Last week I sent the following email to friends: ‘I knew I would have a role model somewhere. I just didn’t realise that it would be a virgin and a hermit!
Remember I told you that I recently ran into my senior school teacher, a sister of the Order of Notre Dame, as I was leaving an art exhibition opening. We met for coffee yesterday to fill in the missing decades. It was fascinating: two women, two very different lives yet much in common.
And then my former teacher mentioned the story of Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun who began her religious life with the Order of Notre Dame. It’s wonderful! She is a religious hermit who in the latter years of her life decided to also follow another calling, her love of art. She has narrated art programmes and written some serious art books.
When you have a moment Google Sister Wendy Beckett. A truly remarkable, lovely story.’
Now who would have thought that a seemingly innocent note would spark such a swift and sharp exchange between so-called friends? Shrieks of laughter accompanied correspondence of my mistaken sense of self. Just how was I going to mould my mid-life career change on that of a holy woman? Rather go for the Peggy Guggenheim example, they howled.
Of course they missed the point completely, but on a roll they were. Why can’t they see that I am inspired by a woman of a certain age who decided to fulfil her vocation in the art world? Protestations that a lifetime dedicated to religious devotion is not on the cards for me in this life fell on deaf ears.
The delightful Sister Wendy Beckett has for the past 40 years lived at the Carmelite Monastery in Quiddenham, Norfolk, UK. She is a consecrated virgin (sounds very serious) and lives entirely separate in a caravan a few minutes’ walk away from the monastery where her fellow sisters reside. She lives a life of solitude except for when she took time out as a TV art critic in the nineties or to promote books that she has authored on art, poetry and prayer. Her life story has even inspired a musical, Postcards from God. She was born in South Africa in 1930 but moved to Edinburgh where her father studied to be a doctor. As a novice nun she read English at Oxford, returning to South Africa to teach before settling in the UK.
I am no Sister Wendy, but in my defence I do meditate, practice yoga and try to live a decent life. And, for the record, I work alone from my dining room table on my art musings. That’s something, isn’t it? I’m not remotely a hermit, nor a saint, nor pure as the driven snow and, come to think of it, I enjoy life to the full. Does that make me wicked? Maybe a just a little, compared to an extreme case of virtue.
Say what you may, nothing is going to stop me from taking a leaf out of the good nun’s book, at least on the art front.
 The Independent November 4, 2006: Wendy Beckett: Sister act accessed 10/03/10