Since last we corresponded a significant little figure who added her own beautiful take on how to understand the wonder of human creativity has died. She was the unexpected television star, winning a following the world over as she made the journey from country to country, gallery to gallery, work of art to work of art, to contemplate the essence of what she saw before her.
Sister Wendy Beckett was a natural guide and teacher. A nun vowed to the life of prayer and simplicity, she responded to the invitation to share her insights into the world’s great art because, in faith, she believed that was what God was asking of her. She had never seen a television program, much less understood what had to go into making one. Producers were initially perplexed by her as she refused to provide them with a script. She would talk off the cuff about what she saw before her, drawing spontaneously from the many hours of study she had put into her favourite hobby. When asked about this she responded: ‘I simply talk to the person behind the camera, trying as simply as I can to explain how the particular piece of art I’m standing before is impacting on me’. To have a script (much less, a rehearsal) would have made the conversation she was having with the camera operator stilted. This would have got into the way of our seeing into her soul.
We caught a glimpse of a woman who was the living embodiment of that famous phrase from the philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard: ‘purity of heart is to will one thing’. Sister Wendy only wanted one thing: to experience and reflect the love of God. An unwitting interviewer asked her once: ‘if all you want is silence, prayer and the love of God, why are you doing these television series?’ The reason to her was obvious. ‘I have the special privilege of experiencing the love of God in my life, for others it is not so easy. There are those who are so removed from that experience of God that they even believe God does not exist. The nearest a person who doesn’t believe in God gets to experiencing the wonder and beauty of God, is by contemplating the wonder and beauty of human art.’
It was faith and compassion that motivated her. When asked what she made of the society into which she would occasionally make her way, she responded: ‘I see people always hurrying about, searching for something. My heart goes out to them. Don’t they know that what they are looking for is all around them and inside them?’ By inviting people to sit and contemplate art (she once said a chair is essential if you are to have any hope of understanding a work of art), Sister Wendy did her best to encourage people to stop, take note, and so be open to something more than the superficial. It is the path to finding God and, paradoxically, to finding ourselves.
Sister Wendy’s Wisdom
Sister Wendy Beckett wrote extensively on the topics of art and prayer. In the introduction to her book "Sister Wendy on Prayer", she said that when writing about art, "we are really dealing only with opinions..." but when it came to prayer, "these are not just my personal opinions, these are my convictions about what is deepest in our lives, most integral to being human: our relationship with God."
In addition Sister Wendy’s books, we are fortunate to have easy access to an extensive video library of her insights and wisdom on a wide range of topics, always drawing us in to find peace in the midst of chaos:
Sister Wendy's Story of Painting: https://youtu.be/QBv0HezlOBw
Interview with Bill Moyers: https://youtu.be/8pJsyXM0uVI
10 Rules for Appreciating Art by Sister Wendy Beckett (RIP): http://www.openculture.com/2018/12/10-rules-for-appreciating-art-by-sister-wendy-beckett.html
This article is part of Faith Journey, a newsletter from the National Centre for Evangelisation.