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Postcards from a solitary

28 March 2013

Peter McGeary enjoys the spiritual 'letters' of a famous art-lover

Spiritual Letters
Sister Wendy Beckett
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer £12.99 (signed copies available) (Use code CT602 )

IN A world of communication increasingly dominated by email and Twitter, we seem to be losing the art of letter-writing. The ability to send short, instant messages to one another is replacing the slower, more considered method of committing something to paper. And yet writing survives: nothing electronic can quite replace the hand written thank-you letter, or the card sending love or sympathy or advice. Such things are kept and treasured.

Christians know all this already, of course. They started writing letters to one another very early on in the Church's history, and some of the best are read still, day by day, from the pages of what became the New Testament. Some were baffling to their readers - they still are: that is part of their attraction - and some seem to deal with relatively mundane matters of order (1 Timothy, for instance). And some have a have a mixed reception in the history of the Church (Martin Luther was not all that happy with the Letter of James).

Letter-writing did not stop with the New Testament, of course: Christians have been doing it ever since, both to encourage and admonish. Sister Wendy Beckett's Spiritual Letters are the latest in a very long line indeed.

Sister Wendy is an extraordinary character, a nun called to a solitary life who is nevertheless hugely well known, mainly through her writings and her television programmes about art. For her, appreciation of art can never stop at the level of mere entertainment; it is a means by which human beings are in- vited to "go deeper". Many of the "letters" here are not actually letters at all, but short notes scribbled on the back of postcards, asking the recipient to look a bit more closely at some detail or other of the painting reproduced on the other side.

The greater part of this collection is from an extended correspondence with another nun, and covers roughly the period after Sister Wendy's transfer from being part of an active teaching order to living the life of a solitary. Other letters, to those both inside and outside convent walls, are rounded off with a selection of "spiritual notes".

This book is not a systematic exposition of "the spiritual life", but, rather, a collection of short personal notes from one person to another, sometimes dealing with the mundane, sometimes with the pro-found. This means that there are, inevitably, many explanatory footnotes, which can be frustrating in their number. There are many references to paintings, but it has not been possible to reproduce them all, which is a shame: there is always going to be something incomplete about words about images.


Here, like St Paul, we have a very readable mixture: laced with everyday enquiries are observations about living the Christian life in an age of great upheaval in the Church, especially for the religious orders. At the centre of it all is an intense devotion to the Lord, with a firm and unshakeable trust, and a resolve to endure all things for his sake, not in a dour denial of art and beauty, but in the precise opposite: an intense contemplation that leads us deeper into that perfection of beauty and truth to which all art worthy of the name aspires.

I have a friend with an elderly, housebound mother who is a great fan of Sister Wendy. She is one of those many people whom our society (and Church) so easily forgets, because of age or incapacity, and yet she uses what others see as her afflictions as an opportunity to grow into a more reflective, contemplative state. She will be getting a copy of this book.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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