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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sr. Wendy Beckett

By Peter Stanford

Sister Wendy Beckett is feeling "a bit wobbly" when we meet in the marbled reception of a smart London hotel. Life at her convent starts at 1.30am and she is usually in bed by 6pm, so her body clock today is all over the place.

Sister Wendy: 'I would do another series if asked'
Taking my hand for support, the 77-year-old nun is exactly as she looks on TV, sporting the style of all-enveloping traditional garb that only the chorus line in The Sound of Music wear these days. She has long, strikingly white fingers, with very soft skin but a firm grip.
She is still holding on to me as we slowly make our way towards a quiet corner when a sun-tanned woman runs up to us at a rather alarming pace.

"I have to speak to this lady," she announces in a Scandinavian accent, grabbing Sr Wendy's free hand. "I'm Karen, and you have changed my life." She looks as if she is about to cry. "Watching your programmes has changed my life. I'm so grateful."

What she's referring to is the series of documentaries, mostly about the fine arts, that Sr Wendy made in her sixties. Her brief appearance in a TV arts slot in 1991 caught the commissioners' eyes and prompted a run of programmes that made her, alongside Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Maria von Trapp, the most instantly recognisable nun in the world. There was even a West End musical, Postcards from God, based on her life.

Of late, though, her public has had to make do with just the occasional talk – "the thing that I hate doing most in the world" – and books. She has agreed to travel up to town to talk about her latest paperback, Sister Wendy on Prayer. "I don't come out for pleasure. People ring and say 'Would you like to have lunch?' and it would be very nice but I have to say no.

"I come out of the convent very, very rarely. As rarely as possible, in fact. I hope that woman doesn't write to me. My time is for God. I've no time for gardening and letter?writing, the usual let-outs for those who are alone."

It comes out in her high, kindly voice, but there is an unmistakeable edge to the observation; not quite what you expect in a nun.

Sr Wendy has spent the past 37 years away from the world as a hermit and consecrated virgin, living in a caravan in a copse in the monastery garden of the enclosed Carmelite convent at Quidenham in Norfolk.

Before that, she was a teaching nun in her native South Africa with the Notre Dame de Namur order, but had to give up after a series of epileptic seizures, brought on by stress.

We are now manoeuvring into the lift, having been offered by bemused reception staff the use of a first floor boardroom for our interview. Sr Wendy looks surprisingly at home amid beige uniformity. The world, it soon becomes apparent, holds little excitement or mystery for her. She understands it perfectly well – as she shows when she gets up to turn down the air-conditioning unit – but is more content in the convent with her routine of prayer, contemplation and utter simplicity.

"I'm not an adventurous person. I am a dull, sit-at-home kind of person, which my life is beautifully adapted towards. I prefer not to talk. I don't speak to anybody all day apart from a few words to the sister who does the post."

It makes her parallel life as a television icon all the more extraordinary. Initially, at Quidenham, she spent her time translating medieval Latin texts (she had been awarded a Congratulatory First by Oxford in 1953), but by the 1980s had begun writing spiritual meditations on contemporary art.

Some were circulated among a small group of friends and came to the attention of Delia Smith, who, as well as her well-known enthusiasms for cooking and Norwich Football Club, is a connoisseur of fine religious writing. She persuaded newspapers to publish them, and soon after the documentary-makers came calling.

Sister Wendy has been absent from our screens now for a good few years. Has she renounced TV for good? "The whole idea," she begins, "was to make people think that I was loving it, but I never wanted to do it in the first place. If I'd known how much time it would take, I would never have started."

She adds, with a twinkle in her eye: "If I was asked, I would probably do another series. But I probably won't be. I would love to do one on something that is quite engrossing my attention at the moment – the eight pre?Iconoclastic images of the Mother of God that have survived.

Five in Rome, one in Mount Sinai, one in Kiev and one recently found in France. I think it would make really interesting television because it is like a detective series, tracking them down. But nobody is interested. The BBC didn't want it at all. I don't think they are keen on me any more."
She says it all without a hint of self-pity. But I can't help thinking I've just heard a gentle, persuasive pitch.


Jean said...

Sr. Wendy Beckett is the author of one of my favorite, non-scripture quotes:
"The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us. That He should do so is the whole purpose of life."

Thanks for sharing her story.

A Simple Sinner said...

"Taking my hand for support, the 77-year-old nun is exactly as she looks on TV, sporting the style of all-enveloping traditional garb that only the chorus line in The Sound of Music wear these days."

Only the chorus line or nuns & sisters under 30...