Monday, January 14, 2019

It's probably significant that I like bitters

At the same time that I was purring over my Four Complaints about Christmas Eve midnight Mass, and thinking that someday historians and God would see that here was the summation of It All, the wonderful -- I may almost say, the great -- Sister Wendy Beckett died. December 26, 2018, at the age of 88. How fitting that this cheery lady should die the day after cheerful Christmas!

I own quite a few of her books and I have watched and loved all her television shows. I saw to it that my now-grown children also knew about her. They can quote her on the muscular heroine, in a painting of Judith and Holofernes, "swinging the man's head like an apple," and about Henry VIII's being a "horrible man with little piggy eyes." At the age of six or seven my son made a Lego scene of Sister Wendy visiting an art museum, complete with an entrance arch, green plants, a cameraman and a kiosk with a map of the "museum." He used the black hood and cape from a Darth Vader Lego figure to represent a nun in traditional garb. Yesterday when I told my daughter that Sister Wendy died she exclaimed, "No! That sucks." She remembered.

Even though the good sister's art writing is wonderful, there are tiny hints from her heyday in the world in the 1990s, interviews and so on (though not this one), that gatekeepers and purists chafed at her. I wonder if their complaint was, that she does tend to treat painting all a bit alike. She treats it as a coded story -- a kind of play performed, an arrangement of symbols which she elucidates. Almost no talk of brushwork or line, as I suppose the gatekeepers wanted. Still, she decoded art with more profundity than most of us do, who scarcely walk into a museum at all and absolutely don't use the most necessary tool of all in appreciating art. That would be "a chair," as she once quoted someone else saying. In other words we don't stop, look, and think.

She did. She noticed that the iron scrollwork of an apartment balcony in a Matisse spelled the word Non, and that that had something to do with the angry couple in the painting. She noticed that a young squire's droopy socks in a Gainsborough portrait marked him as a "yobbo." She noticed the seven different flowers lightly incised on the seven lobes of a sea-green Korean ceramic jar, and told what joy it was to commune silently with a great work of porcelain art. If you do go into an art museum you can do that too, in privacy, because almost nobody visits Halls of Oriental Ceramics.

The gatekeepers who may have found this amateurish also did not approve of a nun looking at pictures of naked people -- a salacious criticism on their own part, she shot back. For my part, gradually after absorbing her art books I came to find her writing on prayer.

This struck me afresh. She always slipped in a few spiritual comments here and there in her introductions to be sure, or with the voice-overs to her shows. One of the best, from Sister Wendy's American Collection, was "Poverty, whether spiritual or economic, leaves us enslaved to work, either having it or wanting it ... museums, like theaters and libraries, are a means to freedom; they take us out of our daily anxieties into the vast and stable world of human creativity." When she discussed religious art, naturally she could let herself go. Unhappy customers on Amazon to this day who give her books only one star snipe at this. Why is all the art Christian? Not everybody's Christian. Ah well, dear soul, get a chair and let us look at Western civilization ....

To really settle into her writing on prayer, a much more important matter for her than art she said ("I would die for it") is to settle into much more deep, difficult, and practiced writing and thinking. Here, you might say, she is a professional, interested in brushwork and line. Here you are learning from a "content woman" who has done one thing for fifty, sixty, seventy years. There are gems to be found with her, fingered, turned, set down and looked at again and again in an effort to understand. Over the years I have created a small handwritten prayer book of my own by copying down quotes that seem to me prayerful, or at least very wise, and Sister Wendy has pride of place at the beginning of my jottings.

"The life of prayer depends completely on believing in the value of prayer. It is a total act of faith, because there is no concrete result to show the world.

"Art is essentially beauty that draws us into the truth of our own being, and whenever we have truth and beauty we have God. ... Art can expose parts of the self I was not aware of, so there is more of me laid bare for God to possess. Art is a way of making me human, and you cannot pray unless you are rooted in the truth of your own humanity. 

"Prayer is never an escape but the opposite, an exposure. The real self is held out to the real God, and any pretense or lack of reality makes the whole exercise futile." 

All the above are from her art books mostly. From The Gaze of Love (1993) comes "The real difficulty about prayer is that it has no difficulty. Prayer is God's taking possession of us. We expose to him what we are, and he gazes on us with the creative eye of Holy Love ...our concern here and now is the actual time we set aside to grow in truth, to receive love, in other words, to pray." You can spend your work day thinking from time to time of these two tasks, "to grow in truth and to receive love," and consider that this is perhaps, as the Scriptures exhort, to pray constantly.

