Sister Wendy Beckett on Prayer

By: Jo Siedlecka

Published by Continuum Books ISBN 978-0-8264-8389-8
Sr Wendy is a wonderful ambassador for our faith. She has a unique vocation. After spending 35 years in solitary prayer and study, as a hermit in the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk, she became world famous overnight with her series of BBC programmes on art. Learned, insightful and funny ­ she has reached an audience of millions, many of whom would never have watched a programme on religion. While she says in her commentary she avoided any words that demanded a particular faith, she writes: "since most world art is in fact religious, this has never been completely possible."

Following her series of art documentaries, Sister Wendy returned to Quidenham. She has now written a beautiful book on prayer, which is out in paperback this month. Like her programmes on art, it is written with great clarity, kindness and wisdom. It makes encouraging reading for anyone with a glimmer of faith as well as for those whose spirituality is more profound.

Speaking to ICN this week Sr Wendy said that compared to writing on art, she found writing about prayer very difficult.

"These are not just my personal opinions" she writes. These are my convictions about what is deepest in our lives, most integral to being human: our relationship with God. What I write about here I feel to be so true. I would be prepared to die for it."

The book consists of a series of brief reflections, on the Practice of Prayer; Prayer and Belief and Prayer and Personality. They are accompanied by 12 illustrations with commentary woven into the text.

Sr Wendy starts out: "Prayer is the simplest thing. Accept that God is good and that your relationship with Him is prayer and you must conclude that prayer is an act of utmost simplicity."

"Yet many people seem to feel there is some mysterious method, some way in that others know but they do not. Knock and it shall be open to you. They seem to believe that it needs some sort of Masonic knock and their own humble tapping will go unnoticed. What kind of God thinks of tricks, lays down rules, makes things difficult? God wants to love us and give Himself. He wants to draw us to Himself, strengthen us, and infuse His peace. The humblest, most modest imperceptible rubbing of our fingers on the door, and it flies open."

When I said I found it hard not to daydream when I try to pray, she advised: "The greatest failure is to think you can switch on to prayer, somehow transcend the world and shut out the noise. All it takes is to give God the time and if you are in a noisy place ­ bring all that hubbub with you. You are never too ill or tired or busy to pray. Just tell God how you feel."

Sr Wendy writes: "The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God why should we be reluctant to do this? God loves us, and we generally like conversing with people who like us."

But, she notes, normally in life we get accustomed to using acquired skills and techniques when we are dealing with people. We can put on a bit of an act. When with God its different. "When we come to real prayer, unprotected prayer ­ there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand if we meet the God who wants to take possession of us."

Sr Wendy became a nun at 16. After gaining the highest honours at Oxford, she taught in South Africa for 20 years before she realised she wanted to live a fully contemplative life. She now spends more than seven hours each night in solitary prayer ­ a rare vocation.

For the ordinary lay person it is hard to find much time to pray ­ but Sr Wendy says: "prayer is prayer if we want it to be". This requires us to make a slice of time available each day. "Most of us can manage a 10-minute silence. It may have to be in the lavatory, or the bath, or the car, or standing at the station, or when the baby's just gone to sleep. If you can spend it sitting quietly, I rejoice with you."

The second part of the book, entitled 'prayer and belief' focusses on a range of subjects, among them: other faiths, 'admirable atheists' and some reflections on those who have faith, but experience no emotional comfort from their prayers. Sr Wendy says: "the holiest person I know has never had the slightest interior intimation that God exists She experiences a terrible fear that her life with God is all imagination, that there is no God; that living as a nun is a mockery."

During our conversation, she agreed that letters found recently reveal that Mother Teresa suffered this experience, for much of her life. "I'm sorry those personal letters came out" she said. "But people do live in that darkness. Most people have some feeling even a fleeting sense about God's existence, but faith is not a matter of feeling. It is a matter of trusting that He is there. Faith overcomes all. Faith is a gift of God. A choice of the will. You fix your will to God. And He takes joy in the fact that there are some people who go through the darkness and never fail."

"His Son suffered this in Gethsemene. Jesus in Gethsemene is the model. The Holiest of the Holy suffer."

Sr Wendy advises that we offer all our difficulties to God ­ "even something small like going to the dentist. That's what prayer is about."

She also said it is important to feed our faith by reading Scripture and spiritual books. "Love seeks knowledge" Sr Wendy said. "All our lives we are learning." She said everyone should read the whole Bible through once slowly ­ a little bit each day, with a good commentary. After that daily Scripture reading is important

Beyond Scripture there are many other books that draw us closer to God. Sr Wendy said she enjoys books about mountaineering and the courage of early explorers and stories ­ inspiring stories about people who have excelled at some art of physical skill.

Does she still get up at 1.30 in the morning, I asked. Sister Wendy said: "I get up at five to one when the world is silent and the owls pray with me. "

Asked about animals, she said she was sure they all had animal souls. "How could they not, " she said. "They are all God's creation. Just imagine what a noise there will be when we get to heaven!"

There is a sense of cheerfulness throughout this book. In her reflection on prayer and art, Wendy writes: "Not to pray, not to be a true Christian, is to declare a reluctance to live life to the full. It is the choice of a small, warm, selfish life. It would be like Rembrandt refusing to paint because he could live on his wife's money."

She writes: "Jesus told us that He had come so that we might have life and live it to the full. That 'full' includes responding to the wonders of our world, experiencing them to as to be wholly alive. Friendship, the natural world, music, books, film, the list is very long. High on it, it seems to me, comes art."

And at times art is prayer ­ Sr Wendy speaks of the icon painters who fasted and prayed before they painted. This section is illustrated by an Icon of Mother and Child painted in about 550 and one of only eight known survivors of the iconoclasts, who ravaged the eastern Empire in the seventh and eighth century. "It is a loving tender image. I can never tire of gazing at it." she said.
Sister Wendy on Prayer' is a book of many treasures which I am sure will become a classic.

16 October 2007 - 950 words

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