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Sister Wendy and me: an epistolary friendship

03 February 2023

Writer and publisher Robert Ellsberg draws together his correspondence with the art-historian nun in her last years


Sister Wendy Beckett inside the Anglican chapel at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, in London, in 1994

Sister Wendy Beckett inside the Anglican chapel at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, in London, in 1994

LIKE countless others, I first discovered Sister Wendy by accident. If someone had told me that there was a programme on television featuring an English nun talking about art, I might have skipped it, imagining something pious or didactic.

Instead, I had the joy one evening of being taken by surprise, when I alighted on a small, medieval-looking nun with big glasses, lively and intelligent features, and an English accent of indeterminate origin, who strolled about in a museum while reflecting aloud on what she saw. I couldn’t look away.

I learned that she was a “consecrated virgin”, who lived as a hermit on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England. Somehow, she had found the means to become an avid student of art history, and, by some even more unlikely means, she had been discovered by the BBC and given her own television series, thereby becoming an even more unlikely celebrity.

The initiative in our first interaction came from her. I had been working for many years as editorial director of Orbis Books, a publishing house owned by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a Catholic missionary society based in New York. Orbis had a reputation for publishing works on liberation theology from Latin America and other works by theologians that kept officials at the Vatican awake at night. But we had also published the English edition of an authoritative multi-volume history of the Second Vatican Council.

One day, I received a handwritten note — very difficult to decipher — asking on behalf of the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery in England if we might have a damaged set of these expensive volumes to donate to their library. The letter came from Sister Wendy.

I responded at once, assuring her that I would happily donate these books to the sisters. Over many years, I received scores of short notes from Sister Wendy, sometimes on picture postcards, but often (in a testament to her frugality) written on the backs of envelopes, or on hotel stationery filched during her travels.


I CAME to publish four books by Sister Wendy, the first two describing her discovery and exploration of the earliest Byzantine icons of Mary and Jesus. Besides her television fame, Sister Wendy was also a noted author, having written several major books on art history, as well as short books featuring spiritual meditations on favourite works of art.

For Sister Wendy, art was a vehicle for talking about the things of highest importance. Her response to art was not a digression from her contemplative life but an expression of it. Reflecting on beauty was for her an entry to reflection on the source of Beauty. And, as she later wrote me, her work as a guide to art history was actually a kind of ministry — a way of talking about God to an audience who might otherwise be uncomfortable with religious language.

Eventually, this public apostolate faded, and she was happy to return to the hidden life of solitude and prayer to which she had dedicated herself since 1970.

I had worked with Dorothy Day for the last five years of her life. I returned to college just months before her death in November 1980, and soon after I had decided to become a Roman Catholic. Some years earlier, Dorothy had named me as (a very young) managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper, an assignment that pointed me in the direction of my life’s work — not just as an editor, but also as her editor.

After her death, I edited her Selected Writings, and also, many years later, her diaries and her selected letters. Sister Wendy, who adored Dorothy Day, became a great fan of these volumes.

I would not have pretended that we were close friends, however. We shared a mutual esteem, and certainly a set of passionate interests and values. But Sister Wendy never crossed the boundary of true intimacy, and I respected that limitation.


THESE boundaries were even more in place after she completely retired from public life and was forced by declining health to abandon her “caravan” on the monastery grounds and move into a room within the monastery cloister. In a letter of 2013, which seemed to be closing the door, she wrote to me. “I like communicating with you . . . but if I’m to live a life of silence, communication without a real purpose has got to be sacrificed. Of course, sometimes there is a real purpose, which I accept with joy.”

But, three years later, the door was surprisingly opened. Evidently, communication had found its “true purpose”. It began in the spring of 2016 when an Easter card from Sister Wendy apparently went astray. Sister Wendy was now attended once a day by an American nun, Sister Lesley Lockwood, who delivered her frugal provisions and helped with correspondence. Sister Lesley would read aloud the day’s emails, and Sister Wendy would dictate a reply, which Sister Lesley transcribed on her laptop.

In the beginning, these letters focused on our common interest in saints and the general subject of holiness. I found that the best way to elicit personal reflections from Sister Wendy was to write about my own spiritual journey and experiences. Sister Wendy had a great aversion to self-examination. Yet, gradually, she began to open up, recounting aspects of her story, sharing with remarkable candour an assessment of her own character, and opening up an extraordinary window on her soul.


20 July 2016

Courtesy of Robert EllsbergSister Wendy and Robert Ellsberg meet for the first and only time, in November 2017, on his visit to QuidenhamI have always been aware that God was all that mattered and that He held me to Himself, which has spared me a lot of unnecessary turmoil. I don’t think though that, temperamentally, I’m all that placid. (Sister Lesley nods approvingly.) But dear Robert, I have always been absolutely unable to make judgments about myself. I can only trust to God that I’m not in dire need of spiritual reform, living in a cloud cuckoo-land of illusion. But you know, even if I am, I don’t really care because Jesus is our life and He will put all right and tell me if something needs to be done.

