by Sister Wendy Beckett
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2013
Reviewed by Kathryn Madden, RC
Spiritual Letters is a work of true countenance. The cover photo of Sister Wendy Beckett, “the nun who faces the camera and talks so knowledgeably about works of art,” reflects “the solitude and hours of prayer that support this spare and visibly aged figure” (xiii). The deeper face of Beckett revealed in this collection of notes and letters is that of one who only distinguishes two significant choices in what she deems an otherwise unimpressive life: her childhood dream of becoming a nun, which she pursued at age seventeen, and her movement into solitude at the age of forty when her health-related issues mysteriously led her into a “life lived uncompromisingly for God” (xiii).
The letters predate Beckett’s popularity as a renowned art expert and fall within the years between 1970 and 1986. These are the sixteen years following her transfer from the life of an active, teaching order to that of a hermit, a woman consecrated by the bishop of the diocese for solitary prayer on behalf of the church. Having recently made the choice to transfer to another congregation after more than thirty years, I resonate with the unexpected experience of a new charism of religious life eclipsing a cherished and familiar one in exquisite contemplative beauty.
Moving into a caravan within the walls of a Carmelite monastery, Beckett needed to simplify all she did so that her attention could dwell uninterruptedly on God. In this, how might she inspire each of us to our unique expression of the same? In devoting herself to prayer as “the greatest of privileges and the most demanding of responsibilities” (x), she beckons those of us honored to serve as spiritual guides to embrace our profound role as such.
Beckett mirrors a gift in her soul-work with others, including her benefactor Ann, novices just beginning religious life, and the elderly sister entrusted with caring for her needs. With the novice formator, Beckett unsparingly and yet sensitively puts forth the hard truth as she writes, “I think that what the Lord wants you to see, though it’s hard to find exact words for it, but it’s something like this: Here are the areas in which you 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? ... When we are wholly convinced of our helplessness—and that’s a tremendous grace and we have to suffer to learn it—then that is the first condition for holiness” (249).
Christian contemplative seekers will find Spiritual Letters a lovely stroll through the art of prayer and hear echoes of the wisdom of well-known Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows: “All we can ever do is look at Jesus, and try to please Him. It demands great trust to stand alone and respond only to Him, unseen and unheard. But that is the essence of prayer, isn’t it? No support, not even of feeling good or loving or generous, just the true desire to be and do whatever He wants” (295).
Kathryn Madden, RC, completed spiritual direction training at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA and at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She serves on the ministry team at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, NY, USA.