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Finding God in the silent moments

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When she knelt expectantly after Communion, she heard nothing. It was then, she said, that she realized that God's way of communicating is in the silence. Sister Wendy has been comfortable with silence ever since.

Effie
Caldarola

Do you ever sit idly in front of the television, remote control in hand pointed like a weapon, and flip through channels wondering why the offerings are so bad?

It's enough to make a woman pitch her remote and grab the nearest novel. Fortunately, right before I did that one night, I switched to public television and found a documentary about Sister Wendy Beckett.

Do you remember Sister Wendy? I think everyone at some point has caught her art programs, where she arouses in ordinary viewers an interest in painting and art.

The documentary revealed Sister Wendy's ability to help you fall in love with a painting. Her explanation of Caravaggio's portrayal of Christ with the woman caught in adultery and her accusers brought me to prayer.

But the documentary's focus this time was Sister Wendy. The nun, now 84, exudes a holy joy. Originally a teaching sister, she later experienced a call to the contemplative life. Today, she lives, a hermit, on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England. She wears a full habit and smiles out at the world from behind large glasses.

Some have described her teeth as "rabbit-like," and indeed she would have been an orthodontist's dream if she had been an American child. Instead, she was born into a British family in South Africa where her father was a doctor.

Even as a child, Wendy felt the pull and presence of God. In the documentary, she tells a charming tale of her first Communion. She was sure that when she finally received Christ in the host, she would hear him speaking to her. When she knelt expectantly after Communion, she heard nothing.

It was then, she said, that she realized that God's way of communicating is in the silence. Sister Wendy has been comfortable with silence ever since. She prays for hours each day in a little trailer on the Carmelite property.

Every sister must do work to help support the community, she said, so originally she translated Latin texts. Somehow, it became obvious that she had a particular gift for explaining art and revealing the sacred in it.

She has presented several art history programs and written more than 25 books on the subject. One of her latest books is "Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons."

Listening to Sister Wendy, it was clear she is a woman completely at peace in her intimate relationship with God. I felt as if I might be listening to Julian of Norwich or any of the great anchorites of history, women who have separated themselves from the constant noise and distractions of life yet who seem to understand life better than anyone.

In 2010, Sister Wendy told The Telegraph in England that when she was young, it seemed that being a nun was the way to belong totally to God. Now she realizes, "This was narrow thinking. Anybody can belong totally to God, in any way of life and at any age. All he asks is our desire."

I thought about the silence that I miss out on, sometimes when I'm foolishly clicking through those television channels. Sister Wendy's joyful life reminds me that God is waiting in the silence for all of us.

EFFIE CALDAROLA IS A COLUMNIST WITH THE CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE.

Effie Caldarola is a columnist with the Catholic News Service.

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