I’m always deep in admiration of those who can analyse themselves and I got into a lot of trouble with the novice mistress because I couldn’t tell her my predominant vice. (I could only say hopelessly, “I think I’ve got all of them, Sister.”) And as for predominant virtue, I couldn’t find a single one. This was frowned upon and I was told that all spiritual authorities insist on self-knowledge as the foundation of virtue. I tried to suggest that perhaps God’s knowledge would do, but this went down very badly.


7 August 2016

When I came to live in solitude, it was solely to give myself to prayer. In those early days, at the beginning of the ’70s, I took it for granted that part of that prayer would be a sharing in the Divine Office, and I walked up from the caravan for every hour, except Compline. But I began to realise that apart from the disruption of leaving the caravan so often during the day, the psalms were just too much for me. A line, perhaps only a few words, so fills me with light and joy that it is difficult to continue with the chant.

I live in a room now at the far end of the monastery and leave it once a day when my dear carer wheels me to Mass. It’s a lovely room with a tiny kitchen and a tinier bathroom on either side, and it has two big windows. They only look out on brick walls, the sisters’ choir, and the back of the monastery, but I can see a little triangle of sky at the top.

My room is luminous with icons and, at the window sill, there’s some most beautiful glass, and I have huge bookcases with art books in them. Everything I look at speaks to me of Our Blessed Lord.


9 August 2016

From about 15 on, I did see that we were held always in His hands and with us, everything else. So, although I would not say I’m a natural contemplative (I think I’m too superficial), I can’t remember a time when I found any obstacle in my path. By the way, don’t think I’m being humble, I just cannot express my triviality of mind in ways that would make it understandable to anybody but God.

Once or twice I have had letters from people lamenting what they call a poor self-image, but I am quite happy with this poor image. I don’t have to look at myself or feel any concern because there is God to look at, infinitely more wonderful.


13 August 2016

I feel I must make it quite clear to you dearest Robert that I really don’t know myself and that any statements I make may not be true. This doesn’t bother me at all, because I can’t see any point in trying to know myself. I feel that’s God’s business and He will make it quite clear to me if something that I do or think has to change.


8 September 2016

Alas, there is no Saint Wendy. I have always very much disliked this name and have constantly sought to find some saint who would illumine it. The best I ever found was Saint Wendolin, patron saint of cows.

I was greatly rejoiced when I entered the convent to be able to leave Wendy completely behind me and receive a new religious name. I wanted one of dignity that did not reveal too much about my inner life and I was very happy to be Sister Michael. When Vatican II suggested that there was a sort of unreality in this practice, and that nuns might consider taking back their baptismal names, I knew with sinking heart that the Church was pointing straight at me.


15 September 2016

The greatest sin of my life is my unkindness to my sister. I once said that on a television programme, and the reviewer got very upset and said that all siblings fight. But it wasn’t that I fought with her, I simply blotted her out. As far as I was concerned there was only one child in the family and that was me.

A psychologist who heard that interview wrote to me saying that she thought I might have mild Asperger’s, and, if that were so, I would not have been able to relate more to my family. My friends used to say to me that I never seemed to need people, though, of course, I liked and took great delight in their company. But Sister Rachel told me once that she’d seen a change since I came here. She felt there’d been a real movement of love that involved me with people in a way that would never have been natural to me. If this is true, then it was a miracle of grace, a miracle unfortunately coming too late for my poor siblings.


2 December 2016

ALAMY/BBCDuring filming of the 1997 BBC programme Sister Wendy’s Story of PaintingWe flow from God’s being — or if we like He sings us, and only He knows what His song will be. I think of myself as a sort of breath that He breathes, only there because of Him and having no objective reality outside of that holy creative and sustaining Breath. It’s a nice fantasy to play with, but I think the reality is so infinitely more beautiful and even exciting, because we have the adventure every day into what He will make of us, with nothing settled and nothing limited. It’s all an eternal coming forth from Love.

11 December 2016

When my mother, gritting her teeth, bless her, offered to explain the “facts of life”, I told her I didn’t need to know, because I was going to be a nun. During my novitiate, when it dawned upon me that I had somehow signed on to be a teaching nun, I realised I had a duty to know and I asked the novice mistress. She gave me a little book, a book so repulsive that I knew at once it had nothing to do with God. It explained how bodies worked, but surrounded it with dense mists of fear of sin. Even to think about the act of sex might mean damnation, according to this book.

