Sister Wendy Beckett, an English hermit, lives under the protection and guidance of the Carmelite nuns at Quidenham in Norfolk, England.
She spends eight hours a day in silent prayer; two hours are devoted to the writing that earns what little money she needs. She first came to prominence in the 1990s, thanks to her participation in a BBC documentary series on art history. Since then, she has written numerous books, informed by her deep appreciation for and years of serious study about art, knowledge that is informed by the spiritual depth of her contemplative life.
Sister Wendy's three art books -- on art related to Christmas, Mary and the saints -- would make wonderful gifts. Each follows a simple format: Sister Wendy comments about 14 works of art on each topic.
These books, reprinted by Franciscan Media, illustrate the companionable pleasure of Sister Wendy's writing which, although succinct and gentle in tone, conveys a passionate concern that we pay attention.
This is an explicit theme in her appreciation of Giotto's "Wedding at Cana." "Giotto shows us only one apostle, probably St. Peter, who is awed, almost terrified. After this, the apostles knew who Jesus was, but they knew because they noticed. All day Jesus is revealing himself to us, but the circumstances are human. We are distracted by the inessential, and so we miss the whole meaning; we taste the wine, but we do not understand its significance."
Writing about Bloemaert's "The Adoration of the Magi" she notes that the Magi "have taken great trouble, come a long way, made sacrifices, just to find him. He is infinitely close to us, but we cannot find him unless we, too, take trouble and search. Jesus will reveal himself to us exactly to the degree that we want him."
That is, in fact, an apt description of Sister Wendy's life, for she has gone to great trouble to find him. And, as is clear in the "Spiritual Letters," Jesus has revealed himself to her with extraordinary generosity.
The letters were written over a period of 16 years (1970-1986) after Sister Wendy transferred from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and began to live her vocation as a hermit, but before she became known as the "art nun." The majority of the letters, about three-fourths of the book, are to her friend Sister Ann. The others are addressed to Carmelites at Quidenham (a novice, a novice formator and an elderly nun) and to other correspondents.
Sister Wendy responds to Sister Ann's concerns about the challenges and responsibilities she faces in her community and they frequently discuss artists and authors. The letters contain good practical advice, insightful suggestions and evidence of their loving friendship.
Most importantly, she offers Sister Ann exquisite spiritual direction, guidance that is suitable for anyone who is traveling a contemplative path, whether lay or religious. Sister Wendy does not advert to her own prayer life, but these luminous letters attest to the depth of her experiences. "If we choose to believe, we can ignore all the feelings and failures and fatigues, and simply cleave through thick and thin to Jesus."
The predominant theme in all the letters, as she reminds Sister Ann, is the need to make a "total surrender to what (God) is doing in you."
She speaks to this frequently when discussing individual paintings, including Greg Tricker's portrait of St. Bernadette (included in the saints book). "The artist has touched her with blue to suggest the constancy with which she thought of Mary. This is a painting of prayer, of that simple, absolute surrender to God that gives God freedom to act."
The "Spiritual Letters" make it clear that Sister Wendy, too, has made that "simple, absolute surrender" and that is why everything she writes is informed by the luminosity of God's love that shines through her life.