In my “Christmas Shelfie” I featured a book by Sister Wendy Beckett, a Carmelite nun who became rather famous in the 90’s as an astute and winsome commentator on art, both in a series of books and also in popular TV specials.
I made the mistake of commenting that these days Sister Wendy had largely been forgotten. However, this turns out not to be true! A new book featuring the ‘Art Nun’ has been a recent Christian bestseller.
Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship is a collection of letters exchanged between Sister Wendy and Robert Ellsberg during the last three years of Sister Wendy’s life (she died in 2018). Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, wrote a series of books on the lives of the saints, including the wonderful All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.
In this new book, both writers turn in stellar performances—not from trying to do so, but because they are communicating to one another from the heart on matters of the greatest importance to both: God, prayer, the church, faith, art, literature, along with intimate details of their own lives—their backgrounds, dreams, foibles.
While Ellsberg’s letters certainly pull their weight, it is Sister Wendy’s words that are most luminous, especially considering that these are her last thoughts. Her writing is full of comments such as: “The wonderful thing is that God always gives us what we truly want. We may not know that we want it, we may feel we need something else, but He understands us far better than we understand ourselves, and what we long for He will give us always.”
As a young nun, Sister Wendy met a priest who told her that, in all she said about her own life, he was “missing the note of joy”—a comment she always remembered as the most significant thing anyone had ever said to her. Interestingly, in a letter to Ellsberg, she makes the same comment about Thomas Merton. While reading Merton’s letters she notes that “these are not happy letters. There’s humor all the time and occasional wild gaiety, but there’s not much joy.”
Sister Wendy’s letters are happy. Here’s just a sampling of what she says about joy:
“You can’t take life seriously unless you take it with joy.”
“If only people knew that looking at God and forgetting themselves opens out a world of joy.”
“My life is full of joy and our Lord seems so close that I laugh to recall that I am only seeing Him in a glass darkly. How can we contain the happiness of what that face to face will mean?”
“To know that when the Father looks at us, He sees His well-beloved Son looking back at Him: Isn’t that the source of the deepest joy and freedom that one can imagine?”
“Happiness is not dependent on circumstances. [Those who love Jesus] may lose everything and their happiness remains, however sorrowful they may feel.”
“To live in God’s will is our only happiness, even if it comes in a form we would not have chosen.”
“The joy of the Lord, the overflowing happiness that is in God, and which He specifically created us to share, is something that matters overwhelmingly to me. And it’s all Him, His happiness, His creativity; all He asks of us is to receive, to accept His love, to enter into His joy. Awareness of all this means that nothing else reallly matters terribly much.”
Just a few weeks before she died, Sister Wendy wrote, “Don’t worry about me. Remember I feel this life is already heaven and I live in bliss.”
In her very last letter she says, “When the day [of my death] comes I want you to turn to God with great thankfulness for all He has given me. This is the time of the deepest joy.”
Thank you, Sister Wendy, for living and dying so joyfully!
Next Post: Binary Thinking: A Lesson in Theology