With Outstretched Arms, Like Wings, by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg

A visit with the famed nun and art historian

March 10, 2018

Dearest Sister Wendy,

I wanted to share this dream with you. I was in Dorothy Day’s old room in Maryhouse. She was very old. There were other people in the room but we were able to talk quietly. I was telling her things I thought would interest her, including my editions of her diaries and letters. In my dream I wasn’t conscious that I was telling her about her own diaries and letters—in fact, I said, “you would find the letters especially interesting, since I presume you know many of the people you wrote to.”

By this time everyone else was gone. I was afraid that I might be boring her. We were sitting on the floor. I started to tell her about YOU—and “you know, the nun who did all the programs about art?” She didn’t seem to recognize  you, so I was telling her all about your story, and about our correspondence. At this point I realized that Dorothy was growing very tired. She lay down and put her head in my lap, and I just started stroking her hair. Then I woke up. 

I thought you would rejoice to share dream space with Dorothy.

As for Fr. Bill’s icons: Please don’t feel any regrets if you don’t think this is something you can do. I was very moved by your explanation—that you find yourself so drawn into prayer that it seems unnatural to comment on the icon as you normally would with a work of art. Still, I wonder if there is not a way of approaching this that wouldn’t violate the nature of your response, but would, in fact, assist others in truly seeing more deeply the spiritual reality depicted in the icon.

In responding to, say, an icon of John the Baptist, would it not be possible to reflect on the mystery represented by the saint, and use that as an entry into prayer, rather than, say, commenting like an art critic on the placement of the hands and the other iconographic conventions?

But of course I will respect your decision. And I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself or approach this as some kind of job or commitment.

Hoping a combination of antibiotics and extra rations of toast and grog will restore your health.

March 15, 2018

Dearest Robert,

I can see now why people hail you as a genius because your suggestion about Fr. Bill’s icons is a doable one. I don’t want to do it and don’t know if it will actually be done, but I’ve been praying and thinking and here is what I would offer on the icon of St. John the Baptist:

St. John the Baptist

John the Baptist was the first person we know of to encounter the adult Jesus. He was overwhelmed by two insights. One was that this Jesus, who had come to him so unexpectedly, was the Lamb of God. This meant, of course, that he immediately saw that Jesus was a sacrifice, a victim. Right up to the passion, despite all that Jesus taught them and spelled out for them, the apostles could not get their minds around this. John saw at once: Jesus was called to die for the sins of the world.

He also saw the immense, incomprehensible distance between himself and Jesus. He summed it up by saying that he baptized with water but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. John was calling his countrymen to repentance, to sorrow for their sins, and the baptism in the Jordan was a symbol of this. It showed their good will and their desire, but it did not change them; it did not take away their sins. Baptism with the Holy Spirit was sacramental, no longer a symbol, but a reality. As the catechism says, it achieves what it signifies.

Yet John did not follow Jesus, and Jesus did not call him. After this one tremendous encounter, Jesus moved on into His mission and John stayed by the Jordan baptizing until he was arrested and martyred. The comment Jesus makes about John (who had sent a message from his prison in a state of doubt, wondering whether Jesus was truly the Messiah or whether they still had to wait) is an illuminating one. Jesus praises John as He praised nobody else, no one greater has been born. He goes on to say that the “least in the Kingdom of God is greater” than this towering saint who belongs really to the Old Testament. The difference between John and the “least” is that the least has been baptized, and so lives in the Kingdom. The least, and which of us does not feel that we are the least, can say, because of baptism, “I live now not I but Christ lives in me.” Baptism is a life-changing event that no words can really describe. We are taken out of ourselves and into the life of the Blessed Trinity. We can neglect to see what has happened to us, but that is another matter. We are in the Kingdom.

It seems to me that this icon is really about baptism. John has worn himself out with longing for the Kingdom, and he stretches out painfully to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is there, but enclosed in his own heaven world, our world, the baptism world, which is not John’s. It is an orb which the Spirit completely fills. And of his own power, John cannot reach it. Years later St. Paul would find people who believe themselves to be Christians, but had never even “heard of the Holy Spirit.” They had only received John’s baptism. Jesus’ baptism was of a different order, not a natural order, but one that brought us into the heaven of the Spirit, and made us able to dwell in Him and He in us.

We cannot make ourselves temples of the Spirit; grace is pure gift. But for each of us, God will give us what for us is best. For John, it was the longing and the inability. Perhaps we who have the ability through grace do not have the longing.

