A Few Steps from Paradise
“God wants to love us and to give Himself. He wants to draw us to Himself and infuse His peace. The humblest, most modest, almost imperceptible rubbing of our fingers on the door and it flies open”.
Wendy Mary Beckett
I wonder what we would say if we were to be asked who are the greatest spiritual guides of modern times. A few names might spring immediately to mind – Thomas Merton, Saint John-Paul II, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama…
Not many, I think, would include on their list the name of Sister Wendy Beckett. Following her death on Boxing Day the obituaries were lavish in their praise of her as a brilliant and world-renowned art critic and hermit, who made occasional sorties from her caravan in the grounds of a Carmelite Monastery to record insightful and unique documentaries on famous paintings. Few articles, indeed only one that I read, hinted that she might also be a great contemporary spiritual guide. Perhaps the greatest, who knows?
By a lovely act of Providence I recently had the privilege of staying in the flat she had occupied during the last 18 months of her life. It is situated adjacent to the convent grounds where she spent 50 years, praying seven hours a day. It was an extraordinary blessing to read her words in that holy place.
Those who know about these things attest that she had been wholly taken over by Jesus. Her ego had been consumed in the fire of God’s love. It is not too much to say that she was a living example of St Paul’s words “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). That I why it is so important that we listen to her, for she speaks as one who is wholly given to God.
Moreover, she was a mystic who, like St Teresa of Avila, possessed the (very rare) charism of being able to “see” how God was acting within her. Of course, she also had a towering intellect (having gained a congratulatory first-class honours degree in English Literature at Oxford) and a genius for communication (the BBC production team who recorded her art programmes called her “One-take Wendy”!). She had an enormously fruitful and creative friendship with the author Ruth Burrows who was for many years the Prioress of the Carmel, and who is herself a truly great spiritual guide. Here then is someone to whom we must listen.
The sole purpose of this blog therefore is to urge you to read “Sister Wendy on Prayer” (Continuum, 2006). It is available through Amazon. It is wise, beautiful and compelling. This unsatisfactory blog can give you only the merest flavour of her teaching and serves simply as a signpost to her words.
Her central theme is simply this: God is desperate to give Himself to us. We do not need to woo him to obtain his love!
“The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us. That he should do this is the whole purpose of life…prayer places us helpless before God and we feel the full bitterness of who we are…For most of the time we can persuade ourselves that we are good enough, good as the next man, perhaps even better, who knows? Then we come to prayer – and there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand”.
“Ask yourself – what do I really want when I pray? Do you want to be possessed by God? Or to put the question more honestly, do I want to want it? Then you have it. The one point Jesus stressed and repeated and brought up again is- whatever you ask of the Father he will grant it to you.”
But, she stresses, you must really want God, prayer must really engross you, and you must persevere come what may. She echoes Teresa of Avila here – you must never, ever give up, even if you die in the attempt! You may well get nothing at all “back” of course. Listen to this:
“The holiest person I know has never had the slightest interior intimation that God exists. All she gets back from her prayer is doubt and darkness. 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. With this agonising sense of her own personal weakness and her absolute absence of felt certainty, she chooses. She chooses to believe. …This woman chooses to love God and to serve Him and to believe in Him even if she gets nothing back. It is a glory to know that she exists and that there are others like her”.
(Sister Wendy on Prayer)
We must be like her in our daily choice to pray. In Sister Wendy’s room was an icon of Christ at the Well (see above). Sister Wendy speaks of this Gospel incident (John 4: 4-42) in her book, though she uses a painting by Duccio de Buoninsegna. The aspect that seems to interest her most is the fact that the woman stands alone and exposed before Jesus. “She does not hide her poor human emptiness: she exposes it… she is the living symbol of our need for Him. She stands still, an image of the stillness we choose at prayer…The woman went away wholly changed, fed and renewed to her inmost depths.”
So it must be with us: standing before Him unprotected, absolute trust in His unconditional love, an unshakeable resolution to persevere in prayer. “Prayer is God’s concern, and his one desire is to come and make His abode in us”.
And most importantly, she emphasises that we must be “misers” for prayer, because most of us do not have long periods of free time to pray. That does not matter – we must grab hold of every tiny opportunity the day or night offers us to bring ourselves to Him, whatever we feel like: “God does not ask us to pass a test of how beautiful our feelings are. He simply wants us to pray”.
This delightful painting, “Paradiso” by Giovanni di Paolo, was one of her favourites and was reproduced on the prayer card following her death. This is what she had to say about it:
“…Giovanni thinks the essence of heaven is being loved. Everybody here has a dear partner. They may be meeting again a long time after death has parted them, or they may be people who have never had a real friend, but now they have found one… They all stand amidst flowers with golden trees behind them, and when the kissing and rejoicing is over, an angel at the top right will lead them into even greater glory. Friends, partners, mothers, fathers, – they are all waiting for us in Paradise, says Giovanni”.
“My Favourite Things” (Harry N Abrams Inc Publishers)
Also on her prayer card was this from St Paul, which beautifully sums up of her teaching:
“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom; and we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:17).