I knew God well enough and had read enough secular literature to know how important sexuality was for people to be absolutely certain that He couldn’t have made us with a deep-rooted need, which was also a supreme pleasure, that was in any way sinful. I saw that this whole question was not one that would concern me, except to be grateful to God for the beautiful things He gave His children, and to pray that people would use these gifts in the way He intended.

11 February 2017

Would that every saint had a granddaughter or a sister or a parent spilling the beans about them. Then people would realise how holiness is meant to be deeply human, non-perfectionist, part of a world in which people have to scrub floors and sweep drives and make foolish mistakes, irritate their best friends quite unwittingly, and be a nuisance generally.


15 February 2017

God gives us so many ways of entering into our vulnerability and contingency. If we don’t get it from the natural world, we can get it as we age from the physical world, and all the time for everybody from the emotional world. Only the spiritual world, the world of the Father and His Son and our sharing in their life through the Holy Spirit, is utterly safe and true and dependable.


16 March 2017

This Church that acts truly as the mystical body of Jesus, working without thought of self for all people who need help, moves me very deeply. That is Dorothy Day’s Church, isn’t it? — wounded and dirty and hungry but looking always at the Father. She grows and grows in my mind as the saint of the century. As you know, I’ve a deep sense of Flannery O’Connor’s holiness but her compass was small as God willed it to be. Dorothy though takes the whole world into her fragile arms.


17 March 2017

Doesn’t everybody know in their hearts that there is a “Something”? If we haven’t been fortunate enough to be taught, we may not be able to name that something, but, in art and music and literature, in all the beauty of nature, and in the tenderness of human relationships, we touch or glimpse or catch a scent of that Something.


3 April 2017

I have a great friend who has been a benefactor for many years, and she “owns” Norwich City Football Club, in which I have therefore always taken an interest. I used to ask to see the papers on a Monday to find out how they were doing, but I stopped some time ago because it was getting me too worked up — something which I “never want to be”.


14 January 2018

Letters have always interested me as a literary genre. It’s in his letters that you see the full extent of C. S. Lewis’ s Christianity and of Dorothy Sayers’s deep and intelligent commitment to the faith. What makes Dorothy Day’s letters so outstanding is the conviction they convey of her holiness. The letters in a way are her life lived out before us. I don’t think there’s anything like them for simple beauty and power. Just to read them is to know what it means to love God. Thomas Merton’s letters don’t do that. What they show is the incredibly diverse interests of this gifted and stressed man of God.


15 January 2018

I’ve never understood why anybody should want to be anything but a hermit. I remember once when I was still in community, people discussing their ideal afternoon, and several said to be talking with their friends. I think I kept my face impassive but I thought it was a hideous notion. Of this I am not proud.


15 March 2018

I finished [Henri] Nouwen’s letters and must confess that once or twice I couldn’t but smile at the innocence of his self-preoccupation. To lay down your life for your friends: he is right to see this as essential. But his reading of it is that you explain yourself fully, opening all your vulnerabilities to your friends. Who else has thought that? The normal reading is that it means that you forget yourself and take on fully the life of your friend. I don’t think he could have understood that.

Yet, I am struck by a great similarity with Merton. Amidst all his frustrations, angers, fears, and illusions, Merton struggled always toward God. In a less complex manner Nouwen struggled through his neediness always toward God. They’re wonderful examples of how temperament can never stand in the way. Both were in a sense badly equipped to be holy, but their very weaknesses occasioned a longing and a love that the more balanced would not have.


17 July 2018

My own feeling about gender is that it doesn’t really matter. It seems to me that what we love in our friends is their humour and their goodness and their intelligence. And what gender they are doesn’t play any part in this. I’ve been told that I’m wrong, and that women and men are basically different, but I simply can’t see it. There are probably superficial differences, as there are physically; but the essence of a person seems, to me, quite unrelated to what gender they are.

So, I will look forward with interest to seeing what reactions there are to this new venerable [Juana de la Cruz Vázquez y Gutiérrez, a 16th-century Spanish mystic and abbess], and whether an openness to sexuality might herald a beginning of a change toward women and the priesthood. I’ve never wanted to be a priest myself, but to say no woman can be a priest because Jesus was a man does not seem to me to be according to the mind of God.


10 November 2018

My happy downward path continues, but I haven’t the energy to describe it.


1 December 2018 (Sister Wendy’s last letter to all friends)

I know you will be sad but I hope also very happy for me that I am close to death . . . When the day comes, I want you to turn to God with great thankfulness for all He has given me. This is the time of the deepest joy . . .

P. S. How embarrassing it will be and depressing if the Lord works a miracle, and I don’t die after all!


Sister Wendy died on 26 December 2018, aged 88. These are edited extracts from Dearest Sister Wendy: A surprising story of faith and friendship by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg, published by Orbis Books at £22.99 (Church Times Bookshop £20.69); 978-1-62698-475-2 (Books, 25 November 2022).

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