With eyes wide open
Shane Dwyer is the Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation and the Catholic Enquiry Centre.
Over the summer a significant little figure who added her own beautiful take on how to understand the wonder of human creativity has died.
She was the unexpected television star, winning a following the world over as she made the journey from country to country, gallery to gallery, work of art to work of art, to contemplate the essence of what she saw before her.
Sister Wendy Beckett was a natural guide and teacher. A nun vowed to the life of prayer and simplicity, she responded to the invitation to share her insights into the world’s great art because, in faith, she believed that was what God was asking of her. She had never seen a television program, much less understood what had to go into making one.
Producers were initially perplexed by her as she refused to provide them with a script. She talked off the cuff about what she saw before her, drawing spontaneously from the many hours of study she had put into her favourite hobby. When asked about this she responded: ‘I simply talk to the person behind the camera, trying as simply as I can to explain how the particular piece of art I’m standing before is impacting on me’.
To have a script (much less, a rehearsal) would have made the conversation she was having with the camera operator stilted. This would have impeded our seeing into her soul.
We caught a glimpse of a woman who was the living embodiment of that famous phrase from the philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard: ‘purity of heart is to will one thing’. Sister Wendy only wanted one thing: to experience and reflect the love of God. An unwitting interviewer asked her once: ‘if all you want is silence, prayer and the love of God, why are you making these television programs?’ The reason to her was obvious. ‘I have the special privilege of experiencing the love of God in my life, for others it is not so easy.
There are those who are so removed from that experience of God that they even believe God does not exist. The nearest a person who doesn’t believe in God may get to experiencing the wonder and beauty of God, is by contemplating the wonder and beauty of human art.’
It was faith and compassion that motivated her. When asked what she made of the society into which she would occasionally make her way, she responded: ‘I see people always hurrying about, searching for something. My heart goes out to them. Don’t they know that what they are looking for is all around them and inside them?’
By inviting people to sit and contemplate art (she once said a chair is essential if you are to have any hope of understanding a work of art), Sister Wendy did her best to encourage people to stop, take note, and so be open to something more than the superficial. It is the path to finding God and, paradoxically, to finding ourselves.
The connection with the season of Lent should be obvious. It begins by noting that our Lenten practice is intended to be a response to an invitation, not a burden to be reluctantly shouldered. You’re being invited to stop and look, and to put aside those things that prevent you from taking time and from seeing. Sr Wendy often used art as her entry into contemplation, but don’t misunderstand what she intended by this.
When described by an interviewer as someone whose love of God was only matched by her love of art she felt compelled to set the record straight: ‘my love of art pales into insignificance in comparison to my love of God’, she gently noted.
God is the point. I don’t know what you’ve decided to ‘do for Lent’, but I know that when it comes right down to it, it scarcely matters. That is to say: it doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do something. Even more accurately: what matters is what you’re looking for as you do what you do. At the centre of our Lenten observance is to be an embodied prayer, where we make real in our lives our desire for God to be God in, around and through us for the world.
Whether you’re successful in your own eyes when it comes to your Lenten observance isn’t the point either. Congratulations if you manage to last the whole 40 days without that much-enjoyed cup of coffee, or whatever it is you’ve decided to do. But if that observance doesn’t represent the real desire to enter into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so as to be re-formed in his image, then it is nothing more than an exercise of willpower.
Sr Wendy reminded us of that taking the time to observe and to allow God to make himself known is at the heart of who we are as human beings. We are made for this relationship, whether we are aware of it or not. ‘Lent’ is derived from the Old English word ‘Lencten’ which meant ‘Spring’. While it is for us an autumn experience, the fundamental idea remains: Lent is about taking the time to allow something new to grow within us.