Sister Wendy Beckett
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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