A Contemplative Nun
One of the wonderful things about a museum is how you're jolted into confronting art from strange and wonderful civilizations and you look and learn and expand your horizons.
Sister Wendy Beckett
As an atheist I'm crossing to the other side here, but this is a little hub dedicated to my favourite nun, Sister Wendy Beckett. Beckett became a popular media performer in the 1990s with her BBC Art series. Her softly mesmerising voice, humour, sincere style and obvious art appreciation resonated with audiences and she emerged something of a *star*.
South African born, Beckett was raised in Edinburgh and became a nun with the order of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1946. Upon completion of her novitiate, she earned an honorary first from Oxford University in English literature. In South Africa she became a teacher, university lecturer and eventually Reverend Mother. However teaching in the outside world didn't suit. After gaining permission from the Vatican to live a withdrawn life, she became a consecrated virgin in 1970 and a contemplative hermit. Apart from some outside academic studies, she lived most of her adult life in a convent which maintained a strict code of silence.
While not a Carmelite herself, she lived in a caravan, under the protection of the Carmelites, on the grounds of a monastery in Norfolk, England. Beckett spent seven hours a day in prayer and left the caravan only to attend mass and collect a basket of food for the day. Concerns about carrying her weight financially led Sister Wendy to begin writing for British journals, followed by a book on women in contemporary art.
An unlikely TV star, Beckett was 'discovered' by BBC producer, Nicholas Rossiter, who thought her accessible, quirky personality and academic prowess would be a good combination to front an art series. Rossiter's instincts proved correct and her television success allowed her to travel the world and view face-to-face the works of art she previously had only seen in slides, books and postcards. The Carmelites received her entire BBC salary and in return she was given a bigger caravan with a library included.
Art and God
Beckett sees no conflict between her religious beliefs and her foray into the art world. Indeed to her, there is a close connection between art and God. In an interview with Sarah Macdonald Beckett declared:
"Art is beauty and God is beauty. If you can get people to look at art; you are bringing them closer to Him, even if they don't know His name."
In the video below and with characteristic candour, Sister Wendy discusses Andres Serrano's notorious Piss Christ.
A Cheerleader for Art
What I like most about Sister Wendy, apart from the refreshingly clear and articulate way she expresses herself, is her enthusiasm for art. With her quiet, gentle manner she somehow manages to draw me into whatever work she is postulating about - often pointing out some subtelty or nuance that I'd missed. She sees the humanity in the works and is able to readily translate her appreciation of this to the viewer. Working without a script, the producers never know what she will say...yet it all seems to come out so easily. Perhaps those years of contemplation have led to a rich inner resource that she can tap into on demand.
In her documentary, The Story of Art Sister Wendy visited some cave paintings, which led her to the following observation:
"And so you see, scientifically these are primitive people. Because science advances. It’s like a ladder....one step leads to another, but art isn’t like that. Art is about being human. Children make art instinctively. Archeologists know when they find evidence of art they’ve found evidence of human beings. It expresses all that is best in us. Our desires, our hopes, our truth. And so art changes, but it doesn’t get better."
Art is about being human...each age of art is an expression of our humanness and thus no era of that expression is superior to another.
Sister Wendy has not been universally loved - she has had her critics. Some have described her as 'looking like a caricature' with her prominent teeth and sweet expression and she's been accused of 'slyly preaching Christ while no-one is looking'. According to the New York Times, "If so, she is running the
grubbiest and most devious little con that Rome ever schemed up." Conversely, she has also been criticized by Catholics for her globe-trotting and taking on the vulgar celebrity mantle when she was supposed to be a contemplative hermit. It seems it's a case of damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Germain Greer accused her of 'girlish vim', and wondered how a professional virgin could be in a position to know anything about the fleshy, carnal desires portrayed in art.
In an interview with The Independent journalist Ian Parker, Sister Wendy responded to such criticism:
'I'm hurt by people saying things about me that wound me. I'm not above it, but I don't think they're doing it to wound me. They probably think that only a very vain person would mind. I think people's minds are a complete mystery, they're even a mystery to themselves. And what motives are, I don't think anybody can say. I've always been convinced that I became a nun because that's the thing I wanted most in the world and that it was because of God. To me that's the whole of it. But it could well be that that's just a part of it, and part of it is also a very plain and unattractive girl wanting to hide away from future rejection. I'm not saying that's . . . but it could have been. We don't know what our motives are.'
She seems to be offering a slight hint here of a complex personality that perhaps desired a place in the world, yet feared it at the same time.
In an article in "The Irish Catholic" Sister Wendy declared she has had no regrets about her decision to become a nun at 16. "I had wonderful dreams of what religious life would be and my life has far surpassed my dreams. I had no idea that one could be so happy and contented. I would like to have been a better nun but I do believe I've been very privileged."At the same time, she does acknowledge that becoming a nun is a diminishing vocation and that this isn't necessarily a negative. While it worked for her, she is fully aware it's not for everyone.
Entering the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1946, there were 40 others in the novitiate with her. "Most of them were girls who had just come out of the army -it was just after the war. When I was young, if you wanted to give yourself wholly to God, the only thing was to become a nun. Now we realise that there are many other ways to give yourself to God, like getting married, being a bus conductor, an explorer, a doctor or a journalist."
Somehow Beckett has found a happy compromise between her celebrity and her contemplative life and seems to find nourishment and enjoyment in both. Hers is an extraordinary story of a woman who sought detachment from the world and yet found herself in the thick of it late in life. She has certainly given pleasure to many viewers and lovers of art through her television series..and that can't be a bad thing.