Sister Wendy Beckett died Christmas week. She was known by most of us because she was on TV. She was an art historian who did a BBC series many have seen. No doubt many more will tune in at this time of her passing. But it was her life of prayer that was the most important part of Wendy Beckett; it was Jesus, her Spouse. It was the Trinitarian life she lived in contemplative prayer that helped her see God more clearly than most of us distracted people do.
And DVDs and interviews on YouTube are not the only pointers to the good and the true and the beautiful that she leaves us. Spiritual Letters, a collection of her letters written to a woman named Ann, is a great place to start. The two were truly Christian friends: Ann encouraging the art commentary and Sr. Wendy providing some bold spiritual direction for her friend.
One letter during the approach of Christmas said, in part:
I wasn’t calling on you for an easy gesture or two, but for a profound, humiliating “conversion” to the Crucified Love who starts His Royal course this week. Until you have dug down deep into your heart for the truth of these relationships, and actively held them out to Jesus to be healed, you can’t give all. We die of giving all — and then Jesus is born. Mary only really bore Him, fully, totally, when she stood at the cross.
In another letter, you see the honesty of a love that wants nothing short of Heaven for the other:
That loveless slum you see in yourself is quite truly you — I won’t pretend otherwise, but it is you seen in the light of God. The “you” that He passionately loves, that He chooses to be most intimately possessed in a love-union — that you is the poor thing you experience as your true self. So, despair is the last thing to feel, rather a blazing surge of hope and gratitude that His love doesn’t depend at all on our beauty and goodness. But there is even more joy to it than this, because we just can’t see our poverty unless he shows it. . . .
So to see it is clear proof that He is present, lovingly and tenderly revealing himself to you. It’s the contrast you are experiencing — can you understand? How do you know you are weak and unloving? Only because the strength and love of Jesus so press upon you that, like the sun shining from behind, you see the shadow. This is the surest way to Him. These are the only two essentials the soul can see — in this life we can’t encompass both. Either we see all in the light of Him, and primarily self, or we see only Him and all else is dark. . . . But it is up to you to accept His grace; only you can thank Him for it, and let it draw you, as it is meant, to long constantly and trustfully for His purifying love.
Another time, Sr. Wendy writes:
Worry is a canker. And it is self-regarding. Whereas all our real life is in Jesus. The function of anxiety is surely to alert us to our dependence on Him and to the fact that he alone matters. It is a most useful feeling. It says: You are fragile, unrealized, not in charge of your life, in danger of . . . therefore turn wholly to Jesus. The feeling may or may not diminish but the direction out of self’s narrowness into His love has been conquered. We have to go on and on until finally we live out of self, in Him. . . .
The great thing to grasp is that to feel “relaxed/happy” or to feel anxious is unimportant. Feelings only matter as an occasion for love. Happy, secure feelings prompt us to praise Him; sad, anxious feelings prompt us to express our faith and pray for him to be all in all to us. The feelings themselves tell us nothing about our “state” which is God’s secret and God’s work. We don’t base anything on ourselves but only on Him, on his goodness, knowing, as Paul says, in whom we have believed. Why are we anxious? Let’s will to have Jesus as our holiness. Gradually even the feeling vanishes, but that is unimportant.
We can feel that growing in love should make life “easier” — that there is some failure in our fear, temptation, struggle. Not so. In fact the tempest may blow more severely as we near harbor. Jesus could never know psychic respite, as the Gospels show. But our attitudes change. We cease to be afraid of fear; we open our arms to the will for the Father to give us whatever He will, knowing, in Jesus, that he gives only “good things.”
The monthly Magnificat magazine featured that passage as one of its daily meditations a few years ago, and you can see why. The life of holiness is a lifelong struggle for Christ to increase in our lives.
I can’t help but believe that God always has reasons in His timing. And I noticed the other day how mainstream secular people noted Sr. Wendy’s death with sadness. “If God exists,” one wrote, she hopes Sr. Wendy is there with Him. Sr. Wendy, through her art work, through the vision her talent and prayer provided, reached more people than most of us ever will. But the TV appearances and the art knowledge weren’t the thing to take from her life. The lesson is the knowledge of the Lord. It’s still Christmas, those of us who profess to be Christian ought to be looking at that Christ child in our crèche scenes and asking Him to be truly born in our lives anew. That means a dying to luxuries and conveniences and attachments. That means a true conversion, of the type that requires a rigorous joy. One that is worth every bit of sweat and tears, because it is life now and eternally with the Creator who created us in love.
God wants this Christmas to mean something powerful still for His beloved ones. I think that’s one of the reasons Sr. Wendy Beckett died Christmas week: So that we could see how she lived and take some of her wisdom as a great gift from the Greatest Gift Giver.
One last little help from Sr. Wendy. Also from those letters, she writes:
Here are areas where you truly try — yet you fail. Why? Because the desire is too surface –the “yes” to love isn’t coming from the very depths of you, and, so, when taken unawares, lack of love peeps out. What can you do? . . .
The great agony of being unregenerate man is precisely that: we just can’t. Our will isn’t enough “ours” to be all gathered up in one total act whenever we want to. But, when we are wholly convinced of our helplessness — and that’s a tremendous grace and we have to suffer and struggle to learn it — then we have the first condition for holiness. . . .
And the second is to realize that, in proportion as we see that we can’t, we must believe that God can, and will, and longs for nothing more.
But, third condition, we must ask him to transform us, holding our helplessness up to him constantly, which in turn, we won’t have the incentive to do so long as we feel we can fumble along well enough as we are. . . . So, really, what I feel God wants so passionately to do in you is to have you see, open-eyed, your weakness, and turn with constant trust to Him to be loved and so made loving.
For those of us who can’t stick with new year’s resolutions, Sr. Wendy liberates us here. It’s not us taking the lead and carrying it out. It’s Him. Be faithful. This is true faith. Following His lead in all of its awesome arduousness. It clears the way for healing and holiness and the lives we are meant to lead. And just as Sr. Wendy tried to do — a contemplative called into the world to help souls to Heaven — we ought to be helping one another see Divine beauty and mercy and meaning and redemption from the Incarnation of the Lord and His calling Sister Wendy Beckett home. May God be good to her and we follow the lead in the new year.