According to a fond obituary in Catholic Herald, Sister Wendy was, before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, "Sister Michael of St. Peter." One of the many formalities given up at that time was evidently the formality of religiously vowed men and women taking an entirely new name in religion. Remember in the novel In This House of Brede when one of the pre-Vatican II novices becomes "Sister Polycarp"? Just so, our own Sister Wendy bore not one but two masculine names. When in the spirit of the Council she reverted to her own plain Wendy, she assessed it as an act of penance because she did not deserve the strength of the names of the Archangel and the first pope.

Go back to the beginning. Remember my sneering over my Four Complaints about Midnight Mass? What I mean to say now, in remembering our delightful art- and yobbo-critic nun, is here is someone who has carried on and done the work of God in obedience and joy regardless of, shall we say, small penances, or her own small observations of things outside her control. (I can't say "sneering" because it's impossible to imagine her sneering at anything. She might laugh at a person in a painting who is sneering.) She would have gone on doing her real job, prayer, whether the BBC ever discovered her or not, or whether a lot of artists made bad modern art or not. "I shake my head over much of it." Just as, after her television programs were famed but she declined to make any more, she still arose every morning at one a.m. to begin her true work day.

There are so many like her. You can sit and snort in derision at shortcomings at this year's Midnight Mass, or you can open the journal Dominicana or Word on Fire to see real work done. You can learn of the startling growth of the Latin Mass in United States parishes. You can read about the canonization causes of people you've never heard of, whose lives are beyond belief. John Bradburne, lay minister to lepers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), martyr, 1979. Much like Sister Wendy, these men and women are pulling treasures from an inexhaustible store, riches that are so wonderfully the opposite of ego that you cannot imagine you will ever reach that fount, because the trick is by the time you know of these exemplars they are already famous, and so you think the path to get to the treasures is to go on being as cute as possible and waving at the world from the back of the room. You also want, by the by, to spend time congratulating God on his good taste in you. After all there are so many other things you could be doing. " 'You ought to be thanking God on bended knee you get any vocations at all,' " fumes one angry mother in In This House of Brede. " 'We do,' " the Abbess begins calmly.

So I have thought a lot about what drives these people away from ego and into the treasure house from which they they end up drawing personal accomplishment yes, but more importantly obedience, contentment, and even the much-vaunted "joy." What drives them in is truth, of course. Either he rose from the dead or he did not. Deciding he did not turns out to be the more ridiculous decision.

What keeps them there, or at least an added benefit of their staying, is a way of looking at people untwisted by the ferocious loyalties and purities of politics. By politics I don't even mean civic involvement or voting or following the news, all of which matter. I mean the looking at people only through the lens of human judgment and for the sake of (what somebody will airily call) human needs. I will shape you in truth. I know best what is right for this world, and your getting on board matters. The idea of our both turning to worship God as sinners and as loved -- ridiculous! And when you displease me I will unfriend you on Facebook, which is not a minor act. Nor is my neighbor's son taking her to see the latest propaganda film, Vice, and then asking her cannily what she thought, a minor act. The son was politically indoctrinating the mother. She told me she was shaking with rage after, and spoke of the main character burning in hell. She got on board. Non-political ideas -- of original sin, of mercy, of common humanity, of redemption -- are ridiculous there.

And when I snort, really politically, at what I fancy are outrages of my expectations at Mass, and then I see the joyous, anonymous labor of a Sister Wendy or a John Bradburne, I think -- here are people who have moved into a different mindset. They would pray for the choir warbling bad music and for the son and the neighbor and me and Dick Cheney and the moviemaker -- "he's a comedian but he's really intelligent and he did a lot of research" -- and themselves; and then they would open another art book and take more notes, or go help the next leper in line. They are really alive.   

Sister Wendy in another of her prefaces to an art book says, most people want to become important by doing something different, new, how else but in other people's judgment, and that it takes a long time to unlearn this natural if sterile human trait. She also, being a nun, writes very plainly of the things that work to make a human being; the things that still embarrass the political personality. In tribute to a great lady who is an antidote to the desire to snort and judge, to wave ridiculously to the world from the back of the room, we learn: Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints, 2011:

We are all born and each of us will die: Those are the two certainties of life. In between these certainties God has given us the gift of time so that we may grow into the fullness of what we are meant to be. This fullness is different for each of us, but the ways n which it is achieved are the same. 
Since God made us in his own image and we know what that image is through the historical actuality of Jesus, each person's fullness is an attainment of a likeness to our Blessed Lord. When we are as God wants us to be, we will have within us what St. Paul calls 'the mind of Christ.' We learn it through reading the Scriptures where God reveals himself in his son, and, complementary to that, we come close to Our Blessed Lord in the books written by those who have understood the Scriptures. 
Yet prayer, worship, and reading are only a part of our day (though, literally speaking, everything is or should be prayer). One of the most neglected truths is that we learn to become like Jesus through the actual process of living. God is giving himself to us all  the time; but all too often we do not see it. He gives himself in human relations, in nature, in literature, in music, in art.  

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