I don’t know if you think this would be acceptable. But dearest Robert, this is a struggle for me. I can’t think why I ever suggested writing those commentaries. I am hoping that you’ll say that you like my effort, will send it to Fr. Bill, and explain that there’s not going to be a book. But if you are set upon it I will try to produce four more.

I’m still smiling about your beautiful dream. Dorothy is part of you now, and I can’t think of a saint who would be more wonderful to have intimately associated with oneself, perhaps St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. But Dorothy is her own way is as great and as beautiful. I am not surprised she had no recollection of me, but I hope from heaven she looks at me with loving compassion.

A Trip to Quidenham

Quidenham is a small rural village in Norfolk, not far from the city of Norwich, home in the fourteenth century to the famous anchoress and mystic Julian, who was one of Sister Wendy’s favorites. The Carmelite monastery of Quidenham, where Sister Wendy lived, is situated in a great brick manor, acquired by the Carmelites in 1948, and expanded to include a chapel and other buildings. The sisters, who all live within the monastery enclosure, are rarely seen in public. Surrounding the monastery are sparse woods and fields populated by wild pheasants.

Monica and I arrived on November 8 and were warmly greeted by the prioress, Sister Stephanie, before being sown to our lodging in the well-named “Peace Cottage.” That afternoon we were able to have a brief visit with Sister Wendy, who was conducted by wheelchair into the “parlor” by Sister Lesley. Sister Lesley had warned us that Sister Wendy found it difficult to lift her head and look at people eye to eye. She herself had warned us about her failing hearing. But we had no difficulty communicating. Greeting us both warmly with an embrace and a kiss, she was as lively and engaging in person as in her letters. She had gifts to share, including presents for my children. What we discussed was not of great significance, as we mostly basked in the joy of meeting face to face at last.

That evening I shared some brief introductory remarks with the community. We had to be personally escorted through several doors and hallways to arrive at the meeting room in the enclosure. Sister Stephanie had graciously made allowance for Monica to attend my presentations, and she sat beside the sisters, who were arranged in a wide semi-circle around the room while I sat before them at a little table in the middle. I don’t know what I had expected this inner sanctum to look like, but I can report that it resembled nothing so much as an ordinary library.

I had been told that for the sisters’ part the retreat would be conducted in silence. And so I was surprised, but not unhappy, when on the first evening one of the sisters asked if she could make a comment. She said that they had been reading Kate Hennessy’s book about her grandmother, Dorothy Day. “I think that many of us have the feeling that we don’t really care for Dorothy,” she said. That was the only intervention during the course of the retreat. Otherwise, I gave two talks per day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, on the subject of saints and holy lives, and how in reading the spiritual text written in their lives we can learn to read the story that God is writing in our lives.

In between I had a full schedule of “parlor” meetings with individual sisters, including Sister Lesley. The so-called parlor was a rather austere room separated by a long table, at which I was seated on one side, while on the other, a door opened up from the enclosure. These sessions were invariably fascinating, some of them deeply personal and moving. Each sister had something very specific to discuss—rarely connected to the topics I had discussed, except insofar as they shared their own journeys of faith. I learned that many of them had a particular passion for poetry, music, or art. While from a distance they were all quite uniform in their brown Carmelite habits, it was clear that there were no two alike, and for this many of them credited the forward-looking attitude of Sister Rachel (Ruth Burrows). In her influential term as prioress she—who had welcomed Sister Wendy to live on the grounds of Quidenham—had encouraged the sisters to cultivate and value their individual gifts. It seemed like a very happy community. I was honored to have a parlor session with Sister Rachel herself.

Between talks and sessions, Monica and I roamed the country roads and fields around the monastery and attended some of the monastic hours of prayer from a section of the chapel reserved for guests. Our section, which we had all to ourselves, faced the altar, and on the other side was the choir where the sisters gathered. Sister Wendy, who was not part of the monastic community, only attended Mass each day from an alcove overlooking the choir. On our last evening Sister Lesley asked us please to make sure to notice Sister Wendy during the “exchange of peace” as she wished to send us a special blessing. Sure enough, when the moment came, we saw Sister Wendy, sitting in her wheelchair, gazing at us with a great smile and with outstretched arms, like wings, raised up in the air.

We were able to see her again the next day before our departure. She happily posed with us for photos and chatted about my experience and impressions of the community. I have little recollection of what we said. Words were the least of it. But as we parted she grasped my arm and said, “You know, for me this is heaven.” ◆

Excerpted from Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books). Used with permission.

This piece is from the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Parabola, DARKNESS & LIGHT. The full issue is available to purchase on our online store.