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Sister Wendy Beckett
“Beauty will save the world.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky (11 November 1821 - 9 February 1881)
“One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ What sort of a statement is that ? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?... Dostoevsky’s remark, ‘Beauty will save the world”, was not a careless phrase but a prophecy. After all he was granted to see much, a man of fantastic illumination. And in that case art, literature might really be able to help the world today? It is the small insight which, over the years, I have succeeded in gaining into this matter that I shall lay before you here today...”
From the acceptance speech of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918 - 3 August 2008 ) for the Nobel Prize in 1970.
“The work with which we embark on this first volume of a series of theological studies is a word with which the philosophical person does not begin, but rather concludes. It is a word that has never possessed a permanent place or authentic voice in the concert of the exact sciences, and when it is chosen as a subject for discussion, appears to betray in him who chooses it an idle amateur among such very busy experts. It is finally, a word untimely in three different senses, and bearing it as one’s treasure will not win anyone’s favours; one rather risks finding oneself outside everyone’s camp ... Beauty is the word that shall be our first... We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
From “The Glory of the Lord : A Theological Aesthetics, volume 1, Seeing the Form”
By Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar (12 August 1905 - 26 June 1988)
“...There lives the dearest freshness
deep down things;
And through the last lights off the
black West went
Oh, morning, at the brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (28 July 1844 - 8 June 1889)
Through the kindness of Robert Ellsberg, I was able to “meet” Sister Wendy Beckett by corresponding by email with her, before she passed into God. She told Robert that she wanted to do a book with me about my icons, but she became too exhausted and ill to carry out this wonderful, precious gift of an idea.
With Robert, however, she opened herself so gently, so honestly, so beautifully in a way she had never done with anyone. The result of their email conversations is the remarkable, poignant and sometimes humorous book to be published this September; “Dearest Sister Wendy” lovingly put together by Robert. It’s a book like no other and contains just some of their hundreds of emails. Robert gave me the honor to read it in full, and I learned so much from both of them. When it comes out I’ll be sure to tell you how to order one for your own spiritual nourishment...and of course, with these two people, Dostoevsky is right; “Beauty will save the world.”
To “spend time with her” and to thank Robert for allowing me to read his book, I decided to paint a “spiritual portrait” of Sister Wendy, in glowing lavender and gold leaf. She truly lived the words about God, from the sixth preface for a Sunday Mass in ordinary time ... “For in You we live and move and have our being, and while in this body we not only experience the daily effects of Your care, but even now possess the pledge of life eternal.”
Here is a short written portrait by Robert Ellsberg.
“Sister Wendy Beckett
Hermit (25 February 1930 - 26 December 2018)
Born in South Africa, Wendy Beckett always knew she wanted to be a nun, which she supposed would mean a life of prayer and silence. Yet the Sisters of Notre Dame da Namur, which she entered at 16, were a teaching order. This meant a life in the classroom. While she cheerfully accepted every assignment as the will of God, she longed for a contemplative life. After suffering a physical breakdown, she was granted her wish and allowed to leave her order. In 1970 she became a consecrated virgin and hermit, living in a caravan on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England.
Her new life was given over to prayer and solitude, but she also pursued an intense study of art. Late in life, she was discovered by a BBC producer, who persuaded her to star in a television series, ‘Sister Wendy’s Odyssey.’ The program took her to museums around the world. Suddenly this diminutive woman in a black habit became the unlikeliest of celebrities. Audiences were fascinated and charmed by her intelligence and her intensely alive and compassionate spirit. Her attention to beauty, whether in nature or the human body, defied conventional stereotypes about a supposedly otherworldly nun. Sister Wendy accepted this as a kind of ministry, a way to talk about God to a secular audience, showing that everything true, good and beautiful leads back to its source, our Creator. But she was happy when this sideline ended, and she returned without distraction to her true calling: to spend her days in praise and contemplation of God. She died on December 26, 2018.”
“Our Blessed Lord is in the work-a-day world as truly as in the depth of silent prayer, and we will never find Him completely if we only want to engage with Him on the level we have chosen. He chooses the world and so must we.”
Sister Wendy Beckett
Fr William Hart Dominic McNichols 💙💛 March 2022