Category: The Call Published on Friday, August 17, 2012 Written by Angela Wintle | The Telegraph Hits: 1384
The 80-year-old contemplative nun discusses her daily routine, becoming a nun and her Christmas plans.
Sister Wendy Beckett, 80, is a contemplative nun who gained national attention in 1991 after appearing in a BBC documentary about the National Gallery. She has since presented several acclaimed art-history programmes and has written more than 25 books. Her most recent, Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons (Continuum), is out now. For the past 40 years she has lived a cloistered life, devoted to prayer, in a mobile home in the grounds of a Carmelite monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk.
Routine My daily routine is simple, but unvarying. I spend as little time as possible thinking about what to eat, wear or what to do next. This sets me free to pray: my raison d’être. I go to bed at 6pm. I used to get up at 3am, but now rise just after midnight. I stay silently praying in my home until I go to the monastery for Mass at 8am. I have two short breaks for coffee and breakfast bran, but, like my hours of work, these are just another form of prayer.
Family background I had a contented upbringing and will never forget my parents’ happy relationship. My father was a doctor, though he went into the Air Force medical service when war broke out and I saw little of him from my 10th year. When he queried my desire to go straight from school into the novitiate, I heard my mother telling him I was an 'odd child’. She loved me dearly, but didn’t quite understand me.
Becoming a nun I wanted to belong totally to God and it seemed that being a nun was the way. This was narrow thinking. Anybody can belong totally to God, in any way of life and at any age. All He asks is our desire.
Mobile home Out of their goodness, the Carmelite nuns in Norfolk allow me to live within their enclosure, though I am not a Carmelite. I began by living in a caravan, but the sisters worried about the lack of insulation, so they put up a small mobile home, which has a lavatory, bathroom and light fittings. I have an electric kettle, fridge, warming oven and night storage heater, so my life is as comfortable as it needs to be.
Solitary life This is the greatest imaginable bliss. It wasn’t only that I wanted a contemplative life; I needed it. I am one of those inadequate people who can’t sustain the level of prayer and self-sacrifice that religious life asks, unless I have hours alone with God. But I am not totally alone. Once a day the sister who looks after me brings my post and gives me any messages. If there are practical matters to be seen to (I am a sadly impractical woman), she solves them. The day is surely coming when age and infirmity will make it impossible to live alone. I don’t worry about this because it’s all part of God’s plan.
Wicker basket When I came to live in solitude, I was given a wicker basket (pictured) in which to carry my daily provisions. I’ve had it for 40 years and it’s an integral part of my life.
Icon This is a life-size replica (pictured) of an early Christian icon of the Madonna and Child, one of only eight that survived eighth-century iconoclasm. Seeing this newly discovered Madonna at the Temple Gallery in London led me to my love of icons. I had been afraid of them, art-historically speaking, because they are so difficult to fit into a historical pattern. But this little icon showed me what they meant and how they transcend art history: they come from a different place and draw us to a different place.
Sung bowl This magnificent Chinese bowl from the Sung Dynasty (pictured) was given to me by the film crew while making Sister Wendy’s American Collection in 2001. It’s a rare form of ceramic known as oil spot; little silver globules gleam out of its blackness. Its majestic stillness is a constant source of joy.
Television career Nuns have to earn their living and I earned mine by doing medieval Latin translation. But I became unwell and asked the Mother Prioress if I could look at art until I felt better. Then I realised there are no livings to be earned by merely looking, so I decided to write a book, which drew the attention of the BBC. This is how my television career began.
Best present The Swarovski flowerpots (pictured), 'planted’ with a glass sunflower and a tulip, were given by two dear friends. They stand in my mobile home, where they catch the light. Their significance is not only their brightness, but their image of what it means to be in contact with God. I long to draw light from Him and show it forth, as these do.
Art book I have always valued my art books, especially those about icons, medieval art and my beloved Cézanne. If absolutely put to the question I would say the most significant has been Kurt Weitzmann’s The Monastery at Saint Catherine’s: The Icons, Volume One (pictured). It gives the only complete photographic record of the early icons that so enthral me.
Preconceptions People have weird ideas about nuns and can be surprised by almost anything. When I stayed in hotels while filming my documentaries I sometimes watched the television and found immense pleasure in the horse racing. But since I’m rarely in hotels, there’s no sense in which I can follow the form. I like the more solitary sports such as snooker, golf, bowls and tennis, but have seen little of these delectable activities. Other programmes I liked included Countdown and University Challenge, and I was moved and charmed by the few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with Patrick Stewart, that I have seen.
Christmas My Christmas is a deeply privileged one and I spend it in silence marvelling at God’s goodness. I don’t put up decorations, wrap presents or attend a Christmas dinner (though I delight in giving and receiving cards). The high point is the high point of every day – attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist. This sacrament is Christmas in essence: God giving Himself, us receiving Him and being changed.
Published 21 Dec 2010