I’ve not heard her speak at a conference, have never been told charming dinner party anecdotes about her (even from my most well-connected Roman Catholic friends), and have not had occasional to glimpse, live and in person, Sister Wendy Beckett.
Chances are, neither have you. The British nun and art historian, now 82 years old, lives in seclusion in a trailer (or “caravan,” if you like) on the grounds of a monastery in England. Reportedly, she converses with only two people: the nun who brings her daily provisions and the prioress of the monastery. She speaks mostly to God; she spends her days in prayer.
Although the women who have the privilege of exchanging words with her over stacks of fresh linens or freshly-baked loaves of bread have been satisfied to keep her to themselves, in God’s mercy God obviously felt like it was important to share Sister Wendy with the rest of us. Over the past twenty years, through her numerous books and documentaries on art and faith, Sister Wendy has made profound – though admittedly occasional – forays into my life.
Observing her faithfulness and humility (she describes herself as “shabby and cowardly”), I have found my shallow faith and self-absorption challenged.
Listening to her reflections on art, my swirling, elusive ideas about particular works have been captured and articulated more exquisitely than I could have ever hoped to do:
Why is Bernini's work is so compelling? “He’s not interested in the static, but in the moment.”
How is it that a fragment of an Egyptian sculpture holds such power over me? It’s because, in modern society, “We are frightened of perfection…”
(Is one allowed to have a crush on a nun? I mean a platonic one?)
Her wisdom and charm are inescapable. Just look at Charlie Rose positively falling over himself when he interviews Sister Wendy on his eponymous program. (He’s giggling for crying out loud.)
And it’s neither her overbite nor the glasses that somehow conjure Owl from A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh that has Charlie Rose smitten. It’s her Sister-Wendy-ness that bowls him over when she tells Rose that she wants “to say yes to life.”
Even Saturday Night Live had to parody Sister Wendy back in the late 1990s when her popularity on PBS was soaring. They, like almost everyone else who talks to – or about – this woman, made a point to highlight the unabashed ease with which she discusses sensuality and nudes in art. Unlike the Betty Whites of today, Sister Wendy (a consecrated virgin) is not compelled to talk dirty or to sexualize herself to keep herself “relevant.”
Yet she does speak, with grace and dignity, about nakedness and sex. (Is that so titillating? An eighty year old virgin whose heart and body belong to her God who can talk frankly about sex and appreciate the loveliness of the human form? Sure, it makes for a good SNL sketch, but I love that she seems to be nothing but puzzled whenever an interviewer asks, as interviewers inevitably do, “How can you talk about sexuality? I mean, as a …”)
Sister Wendy shines with a kind of delight, modesty, and love that we rarely see in real, live human beings. Every time I visit with her over the pages of one of her books or as mediated through a television screen, she makes more attractive to me that God to whom she’s given her life. The one she chats with in the trailer in England and the one who, likely bursting with pride over his stunning creation, has kindly made sure that the rest of us have the opportunity to feel her soul shine its healing light on us.
She is the “sister I’d most like to thank.”
Jennifer Grant is the author of Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and her latest, released last month: MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. Find her online at jennifergrant.com.
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