Sister Wendy Beckett
Others will write of Sister Wendy Beckett, who found fame in the 1990s with her popular TV documentaries, as an art critic and public figure. This is a tribute to a woman for whom God was her very life.
Born in South Africa, Sr Wendy joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order, in 1947 at the age of 16. After studying at Oxford University, she returned to South Africa in 1954 to teach but, after 15 years, she was forced to give up the classroom after having epileptic seizures. Her Superior gave permission for her to pursue a life of solitude and prayer, and she came to live in a small caravan in the grounds of the Carmelite monastery at Quidenham in Norfolk in 1970.
As prioress of the monastery, I came to know her well. Almost immediately I perceived the presence of a rare and profound spirituality and was struck with awe before her manifest love for God and wisdom.
These were beyond anything I had hitherto encountered. This woman really knew God and loved him with an all-absorbing passion. She opened up for me a mysterious, unimaginable dimension. Nearly 50 years of close association never diminished my veneration. Lovingly, she took me into her confidence, supporting me in my anxieties and struggles, chuckled with me over human idiosyncrasies, to the point of helpless laughter. Vulnerable and sensitive, she too could weep and need support and reassurance.
One needed courage and earnestness to expose oneself to Wendy: her spiritual penetration was formidable. However, like our compassionate Lord, she never crushed the bruised reed. I consider myself infinitely blessed by her friendship and am not alone in seeing her as one of the greatest graces God bestowed on our community. Not only did she inspire and enrich us, but those of the community who seriously wished for it could draw on her wisdom. Our protection and care for her was rewarded by her total devotion to the community.
For the first 16 to 18 years she lived here, poorly housed, in deep solitude. This long period of isolation was essential. The impact of God which, from childhood, pressed upon her, took toll of her psychic as well as bodily health and, viewed from a normal human standpoint, she lacked balance.
The strain of trying to “keep God at bay” had she to continue dealing with ordinary affairs, would, I believe, have killed her. She had to erect barriers, unconsciously as well as consciously. From her teens onwards, reading became one of the principal means of “protection” from the intensity of light and love which otherwise would have made her oblivious to all else.
Experiencing herself odd and other people baffling – it was some time before she realised that her inner light was not shared by others – humanly speaking Wendy was lonely and found companionship in books, which she read with incredible concentration and rapidity. Not surprisingly, her behaviour could be disconcerting and sometimes seem self-centred.
Responsible as I was for my community, as well as for our outside dependants and employees, it caused me no little anxiety. I was concerned too as her friend. However, when I spoke with her about these things I was completely reassured. Wendy had no role model and was totally devoid of interest in her self-image and what others thought of her. Her intent was simply to please God. The realisation that she could upset people and, worse still, appear selfish, was a real grief to her and she would wail to me, “Why didn’t God choose someone who wouldn’t disgrace him?”
It was not always easy to explain her to others. How could one speak to the down-to-earth good Catholic of an awareness of God that made all else seem unreal? Still, good, kind people themselves discerned her kindness, simplicity and defencelessness. When she made her first tentative sorties “into the world” how often we cringed as we read of her social ineptitude. It hurt us to see her laughed at as one laughs at a loveable clown.
Like the rest of us, Wendy matured and, as I conjecture, God’s transforming grace took over more and more of her person, strengthening her to bear the inner weight, and this resulted in greater human balance and poise. There was not the same need for protection. Doors that self-preservation had kept shut, were opened, and she was able to engage graciously with the world. Gradually, the conviction grew that God asked her to sacrifice her solitude to communicate his beauty and love to others through art. Only he knows the costliness of the sacrifice.
“I sit looking over the vast sprawl of Los Angeles – it all seems deeply unreal to me but I know it is real to God and precious to him …” People mattered infinitely to God, and she was prepared to work for them until she could work no more.
Anyone who knew Wendy would recognise her rare inner freedom deriving from her security in God as total love. An aspect of this was independence of mind. She was not afraid to hold opinions on theology, on the Church, and on perplexing ethical problems, largely of the sexual order, she encountered in people she met. This intellectual and spiritual freedom notwithstanding, she was profoundly and loyally Catholic, with an enormous appreciation of the sacraments. The Mass was the centre of her life and she would crawl to it if necessary. “I need it to get through the day,” she said.
She pleaded the cause of frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, seeing it not merely as a personal matter but as involving the holiness of the whole Church. When her caravan decayed her Carmelite sisters moved her into a well-insulated prefabricated hut, and in her final years she lived in the monastery itself. At the end of a stint of work away, Wendy would return home utterly spent but “blissfully happy” to be once again in “this blessed solitude and given the certainty that here I can live surrendered to the mysterious love-weight”.
Wendy Mary Beckett, nun and art critic, born 25 February 1930, Johannesburg; died 26 December 2018, East Harling, Norfolk.
Sister Rachel Gregory is a Carmelite nun from Quidenham, Norfolk, UK and the author (as Ruth Burrows) of a number of books, including The Essence of Prayer.