Even non-believers can find the wisdom in silence

What we can all learn from the remarkable Sister Wendy Beckett this Christmas


She thought it would be about Jesus. She thought that the film, like the festival we’re recovering from, was supposed to be about the saviour of the world. “Once we get away from talking about Jesus,” Sister Wendy Beckett told the man who had persuaded her to make this film about “the art of the gospel” for Christmas Day, “I’m in darkness”.

She might have thought she was, but she wasn’t. She might have thought that she only knew how to talk about God and art. But when this woman, who has been a nun for 67 years, started talking to the director, Randall Wright, about God and art, and the paintings she had chosen for this Arena, which was shown, after the Queen and before Top Gear, it was very, very clear that she was talking about lots of other things, too.

She did talk about Jesus. She talked about the Jesus in Piero della Francesco’s “The Baptism of Christ”, and the Jesus in Duccio’s “The Transfiguration”, and the one in Lorenzo Lotto’s “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”, and the one in Tintoretto’s “Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples”, and the one in Antonello’s “Christ at the Column”, and the one in Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus”.

When she talked about Jesus, and how he told people that they shouldn’t rush to judge other people unless they’d never done anything wrong themselves, and how he chose to act like a servant instead of someone who was powerful, she made you think about how unusual it now seemed not to rush to judge other people, and how unusual it now seemed to put other people first.

The spirit(ual) level

And when she talked about Jesus, she made you think about how unusual it was to hear people talk about Jesus, and how the stories that many of us grew up with, and which have filled the art, and poetry, and books, and plays, of the Western world for 2,000 years, now seem almost to have disappeared. “I’ve noticed it,” she said, “in museums.” People look, she said, at the stories in the pictures, and they “just don’t know” what they’re about. She didn’t know, she said, whether the “spiritual level” of the country had changed, but she was sure that the “cultural level” had. “This country,” she said, had been “built on the Christian faith”. It was, she said, a faith that belonged to everybody, “whether they believe it or not”.

She, it’s clear, always has believed it. She has wanted to be a nun since she was a small child. When she was 16, she joined a convent, and then studied English at Oxford, where she got the best degree anyone ever got. She taught for 20 years, but after a series of epileptic fits, was allowed to give up teaching and devote her life to prayer. She lived, and still lives, as a hermit, first in a second-hand caravan and now in a prefab hut. She gets up at midnight, and prays most of the day.

When she started writing books about art, and was asked to go on TV, she had never watched a programme, or switched on a TV. She didn’t have a phone. She still doesn’t have a phone. She doesn’t have a computer. She dictates her books to a priest. She doesn’t, she says, like talking about herself. She is, she says, “an inadequate woman”. But when she talks about Jesus, and God, and culture, and art, without notes, in front of a camera, she doesn’t sound it. She sounds, in fact, like a very wise woman who is letting us see her heart.

When she talked about the experience she had as a child, of feeling the presence of something she thought must be God, and of how this “understanding of God’s closeness” had influenced “everything” she did, those of us who don’t believe in a God could only wonder about the feelings, and experiences, of those who do. We could only wonder whether those feelings, and experiences, had to do with bits of the brain, or active imaginations, or the kinds of things your parents taught you when you were small. And when she talked about the stories in the Bible as if they were real things that happened to real people, we could only wonder about the millions of people around the world who thought that the stories they believed in, which tended to depend on where they lived, were the ones that were true.

Sound of silence

But when she said that “one of the things prayer will do is show you yourself”, and that “that’s something most of us will go to a lot of trouble to avoid”, even those of us who don’t believe in a God couldn’t help wondering if she was right. We couldn’t help thinking that most of us surround ourselves with so many things, and people, and gadgets, and urgent emails, and urgent messages, and urgent things we have to do, that we couldn’t really remember the last time we sat, on our own, listening to the silence, and to the beating of our hearts.

When she said that “now nearly everybody can live their whole lives being entertained”, and that “it means that you’re never in contact with what you are”, we couldn’t help thinking about how we usually thought about what we did, and who we talked to, and what we had to do next, and tended not to give much thought at all to who we were. And when the programme had a whole minute of silence, it was a shock. In that silence, we saw the pictures she had talked about again. It made us think about what she’d just said, that “great art challenges you”, and also what she’d said on Desert Island Discs last week, that great art is “demanding”, and that you have to be “totally there”.

It made us wonder how often we were ever “totally” anywhere, or how often we ever gave our full attention to anything, and what pleasures we might be missing out on if we didn’t, and weren’t. It made us think of the poet John Clare, who said that, “after the hustling world is broken off”, there “is a charm in solitude that cheers”, but also that the world he thought was “hustling” in 1837 was much, much more “hustling” now.

And it made even those of us who don’t believe in a God think that “goodwill on earth” was an awful lot to aim for, but that there was quite a lot to be said for a bit more peace. And that if we were to try to find a bit more peace, and quiet, and silence, then maybe we, like this passionate nun who lives in a hut as a hermit, but loves the world so much, might see more of what we have, and who we are.

Sister Wendy knows where she will be buried. She will die, she says, thanking God for “allowing” her a life of such “unimaginable” happiness. “Lucky me,” she says.

And lucky us, for this lesson in joy.

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