is all too often hidden from us by the complexities of its historians. We must forget the densities of history and simply surrender to the wonder of the story."
Engaging the British public's imagination on high brow art has had its personal price, notably the quandary of being a "celebrity" hermit. "Celebrity means nothing to me and I never feel that I am a celebrity. I feel I am an unimportant person who lives by God's grace a life of prayer and through circumstances have been catapulted into the limelight. I can't see that it has any application to my real life, which is a life of silence and solitude."
The hubbub of TV production and media interviews is, she says, "just strum and drang - noise off-stage!" In all, her media work takes her away from home for between three and six weeks a year.
Despite her 74 years, she still continues to live a rigorously ascetic life. As a consecrated virgin, she is not part of the Carmelite community at Quidenham but she does join the community every day for Mass in the morning. "I spend seven hours a day in prayer. Getting up at two o'clock gives me a long stretch of silent prayer through the night. The only time I leave the caravan is to go to Mass. I get up to the monastery just after six o'clock, go to the kitchen where I fill my basket with the food for the day - milk and the vegetables that the sisters had the day before. I get my post, look at yesterday's newspaper to see the sports news and the obituaries and then I go to Mass. After Mass I go home."
She describes her position at Quidenham monastery as "the person on the doorstep. Out of their charity they allow me to live with them but I am completely separate."
Prior to her discovery by the BBC in 1991 she spent her time from 1970, when she first went to live in Quidenham, translating medieval Latin manuscripts. It was only in 1980 that she switched her focus to art. Her First Class Honours degree from St Anne's College Oxford was in fact in English literature.
Born in Johannesburg in 1930, two of her father's brothers became mayors of the South African city. It was a "very fervent Catholic family", her grandfather converted at the behest of her Irish grandmother. She describes her father, Aubrey Beckett, as "very devout" and believes he "would have been a priest if there had been married priests".
On her mother's side, another Irish woman, "Granny Sheehan" converted her maternal grandfather. "Both of my parents were thrilled and privileged to have a daughter who wanted to be a nun. I never had to say 'I want to be a nun', it was known".
The family relocated to Edinburgh in the 1930s, as her father, a "late vocation to medicine" was studying at the university there. As the war came, they returned to South Africa. Then in 1946, aged 16, she returned to the UK, to join the Sisters of Notre Dame.
"I was an extremely stupid child. I hadn't realised that I wanted to be a praying nun and so it never dawned on me that if you join a teaching order you're going to have to teach." Oxford was followed by a teaching diploma from Liverpool in 1954 and then a teaching position in South Africa. All seemed to be going swimmingly.
She became Reverend Mother while holding down a lecturing position at the University of Witwatersrand. But then illness struck and recurred again and again. "The doctor said that in his opinion, 'she is dying of a broken heart'. It wasn't that I wanted to pray more but that I needed to pray more. So the order very sweetly told me 'Do what you need to do'." Her request that her vows be commuted to those of a consecrated virgin was granted. She is therefore no longer a Notre Dame sister, nor is she a Carmelite nun, but a consecrated virgin under the protection of the Carmelites.
Attribute of God
"My own definition of beauty is that which perpetually satisfies us. You look at it again and again and there is more of it to satisfy us. I would say that beauty is very much an attribute of God - He is essential beauty. But only those of us who have been fortunate enough to have faith know where beauty comes from. For the others, they are responding to beauty and responding to Him, though they mightn't be aware of that - they are responding to the pure, free, strong, loving spirit of God."
Asked about those Christians who reject beauty in a puritanical fashion, the hermit is philosophical. "Puritanism is very attractive. It tempts because it narrows the world, which means you can deal with it better. Beauty makes you vulnerable, you can't protect yourself against it." Lest there be any misapprehension that beauty constitutes the airbrushed images that adorn glossy magazines, she explains: "Beauty comes from all parts of the compass. It comes in the sunrise and it comes in the sunset, it comes in the people you meet and it doesn't just come in art - beauty is everywhere.
"I think the temptation to narrow God down either to the 'religious' or to the intellectual is what Puritanism is really all about - confining God. We fear vulnerability, we want to control things, which of course is exactly what religion is supposed to be against. The whole faith is about surrendering to God, let God be in control. If you want to be open to God, to let God love you, then Puritanism just isn't possible because you have to be open to all the ways He comes - in your neighbour, in your job, in what you eat and in what you see and read."
However, when asked if beauty is the defining aspect of her theology, she asserts: "Jesus is the defining figure in my theology. Jesus in however he comes - and He often comes wounded and dirty and ugly, as He often comes in the Church. Who can say that the Church is beautiful. But it is His Church even if it is ugly and stunted."
She dismisses the notion that technology and an emphasis on intellectualising art might kill it. "I don't think anything can kill art, it is an irreducible desire in the human spirit. We saw it in the prehistoric caves and it is there all the way through human history."
But she has some concerns as to the way art has evolved in recent years. "I do think we are in an unhappy period in which the intellect seems to be supreme. You have a concept and that is considered art. I am not saying that it isn't art but it is an inferior form of art."
She also has concerns in regard to the health of religious art. "We live in a time when I don't think we have much religious art. We have a lot of spiritual art but that is not the same thing. Religious art uses religious iconography and that does not come naturally to many artists."
In Sr Wendy's assessment of the arts, music as a form of expression is freer than art. "There are no concepts in music and of course there are no concepts applicable to God - you just sort of float free. If you have a concept, then that is not God because God cannot be bound. Art of its nature is material and it makes shapes and once you've got a shape you haven't got God. Art can only point the way."
Describing herself as "an old 74" with some health problems, she admits she would welcome an "end to these wretched excursions from contemplative life!", but the media requests are still streaming in. "Somehow my very ordinary persona, my plain face and my obvious love for what I am talking about, has drawn people in. As long as I have the physical strength I will continue."
When she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame all those years ago there were 40 others in the novitiate with her. "Most of them were girls who had just come out of the army - it was 1946, just after the war. When I was young, if you wanted to give yourself wholly to God, the only thing was to become a nun. Now we realise that there are many other ways to give yourself to God, like getting married, being a bus conductor, an explorer, a doctor or a journalist." She thinks it is healthier that there are fewer nuns now, though she cautions "as long as the ones that are nuns are real nuns - and passionately committed to God alone."
She herself has no regrets about her decision to become a nun at just 16. "I had wonderful dreams of what religious life would be and my life has far surpassed my dreams. I had no idea that one could be so happy and contented. I would like to have been a better nun but I do believe I've been very privileged."
This article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic'.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 17 No 4 (May 2004), p. 12
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