Sister Wendy BECKETT, Spiritual Letters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013. pp. 305. $24.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-051-8. Reviewed by Fran LEAP, Seton Hill University, Greensburg, PA 15601
Her BBC documentaries on art history have made Sr. Wendy rather well known as “the art nun.” Her subsequent publications opened for readers the religious depth of artwork revealing the face of divine beauty, perhaps most notably in the little books on the earliest icons of Jesus and Mary. What makes this latest text so attractive is the glimpse it provides of Sr. Wendy before her public life, a time when her love for art and depth of spiritual wisdom were developed and explored in letters with Ann, another sister, friend, benefactor, and spiritual companion. Here it is spiritual guidance that is the focus and discussion of artwork serves to illumine the journey.
Ann befriended Sr. Wendy as the latter made her transition from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to her life as a consecrated hermit on grounds of the Carmelite monastery at Norfolk, England in 1971. Sr. Wendy subsequently offers spiritual wisdom as Ann, holding positions of responsibility in her own Order, encounters the challenges of post-Vatican II renewal for religious communities, assumes the role of Principal at an Order-run college, and eventually makes her own transition to sabbatical and new plans. This correspondence covers the years 1970 to 1986.
We have the uncanny privilege in this text to encounter the heart of a contemporary mystic as Sr. Wendy holds up Ann to the Lord and attempts to reflect back His will for her in keen insight, consoling reminder, and gentle admonition. The Christ-centered character of the writing is its central illumination and constant theme. “Everything in your life He has designed to free you of self and expand your heart to enter into His limitless Love.” (182) Submission and surrender are the goal and process of this spiritual life. Sr. Wendy’s writing is a steady heartbeat of lessons in self-emptying, a consultation on spiritual growth for Ann and for the reader. For this reason the text is not a quick read. The letters are certainly not long; but little at a time is all a reader can digest because of the rich fare they offer.
We are also privileged to read a chronicle of Sr. Wendy’s developing study of art through the many art texts that Ann is able to provide for her. “The books you give me are such a source of spiritual happiness… they are a way of praying very precious to me” (63) At the outset of the correspondence Sr. Wendy declares her conviction that “art keeps us alive to God in a way that no other human activity can measure up to.”(8) Her writings become an embodiment of that divine life in beautifully poetic ways. “Art is form of prayer I value because it deepens in me my womanhood. It makes me more ‘there’ for His possessing.” (20)
The wealth of the spiritual life and the rich commentary on the artworks they studied, contrasts sharply with the simplicity of Sr. Wendy’s life as a hermit. At one point we are startled to realize that she was dealing with the health consequences of a case of frostbite brought on by the poor heating system in her caravan. Her humor shines through as well, when having irretrievably misplaced an art card that Ann had sent to her, Sr. Wendy confesses that she “can only conclude that a Kangaroo has eaten it.” (179)
Centered in the book are eight color prints of paintings to which Sr. Wendy makes reference in her exchange with Ann. Unfortunately the color plates may have driven the choice of paper for the whole text: glossy stock belies the spiritual simplicity of the content, and produces pages that are prone to escape their binding.
It was Ann who first proposed to Sr. Wendy that she might share her spiritual commentary on art with wider audiences. We can certainly bless the Spirit that Ann urged, Wendy pursued, and Orbis responded. Add this foundational text of spirituality and art to the several volumes that have flowed from it as glimpses of that grace in which all may “cohere in His Beauty.” (161)