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Dearest Sister Wendy: A surprising story of faith and friendship by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg

25 November 2022

These letters are full of words to be treasured, Richard Harries finds

SISTER WENDY entered the religious life at the age of 16 — a decision that she never for a moment regretted. Her order sent her to Oxford, where she read English and obtained a congratulatory First. For a number of years, she taught in South Africa, but all the time really wanting to become a contemplative. This she finally did, living in a caravan in the grounds of the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery, in Norfolk. Then, suddenly, she was discovered by the BBC, and did some successful art programmes, followed by some highly appreciated books — all this from simply looking at reproductions in the caravan.

This book is a series of letters between her and an American publisher, Robert Ellsberg, between whom, as the title suggests, there was a close, prayerful, and loving relationship. Sister Wendy is able to share her thoughts openly, and the reader is deeply grateful for being able to listen in to spiritual wisdom of great insight.

What comes across from these letters is the utter reality of God for Sister Wendy — way beyond the experience or even comprehension of most of us. She had only five hours’ sleep or less, and spent most of the night in prayer before attending mass in the morning. She had only two frugal meals a day. Her sense of God comes across as real because of the honesty of all that she writes. She is not afraid to reveal, lovingly, her doubts about others, especially Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. She was a passionate admirer of Pope Francis, and a strong supporter of women’s ordination and married priests.

In almost every letter, there are words to be treasured. Ellsberg has done a service in bringing this correspondence into the public gaze. Perhaps his next task might be to collect some of her sayings from here and elsewhere for a “Spiritual Wisdom of Sister Wendy Beckett”. In a world of frauds and phoneys, she is the real thing.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His autobiography, The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise, will be published by Christian Alternative Books in the New Year.


Dearest Sister Wendy: A surprising story of faith and friendship
Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg
Orbis Books £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.69

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