In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff are reflecting, in honour of International Women’s Day, on women who have inspired them. Here Chaplaincy Community Worker Joanna Grennan writes about Wendy Beckett.
I first encountered Sister Wendy Beckett when I was looking after my Granny after a hospital trip meant that she needed to stay with my family for a while. Whilst trying to find something on the TV we would both enjoy, I came across a BBC Documentary about an art critic nun; this sounded like something we’d both enjoy. From that day, like many who experience her fascinating and exciting way of communicating truth through art, I was hooked. As a lover of art and faith, I found her insights fascinating and I now have a pretty impressive chunk of her books that I’m frequently inspired by.
Sister Wendy was born in South Africa and grew up in Edinburgh. Having an experience of being known and loved by God in her early years, Wendy’s life changed forever and that knowledge of the love of God never left her. She stated that she could not remember a time when she did not want to be a nun. Wendy joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Roman Catholic congregation of religious sisters dedicated to education, at age 16. She was sent to England where she completed her novitiate and then went on to study English Literature at Oxford University, achieving one of the highest grades ever recorded, by her tutor JRR Tolkien. Taking the guidelines of her religious order seriously, Sister Wendy made it through all 3 years of her degree without ever having a single conversation with another student.
For the last 47 years of her life Sister Wendy lived the austere life of a hermit, gladly undergoing the solidarity usually reserved for the purpose of breaking hardened criminals. Her hermitage, a trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery, contained minimal furniture: a desk, a table, a chair, a bed and a window with a view of trees. No radio, TV or computer. The only clue to Sister Wendy’s personality was her countless postcards of various art works propped up on every available surface. Here she dedicated her life to prayer and solitude. Sister Wendy followed a schedule that most of us would find unusual; however, for her, it was a pragmatic way to ensure that she wasn’t disturbed, waking up at 1:30am when the silent hours of the night were seldom broken.
To keep a necessary balance in a life of solitude, Sister Wendy built time for work into her day to earn her living. Wendy wrote her first book ‘Contemporary Women Artists’ and started contributing to the magazine ‘Modern Painters’. Upon reading her work, a producer from the BBC persuaded Sister Wendy to take part in a documentary about the National Gallery. In 1991 Sister Wendy the ‘art nun’ was thrust into the limelight and the nation found her fascinating and entertaining. Speaking about this later she said that if she had known what this would turn into, she probably would have said no.
Being in the limelight was always a sacrifice for Sister Wendy who thrived on silence and contemplation. On film sets she managed to create a personal mini-hermitage whilst waiting for the crew to set up sitting on her own in silence. Infamously, her favourite time of the filming process was the taking of the ‘room tone’. This is the moment at the end of filming when the sound man asks for silence for 30 seconds to record the background atmosphere for ease of transitions in editing. Sister Wendy, through her unconventional but authentically beautiful, radical life, inspires me to be myself. Throughout her life, in close communication with God, she found her calling; to live simply, in silence, with God. She consistently challenged preconceptions of what a conventional nun should be like, and brought many to encounter faith and love through her mediations on art. She never looked down on the viewer, instead, she invited them to stand with her and share in her appreciation of what she saw. It always brings a smile to my face to see her speak about art and faith and I’d recommend everyone to have a look at some of her videos on YouTube and maybe even get one of her books.
Joanna Grennan is a Chaplaincy Community Worker at the University of Roehampton.