SISTER Wendy Beckett, who died on 26 December, aged 88, had been a Religious, leading a solitary life for two decades before she accepted an invitation to appear in a BBC documentary about the National Gallery.
Rapidly establishing herself as an unconventional and engaging commentator, fizzing with enthusiasm, she became a household name in the 1990s, in spite of the life of seclusion which she maintained between television recording sessions.
To those who regarded her life as a hermit and a TV celebrity as self-contradictory, the response lay in her sense of obedience. “Making television isn’t the kind of prayer I would have chosen, but it’s what God chose for me,” she told her interviewer for the radio programme Desert Island Discs.
Born in South Africa in 1930, she wanted to be a nun as a child, and joined the Sisters of Notre Dame, aged 16. Her great delight was reading, and, after studying at St Anne’s College, she graduated with a Congratulatory First in English Literature from Oxford — J. R. R. Tolkein led the applause — before spending two decades working as a teacher — something that she regarded as a “martyrdom”.
Afflicted by stress-induced epileptic fits, she returned to England and became a consecrated virgin, moving into a caravan in the grounds of the Carmelite convent at Quidenham, in Norfolk, and working on Latin translation. She lived here as a hermit, rising at midnight to pray, and giving seven hours each day to her devotions.
The austerity and simplicity of this lifestyle was reflected when she was later briefly diverted into food writing for The Daily Telegraph in 1994: “Make yourself a cup of tea and cut a nice slice of brown bread,” she instructed. “Sprinkle some salt on the dish, and, if you want to be really fancy, some chopped chives. Take it and sit by the window in the sunlight and slowly and reverently eat this dish.”
Her first book on art, Contemporary Women Artists, was published in 1988. She once observed: “It is my apostolic duty to talk about art. If you don’t know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free.”
After Sister Wendy’s appearance in the National Gallery documentary, the Controller of BBC2 rang the film’s director with the instruction: “Give that nun a series.”
Her appearance in an ITV programme, Visions, described as a “beautiful vignette”, was followed two years later by her own programme, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. She was, the Church Times TV critic at that time, David Johnson, observed, “an unself-conscious natural for television”.
As well as more shows, she now gained opportunities to be a published writer on specifically religious subjects, such as the saints, icons, and prayer.
Her book Art and the Sacred was published in 1992. It contained colour illustrations of works by a range of modern artists, with her comments, which were “always scrupulously truthful”, our reviewer concluded. “Quite simply, they justify her reputation as one of the foremost art critics of our time, and one of the most accessible.”
Sister Wendy’s Book of Saints, published in 1998, was well received. “The saints are the people, weak and imperfect like ourselves, who said a total ‘Yes’ to God’s love. It is not that they were strong enough, or virtuous enough, to win his love, because that love is always freely given, but only those we call saints actually did that blessed taking; accepted the reality of being loved with all its consequences,” she wrote.
Her attitude to Sister Wendy on Prayer, published in 2007, was ambivalent. “No one would dare write a book about how a husband and wife are to talk to each other,” she commented in an interview (Features, 17 October 2007). “The whole point of prayer is that it is just us, there before the loving God. I know that the way God gives himself to me is not the way he gives himself to most people, and it’s no good just talking about God and me.”
“Sometimes, I wake up breathless with wonder at what God has given me,” she said. “My profound appeal is that he’ll make it possible for me to live up to it. I dread being someone who’ll fritter it away.”
“Her profound expositions of the paintings are deceptively simple,” wrote our TV reviewer in 2013, of Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel. “Surely, most people would be deeply moved by this programme, and drawn to the conclusion that there might be more to this Christianity stuff than they had ever thought.”
It was inevitable that the Church Times should seek to publish extracts from her books, and even invite her to contribute. It was a slightly daunting task to contact her, but no less daunting was the tiny handwriting in which her contributions returned.
For the column “Prayer for the Week” in August 2004, she chose the shortest and most immediate of biblical and other prayers, about which she wrote with a directness that came from discipline both intellectual and spiritual. Later that year, she advised on coping with a family Christmas. “Try, even for a few moments, to find a place apart. . . Be still; let the wonder become real to you; accept the child as Lord; and thank him for such inconceivable love. Let Jesus give himself. Then go back to the festivities and give him to others.”
It was to her that we turned, in 2009, for a review of a book about the darkness in Mother Teresa’s life: “This woman who felt that there was no God and lived in emotional anguish was also profoundly aware, intellectually, that God was her total life and that she lived only to love him. A word that appears frequently is ‘unwanted’.
“Mother Teresa’s life work was to care for the world’s ‘unwanted’. Her intense empathy for them may well have been fuelled by her own sense of being ‘unwanted by God’. It was only a feeling: it was not reality.”
Death is “the climax of our life, when we pass into the presence of God”, Sister Wendy observed in 2012. “It’s going to happen, whether you try to put it off or not; so why not see it as a crowning?”