In this archive interview from 2006, Sister Wendy Beckett tells Freddy Gray why prayer is not for the faint-hearted
The Copthorne Tam Hotel is a tall, nondescript tower-block that sheds a thick shadow across the back of High Street Kensington station.
The reception area is predictably uninspiring, at once bustling and hushed. Large revolving doors endlessly funnel somnambulant guests in and out.
Suddenly, a rotation ushers someone different into this soulless lobby: a tall, frail elderly woman in a religious habit, leaning on the arm of her companion. Sister Wendy Becket has arrived.
The companion turns out to be a publicist, who quickly vanishes. Sister Wendy heads into a restaurant bar at the back of the hotel. “Now I do like alcohol, but maybe we will have something else,” she says, her bold voice easily audible over the Musak that drones out from speakers in the corners of the room. We order coffee.
It is said that charming people can leave you thinking that you are the most important person in the world. Well, holy people can make you feel that you are hardly in the world at all. Sister Wendy is a charming holy person.
Her television shows about art have made her one of the best-known Catholics in the world, but there are no signs that she has become a prima donna. She warmly clasps one’s hand for long periods of time, and seems to prefer interviewing to being interviewed.
“Are you going to be a priest Freddy?” she asks, her rabbit-like front teeth clicking against her bottom lip. “Are you married? You want to be though?”
Whenever Sister Wendy emerges from her solitary contemplative life, television stations and newspapers all want a piece of this endearing, engaging recluse. Today, her publishers have brought her up to London to promote a new book, Sister Wendy on Prayer.
But Sister Wendy takes quite an unusual approach to plugging her work. “I’d never recommend the book to anyone,” she says. “I’d be shy to.”
Sister Wendy has written extensively about art, yet she was profoundly apprehensive about producing a book on prayer. “It just means so much to me,” she explains.
“What worried me about the book was that it was dragging out into the vulgarity of words something that was sacred, but I was told it would be a good thing to do.
“With what I say about art, you can take it or leave it. But with prayer I really feel it to be true, so true that I would die for it. So the thought that people won’t accept it is almost unbearable.”
Why would readers reject advice on prayer from such an expert? Sister Wendy, after all, gets up at one o’clock every morning and gives at least seven hours of each day to her devotions.
“Well people find prayer hard because it’s so simple, so painfully simple,” she replies. “That’s the hardness. I would say that the essential test of whether you are a Christian is whether you actually pray. If you don’t pray you don’t truly believe. You believe in some kind of God who is an evil God because if you truly believe in the real God, then you want to be close to Him.” In a striking passage of her new book, Sister Wendy describes how terrible prayer can be. “‘Our God is a consuming fire’ and my filth crackles as He seizes hold of me,” she writes.
This is alarming reading for your average sinner. If Sister Wendy, who has dedicated her life to worshipping God, finds prayer frightening, it risks being utterly terrifying for the rest of us. “The only question is whether you want God,” insists Sister Wendy, however. “If you want Him then you want your filth to crackle.
“There are no structures to prayer,” Sister Wendy continues. “Just as a man and woman when they fall in love have no structure for their conversation, they simply have to acknowledge the truth of each other and respond to that. Well, prayer is abandoning yourself to God and acknowledging Him…”
At this point I stupidly interrupt Sister Wendy, then beg her to go on. “Do you know I have completely forgotten what I was saying,” she says, looking as though she had forgotten the end to some tiresome anecdote.
It does not take her long, however, to regain her rhythm. “Prayer is a direction,” she continues. “Prayer is complete freedom. When you are looking at God, whether you want to sing and dance, meditate, or read Him poetry, fine — so long as you are honest, because prayer is the essential test of our integrity.”
Wendy Becket was born in February 1930 in Johannesburg, yet her early life was spent in Scotland. From a very young age Sister Wendy was a firm believer; indeed, she reckons she was aware of her profound love of God from the moment she was conscious.
As a teenager, she entered the Order of Notre Dame de Namur, taking the name Sister Michael of St Peter. The young novice was sent to St Anne’s College, Oxford, though debarred from student social life or any extra-curricular activity that might have imperilled her vocation. Some women might have resented such restrictions, but not Sister Wendy. “I had a wonderful time at Oxford,” she remembers. “All the students were trailing crowds of glory to me because I never spoke to any of them.” Bright, hard-working and an exceptionally fast reader, the young religious excelled at her studies. Oxford awarded her a Congratulatory First. (One of her Finals examiners was Professor J R R Tolkien.)
Sister Michael was then sent to back to South Africa to teach. It was hard work and the young religious was permitted to pray only for two halfhour periods every day. This active life did not suit her, but she did not let that hold her back. She became a Reverend Mother within the Order and at some point after the Second Vatican Council went back to being called Wendy, Sister Wendy. She describes this change as a “penance” because she did not think she merited such masculine saintly names.
In 1970 she suffered a series of stress-induced epileptic fits. The Order decided that she should be allowed to become a contemplative hermit. Her bishop made her “a Consecrated Virgin” and she was dispatched to the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk.
Sister Wendy was put up in a caravan and has since spent nearly all her time in solitude and silence. After the testing experience as teacher, Sister Wendy is filled with gratitude for her life in “what I have to call a trailer for the Americans”.
“Unless I had all those hours to pray I wouldn’t survive because the contemplative life is really for the feeble, not for the strong,” she says.
Apart from Mass, she spends most of her day praying alone. She is given the newspaper a day late. “I look at weather, which tells me absolutely nothing,” she says. “But I love the obituaries.”
Sister Wendy also peruses the sports pages with interest. “I find it so morally uplifting,” she enthuses. “I love the notion of concentration, training and sacrifice leading up to a goal. That’s what I want to achieve. I want there to be nothing in me that’s not geared towards loving God, or towards God taking me into His Love.
“When I am in a hotel I am always hoping that there will be [horse] racing on or perhaps snooker or tennis. I am told Roger Federer is absolutely beautiful to watch. And then of course there’s golf…” Snooker she regards as a good metaphor for the challenge of human existence: “I appreciate the skill: this is what life is like. The balls are there. We haven’t chosen them but there they are,” she imitates a wild cueing motion, “God says play them. The essence of God is dealing with life as it comes at you, which is often the opposite of what you want.” For somebody who says that she finds using words to discuss the beauty of God so agonising, Sister Wendy is remarkably convincing on the subject.
On a recent television programme she was asked to sum up God in a sentence. “I them told that God escapes all definitions,” she recalls. “But if I had to, I would say that God is something so absolute that everything else is relative.”
Sister Wendy pauses and looks at her watch. It is twenty past five. She inhales loudly. “Oh, it’s well past my bedtime.” She says goodbye and wanders across the lobby into a lift. The metallic doors close and she is wafted up and away.