Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg | Orbis Books, 2022
by Ron Dart: My friend, amongst many scholarly pursuits and prolific writing, was awarded in 2022 a Degree of Doctor of Ministry and Humanities, Honoris Causa by St. Stephen’s University. He has often, gratefully, contributed to this website. Ron fully retires this year from teaching at the University of the Fraser Valley. A Festschrift in his honour is in the making.
I have sitting on my desk before me Sister Wendy Beckett’s classic visual and textual beauty and must read of a tome, Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces (1999). Sister Wendy certainly established herself as one of the most significant art historians (both on BBC and in publishing) in the latter half of the 20th century and into the early years of the 21st century. Robert Ellsberg and Orbis Books have established a unique and needful place in the publishing world in the genre of prophetic theology. It is rare that a much respected nun and art historian and a writer engaged in the rigorous field of public theology would dialogue in a meaningful and intimate correspondence but such is the evocative and compelling mother lode of Dearest Sister Wendy.
Sister Wendy Beckett was in the late autumn season of her all too earthy journey when the intensive and extensive correspondence began with Robert Ellsberg, the most compact phase from 2016-2018, Sister Wendy crossing the river December 26, 2018. There is a tender and sensitive combination of letters between Robert Ellsberg and Sister Wendy that, insightfully so, are divided into three historic sections: “The Art of Seeing,” “The Art of Loving,” and “The Art of Letting Go.”
The general momentum of the letters has a certain direction, Sister Wendy encouraging (she being a contemplative) Robert to slow down, ease up on all his frantic busyness, Robert kindly encouraging Sister Wendy to be more honest, transparent and confessional about herself and her life journey.
It is rare that multiple letters pass between friends on the faith journey within a year, but in 2016 almost 130 letters went to and fro between Sister Wendy and Robert, in 2017 the correspondence reached 150 letters and in 2018 only about 80. The correspondence covers a wide range of Roman Catholic and significant public issues, Sister Wendy’s initial hesitations about Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, and many of the troubling challenges within the Church but also pointers to men and women who were admirably in the thick of the fray.
Many are the fine photographs in the book that reveal much that a text cannot quite do in the same way, photographs of Sister Wendy Beckett (at various stages of her life), Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Henri Nouwen, Daniel Ellsberg, Yushi Nomura, Robert with Dorothy Day, Robert with his Mother, Mother Teresa, John Leary, Julian of Norwich, Sister Ruth Burrows and Sister Wendy, James Cone, Elizabeth of the Trinity, Icon of Sts. Laurus and Florus, Sister Helen Prejean, Fr. Bill McNichols, Sister Wendy’s Jubilee Card, Thomas Merton, Jim Forest, Icon of Catherine of Sienna, Robert with his father in the 1970s, Robert with Thich Nhat Hanh, Father James Martin, Joan Chittister, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and other photographs and icons. The galley of photos is significant in many ways as a sort visual autobiography of Sister Wendy and Robert Ellsberg (and their interests, priorities and meaningful relationships) and the various and varied saints that have encircled them on their faith journey. The final photograph of Sister Wendy in her wheelchair being pushed by another nun, a hand waving adieu is quite poignant and apt as the book ends with Sister Wendy’s death, although a short “Epilogue” and “Biographical Glossary” is worthy of the read.
The “Foreword” to the book by Sister Lesley Lockwood, “Introduction” by Robert and “Prologue” make for fitting bookends to the latter sections of the book. There is no doubt that Dearest Sister Wendy is a tender, incisive, insightful and probing correspondence about faith and friendship between Sister Wendy and Robert Ellsberg—it is also a book about both the importance of correspondence and ongoing reflections on many of the many issues and challenges in the church and the world and those engaging such challenges in a thoughtful and informed manner—certainly a tome worth many meditative reads and much inward digesting.