Review by Amy Real Coultas
The practice of sharing spiritual fellowship through the exchange of letters has deep roots in Christian tradition. Spiritual Letters and Love and Salt are welcome contemporary responses to the call in Galatians to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way … fulfill the law of Christ.”
Spiritual Letters is the first collection of personal correspondence published from Sister Wendy Beckett, widely known for her narration of the popular BBC art history series Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. The volume is largely composed of letters written between 1970 and 1986 to Sister Ann, the superior and college principal who would first call Sister Wendy into her study of art.
By Sister Wendy Beckett.
Orbis. Pp. 325. $24
Many of the letters document the passion and curiosity for art history shared by the two nuns, which unfolds alongside a spiritual friendship exploring themes of fear, suffering, leadership, and obedience in the life of faith. In commenting on the work of Johannes Vermeer, Sr. Wendy contrasts his use of “the window” (allowing light to enter an indoor scene) with the Impressionists’ focus on the effects of light in the open landscape, both seen by her as symbols of the Light of Christ: “God seems to be found in freedom, in experience, in openness — but the true finding is in sacrifice, in deliberate renunciation of other possibilities. He comes to be seen through His Jesus-window, when we have gone into the enclosed room of our own truth and let Him shine as He pleases.”
Spiritual Letters is a surprisingly intimate journey into the formation of the beloved art nun. Often such collections are designed as an introductory offering on the life of a spiritual icon. Not so here. The very core of Sr. Wendy is available in the Spiritual Letters, and the quirky, beguiling, habited TV star makes no apologies for the demands of the religious life. Those who expect to find the highly accessible TV narrator and art book commentator will be taken aback by the overt piety in the letters written to Sr. Ann, and will find the volume sometimes disjointed by having only one side of the conversation. Even so, the letters offer a candid peek into Sr. Wendy’s spiritual life away from the media. You will discover a profoundly faithful woman who continually seeks to let her whole life rest in the hands of God.
In Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith endeavor to be those hands of God for each other as they share their struggles across two years of letters, hoping “to preserve and make sense of our daily lives,” and writing each day “to confess and console, to rant and grieve.” Andrews and Mesman Griffith met during a graduate school writing workshop and discovered their shared longing for a deeper relationship with God. They were soon separated by life’s transitions, but Andrews’s desire to convert to Roman Catholicism, with Mesman Griffith as her sponsor, bound them together for the next several years. Their exchanges began as a daily Lenten discipline, but continued even after Andrews was confirmed at Easter. “We wrote because it was the only way we knew how to pray,” the two recall in the book’s prelude.
The following chapters describe all those realities of what it means to be human — conversion, doubt, hope, birth, death, love, anger — told with the frankness and humor and abundant compassion of best friends. The two writers refer often to the biblical narrative, their participation in the sacraments, and stories of the saints of the Church, along with other Christian writers. A bibliography is included.
The collection recounts with heartbreaking honesty a miscarriage by Andrews and Mesman Griffith’s steadfast support. “Today,” Mesman Griffith writes to her grief-stricken friend, “Sister Barbara told you that you now have a saint in your midst. You cried when you told me this. Thank God for her. Everything I say sounds awful and stupid. I will never send this to you.” Their letters and visits continue through Andrews’s second pregnancy and the birth of her son.
Love and Salt and Spiritual Letters provide different approaches to the tradition of spiritual friendship. Both delve deep into the harsh realities of human suffering and seek the comforting face of Christ in the midst of pain and fear. Spiritual Letters shares the Church’s offer of unyielding strength: the hope found in receiving the gifts of Scripture, sacraments, community, and obedience. Love and Salt offers the hope of resolute companionship: someone with whom to wade into the swiftly moving waters of baptized life. Every Christian needs the support of a spiritual partner who will offer both respite and accountability. These books provide a touching model for such friendship.
The Rev. Amy Real Coultas is canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Kentucky and an associate of the Order of Julian of Norwich.