This is the first year that I did not have a Christmas Card from Sr Wendy Beckett. Instead I had a little note from Sr Stephanie, the Prioress of the Carmelite monastery at Quidenham to say that her health was failing, but that she was happy and at peace. She died on 26th December 2018. Although she originally belonged to the teaching order of the Notre Dame sisters she became a hermit and lived in a rather primitive caravan in the grounds of the Carmelite monastery at Quidenham until her health deteriorated. I may well have met her in passing when I used to visit my great Auntie Mag, who was herself a member of the Notre Dame community at Oxford where Sr Wendy lived whilst studying at the University. She first became known as an art historian and a television personality in the 1990’s. It was at this time that I came to know her personally. She not only became a friend but a great support and inspiration to me when I was going through a particularly difficult period in my personal life. I was out of work and desperate for a job when quite out of the blue the Editor of the Catholic Herald who met my sister-in-law at some ‘do’ rang me up to ask if I would write the Lenten course for his paper. He must have liked it because he asked me to continue writing a much larger weekly column on a permanent basis. I was both delighted and horrified at one and the same time. Delighted that I would have a job and a permanent one at that, but horrified at the prospect of having to write it each week. It was hard enough for me to write short meditations for Lent, but how on earth was I going to write much longer columns week after week?
This boy is either stupid or lazy
You see, I am a dyslexic. And I mean seriously dyslexic. There are various degrees of dyslexia and I am about -20 degrees worse than most others I have met. At school my teachers subscribed to one of two theories – either “That boy is stupid!” or “That boy is lazy”. For myself, I didn’t know what to think. All I knew was that I was not stupid; I knew I had a good mind even if it did not easily conform to traditional teaching methods devised for the majority, and the examinations set to validate them. When my form master wrote on my school report, “You could scourge this boy and he would not work”, I just had to accept that what he said was true. Funnily enough, when in later life I had managed to master most of the other deadly sins, I found that despite what I was forced to believe, I never really mastered sloth. I do not remember too much of my school days because my ‘little problem’ made them one long continuous dark night that I wanted to blot out of my memory for good. However, things began to change for the better when the priest giving the annual school retreat said that God was not only everywhere, but knew everything and knew each one of us through and through, even our most secret thoughts.
That is why I turned to God
It suddenly occurred to me that if this was true he would know what was wrong with me and could show me how I could make something of a life that seemed doomed to failure before it had hardly begun. There and then I decided to turn to him for the help that I had not been able to find from anyone else. Fortunately for me the school had its own spiritual director. I asked him to sign me up for his weekly seminar on meditation for those who wanted to learn how to pray. I threw myself into it as if my life depended on it, because in a sense it did. I never gave less than half an hour a day to prayer and I often gave much longer. Meditation soon became comparatively easy, even enjoyable, and within months I was enjoying my ‘first fervour’, which lasted for more than a year.
Then suddenly, quite out of the blue everything changed. At the very moment I thought I had arrived at the top of Mount Carmel I found myself at the bottom, banished without rhyme nor reason from the new and exciting spiritual world that I was beginning to think was my birthright. I was utterly bereft and turned to one spiritual director after another, but nobody could help me. When I told them about my first fervour they all said, “Oh, we all go through that at the beginning”, but nobody seemed to know why it suddenly came to an end and what, if anything, came next. When other boys came to the same impasse they just dropped prayer and gave all their energy to studying for university because they had a future, but I did not. I just stuck to prayer, no matter how difficult it became – not because I was a particularly pious youth, because I was not, but simply because I had nowhere else to go and no one else to turn to.
