Wednesday 23 April 2014

Watching Sister Wendy

Sister Wendy was on TV again, in a documentary on the Arts channel. The interviewer described her as ‘all glasses and teeth’ – (she has teeth like a rabbit). Her physical appearance did not prevent her from becoming a household name all over the world, as the presenter of programmes on the history of art. What she looks like is as nothing to the power of her presentation.

The focus of this documentary was on her life rather than on art works only. She's no ordinary person. For one thing, she’s very clever: a First from Oxford - one of the best results ever, in English Lit, studying under Tolkien. Her religious Order forbade her to mingle or talk to the other students and she sat and studied every night. Socialising was never her forte.

She taught English and Latin at a school for 20 years, and has been the Mother Superior of a convent. Now that she is over 80 years old, she lives in complete seclusion as a hermit and a ‘Consecrated Virigin’ (whatever that means), in a Carmelite convent in England, separated from the other nuns,  at first in a caravan ‘bought for 60 pounds’,  and parked in a thicket in a remote part of the grounds, and later, when the caravan ‘fell to pieces’,  in a little prefab, about which she says ‘A bath! And an inside toilet!’  (Things must have been pretty rough in the caravan - she also mentions a skylight which leaked). She attends mass daily, still keeping herself apart: she sits in the belfry.

She wanted to be a nun since the age of four, when she had a powerful  experience of God’s presence. It just happened the once, but it was ‘enough to last a life-time”, she says. About her virginity, she says directly to the camera that she lacks any sexual urge, “It was always a mystery to me.”  She regrets that giving up sex was so easy: she would have liked the opportunity to sacrifice more for God.

At times she said things which resonated so directly with me that I experienced a pang in my chest (my heart?) and tears came to my eyes. I was moved, I can’t say why. I am hoping I‘ll understand better what that was about by writing about it. 

The first was when she said about the paintings she chose, that here we have  "...a great genius illustrating something that Christ experienced or suffered, and trying to make Christ's experience visible" - she sees the paintings as a gateway to spiritual experience. 

Piero Della Francesca painted Christ's baptism by St John - Christ is very pale-skinned and blond, and holds his hands prayerfully , but there is a vertical gap between the hands, which are not placed quite symmetrically. And over his head, over St. John's bowl of water and the hand of St John pouring it, there floats a white dove, its wings spread out horizontally, like the purest blessing.  I wondered at the space between the hands, what it meant. It is at the centre of the painting, where Christ's heart might be. And then I realised that the space between the hands, the pouring water and the wings above them form the beginning of a cross which is completed by the dove's tail at the very top. The dove appears quite still, though there is a lot happening elsewhere in the painting, with angels on one side and various religious people in the background. It may be that none of them can see the dove. None of them are looking at it. Jesus himself is looking straight ahead, out of the canvas and is unaware of it. 

In the film, when this painting was introduced, the dove was initially kept out of the frame. The picture looked complete as it was, Christ's baptism. And after Sister Wendy had commented for a while about other aspects of the work, they showed the dove on her own, filling the screen. We hadn't been aware that she was there beforehand. It gave her added emphasis. I shall not forget the experience.

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