Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018), contemplative nun and consecrated virgin, delighted audiences worldwide with her lively BBC documentaries on the history of art.
Born Wendy Mary Beckett in Johannesburg, she moved as a child to Scotland, in 1946 joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order, and earned a degree in English Literature at Oxford, graduating with highest honors.
She then returned to South Africa and, in spite of her "constant longing to pray," lived an active life of teaching from 1954 to 1970. When she began to have stress-induced heart trouble and epileptic seizures, she was given permission to return to England. There, as a hermit and consecrated virgin, in solitude and silence, she found her true vocation.
She stayed for decades on the property of the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, first in a caravan, later in a trailer. She prayed for seven hours a day, devoting two hours to work by which she could make a living. Though she never became a member of the order, she signed over all her earnings to them.
With permission from the Church, she began to study art history, mostly from books and postcards. She published her first book — Contemporary Women Artists — in 1988.
Her first television appearance was in a 1991 BBC short. In full habit, and with her trademark owlish glasses, overbite, and slight speech impediment such that her r's became w's, she was an instant sensation.
"I'm not a critic. I am an appreciator," she responded with a smile.
She went on to host her own shows — Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour among them — and to write more than thirty books. She insisted upon a clause in her contracts that allowed her to attend daily Mass while traveling.
Hands clasped in joy, face framed by a wimple, she discoursed with élan. With a beatific smile, she could hold forth with equal enthusiasm on Andy Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych" and a Rembrandt self-portrait.
Trained art critics sniffed at her "naïve" commentary. "I'm not a critic. I am an appreciator," she responded with a smile. "I think great art opens us not just to the truth as an artist sees it, but to our own truth…. You're being invited to enter into the reality of what it means to be human."
The secular world made much of Sister Wendy's appreciation for the glory of the human body. But that is because the secular world knows very little of the all-encompassing heart of those called to celibacy. Much less does it know of the kind of prayer that undergirded Sister Wendy's life — and that in the end was perhaps her greatest achievement.
She once wrote: "How do you know you are weak and unloving? Only because the strength and love of Jesus so press upon you that, like the sun shining from behind, you see the shadow…. Either we see all in the light of him, and primarily self, or we see only him and all else is dark…. But it is up to you to accept his grace; only you can thank him for it, and let it draw you, as it is meant, to long constantly and trustfully for his purifying love."
Heather King. "Sister Wendy Beckett." Magnificat (January, 2020).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
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Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2020 Magnificat
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