You can bear anything if it has meaning
Then quite by chance I came across a book in the library called The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross, whom I had never heard of at the time. He described with embarrassing accuracy all the faults and failings that I fell into during my ‘first fervour’. Then he explained why I had to be led into the ‘Night’ to be purified of everything that stood in the way of what I desired more than anything else. Viktor Emil Frankl the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist once said that you can bear anything if it has meaning, and St John of the Cross had given meaning to what had been meaningless before. In time and with perseverance, light began to enter my darkness to encourage me along the way of purification. It was then that I turned to St John’s ‘big sister’ in Carmel, St Teresa of Avila, and to her masterwork Interior Castle, which explained these moments of light as clearly as St John explained the darkness. I hungrily devoured all their works. They not only helped my spiritual life but they helped my dyslexia too, because I simply had to read and re-read their every word to plunder the spiritual riches that I could not find anywhere else.
Sr. Wendy Beckett to the rescue
This might all be very well for my spiritual life, but it was not much help for my secular life where I had to earn a living. Thanks to my desperate need my reading had improved considerably, but my writing had not. It took me almost every moment of my time to prepare my column for publication each week. Frankly I was finding it all too much and I had no idea whether or not my readers, if there were any, appreciated what had taken me so much time and effort to say. I had actually decided that it might be better to jump before I was pushed when I received a fan letter from none other than Sr. Wendy Beckett. She said she not only loved what I was saying, but the way I was saying it. To receive such a compliment from someone who not only was awarded a Congratulatory First Class degree in English literature from Oxford University but the highest marks ever received so far in her subject, was for me literally life changing. There are many examples of her endorsements on my website (www.davidtorkington.com), but here is one that I have taken at random as an example :-
“Every book David Torkington writes is about prayer, the true deep prayer of the heart. He does not expound, he reveals, taking us with him on our own blundering search for faith. He writes as clear as spring water and as refreshing. It is this very simplicity that makes him so challenging. Some may be tempted to think that Torkington’s books, so easy to read, so attractive, so interesting, are therefore less serious. But their seriousness is that of Jesus himself, a matter of the inner spirit and not that of the outer casing.”
God’s power works best in human weakness
We became firm friends and in the years ahead she wrote introductions and quite incredible endorsements to my books. If it was not for her supporting my literary insecurity and inspiring me to continue writing when I was seriously thinking of taking up a paper round, or becoming a milkman, then I would not be writing this, nor would I have written over a dozen books on prayer and the spiritual life, not to mention many hundreds of columns for various newspapers at home and abroad. I was quite bereft when I heard of her death. Thanks to her I discovered a secret first penned many years ago by St Paul – “My grace is enough for you: My power is at its best in weakness… For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
How can I possibly thank her? You know the answer to that as well as I do, so please join me in praying for her. Pray for her for all she has done for the Church through her hidden life of prayer, and for all she has done through her television programs and her books. It was she who came to realise that her own recreational interest in art could enable her to reach millions who did not share her faith. If God is beauty then those who cannot find him in Church could find him in the arts, and so she spent many successful years showing how. Massive audiences turned on their televisions to listen to her brilliant ‘off the cuff’ lectures on the God, who can be found, not only in in the beauty of his creation, but in the works of those who try to depict it too.
Although Sr Wendy thought that my book, Wisdom from the Christian Mystics was my best and most important book to date, she sadly had to decline to write an introduction because her health would not permit it. The end was not far away.
8 December 2018 – Immaculate Conception of Mary
We are writing on behalf of Sr Wendy whose health is failing and sadly is unable to write Christmas cards to her dear friends. She has spoken to us of her wish to share with you her love and appreciation especially at this sacred time. Sr Wendy is happy and at peace.
May you enjoy her beautiful commentary as a gift from her heart to you this Christmas.
“It was to bring this glory down to earth that the little lamb renounced His royal state in the heavens, and came to live among us, as unprotected as any human baby ever was. From now until His final sacrifice and He moves back into His natural brightness, He will not only bring the glory of the Son to earth, but He will take us into it. We do not just see, but in Jesus we live the Glory of God.” Sr Wendy.
This is the promise that she lived in and hoped for all her life.
Sr Stephanie, Prioress, Carmelite Community, Rev Stephen Blair, Chaplain, Quidenham, Norfolk.