Sister Wendy Beckett, who is the absolute best, died this past December at the age of eighty-eight. I’ll have piece next week at Aleteia about how this innocent woman was so very profound and wise, not in spite of, but because of her innocence.
In her interviews, she exudes innocence. Her very lifestyle is one designed to protect her innocence, and the fruits of her personal discipline in remaining so are immediately apparent, from the kindly look in her eye to the gentle way she speaks. She is unguarded, the sort of person a salesman will identify as a mark until, perhaps, he realizes that she will speak to him happily for as long as he wants and that it is he, in fact, who has become trapped. This innocence of Sister Wendy’s is not to be mistaken for weakness. It is her hidden treasure, and it gives her a specifically Catholic perspective on the world. In particular I notice she has a compelling vision of sex and the human body in art.
I remember when I first became Catholic and read a book on theology of the body. It was startling, straightforward, indecently descriptive, challenging, and so incredibly reactionary that I didn’t know how to respond. Here I was, reading a Catholic theologian give an enthusiastic recommendation to have sex, lots of it. And to have babies, lots of them. And to celebrate life in all its carnal glory. The reason it shocked me is because, all my life, I’d been thinking about sex all wrong. Theology of the body is an innocent, edenistic teaching, predicated on the notion that a man and woman can willfully create a permanent bond between them that encompasses both body and soul. It’s the romantic language of two people totally open to life and ready to see what happens when they allow their love to grow beyond what they had suspected were the outermost boundaries of their hearts. Marital love is brave, but also fragile. When ripped from its proper context, it wilts and browns. It must remain innocent or it ceases to be a faithful and true gift. Destroy innocence and you destroy the love. Without love, sex is mechanical and boring. It is the innocence that makes it exciting.
Sister Wendy exposes the reason why. In an interview with Bill Moyers, she criticizes the way that controversial topics are used in art. Modern artists, it turns out, are puritanical. Take, for instance, Piss Christ. She says; “I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, magazine-y type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine—in practice. It was a very admonitory work.” In other words, this innocent woman was not offended in the least and this controversial piece of art, if guilty of anything, ends up being too simplistic and boring. It is commentary worthy of a glossy magazine, and it is defiantly moralistic. She says, “There’s quite a lot of art that gives that instant satisfaction, of feeling that ‘I know that I can judge this.’ Without having to look, without having to take trouble, I just know because it’s so obvious, is comforting art. Whereas you see, real art makes demands.” Art that takes great pains to be controversialist, sophisticated, and transgressive fails to shock this innocent nun. Instead, she looks at it and yawns.
In the same interview, Moyers patronizes her as he admonishes, “What would the nuns in your convent think if they heard you discussing the naked little slave girl in the tomb of Ramses, […] or where you compare the breasts of the matron to the firm little apples of everyone else?” Wendy refuses to be shamed. After all, the other sisters would be talking the same way. Their innocence has set them free. They are set afire with love for the world, the king has spread his table, and they are in the bridal chamber. It is Moyers, by asking such a naive question, who is revealed to be the puritan. He considers sex something to be censored, something beyond acceptable boundaries as an acceptable topic for artistic expression. But to Wendy, full of innocent wisdom, all the world is fruitful.