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An unlikely friendship: The letters of Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg

  • 02 December 2022
Dearest Sister Wendy … A surprising story of faith and friendship by Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsburg. Garratt Publishing, 2022 I confess to having had mixed feelings in the past about Sister Wendy Beckett. These feelings were not assuaged by people asking ‘is she really a nun?’ or saying that her habit wasn’t one they’d ever seen before, and anyway, ‘haven’t nuns stopped wearing habits?’ My own preconceptions made it difficult to align the woman who had renounced the world for the contemplative life with the TV personality who shared her opinions about high art with the world. To say the least, a hermit who chooses to be a TV star invites a sense of ambiguity.

These superficial impressions soon evaporated after I began reading Dearest Sister Wendy … a surprising story of faith and friendship, the recently published collection of Sister Wendy’s correspondence with the American writer and publisher Robert Ellsberg. It was a surpassing delight to encounter Sister Wendy being very much herself, at once deeply contemplative and endearingly playful, candid and then circumspect; at times self-assured only then to be given over to self-doubt. Every page was filled with surprises, and it was hard to keep pace with the revelations and ideas that broke open from both sides of the equation.

Robert Ellsberg is famous for having a famous father, Daniel Ellsberg, the man who copied top secret information about the Vietnam War which was published in the New York Times as the Pentagon Papers. Robert, 13 years of age at the time, assisted his father with the copying. Thus he inherited his father’s social activism, civil disobedience and willingness to address injustice in the world.

Yet Robert is equally well-known for his editorship of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series published by Orbis Books, one of today’s pre-eminent and most useful introductory series to writers of the interior life. Together with his original anthologies of saints’ lives, this series testifies to Robert’s vocation as one of that rare species, a hagiographer. After his first tentative exchanges with Sister Wendy in 2016, Robert decided he did not wish to further interrupt her contemplative life; but after sending her a set of the Orbis series as a gift — books she took up with typical excitement and her eye for detail — their correspondence came to life.

Two like-minded people — one immersed in the challenges of the contemporary world, the other dwelling