I was very sad to hear recently of the death of Sister Wendy, TV art historian who died at 88.
Sister Wendy Beckett was born in Johannesburg in 1930 but spent five years of her childhood in Edinburgh. She left South Africa at the age of sixteen and joined the Notre Dame order of nuns in Sussex. After her novitiate she was sent by her order to St Anne’s College, Oxford where she was awarded a congratulatory first in English. In 1954 she went back to South Africa to teach, returning to Britain in 1970 to live a fully contemplative life under the protection of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk. Her books Contemporary Women Artists (1986) and Art and the Sacred were followed by two highly successful television series, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (1992) and Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (1994). Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art was published in 2008, and Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary just last year.
This is an interview with her from my book, Speaking for The Oldie.
Your family was extremely devout. Do you think in that sense it could be said you ‘inherited’ your faith, rather than came to it by a more personal route?
I would qualify ‘extremely devout’. We were not a family who had prayers in common, for example. It was just obvious to me that my parents’ faith mattered a lot to them by what they were, as opposed to what they said, and I’m sure that’s how most children receive their religion, as opposed to their faith. They get their politics through their family, their religion through their family, but faith comes completely from your own depths and your own personal contact with God, and it is faith which fills out the bare bones of the religion. Faith is the spirit; religion is the body. I inherited my Catholicism, but the faith was a gift to me, direct from God.
Does that make sense to you?
Yes. But would you not agree that your faith relied heavily on an accident of birth, and that if you had been born into an atheistic family, or perhaps a Moslem family, then things might have taken a very different course?
I would still have to distinguish between religion and faith. My religion certainly was an accident of birth, but my knowledge of God didn’t come through the formats of the faith; it came directly. It’s very hard to say what could have been if things had been different. I would like to say that if I had been born into another religion I would still have become a Catholic, but this may not be true; I may have found God equally well in whatever I had inherited. I think that has to be a question one can’t answer.
You said that you realised at a very early age that if God was responsible for you, then you were responsible to Him. That seems a remarkably adult and philosophical idea for a child to articulate…was it really like that?
Those words come from adulthood, but the experience was in early childhood. Only later was I able to express it and make sense of it. I was born with an innate sense of God and I found it very hard when I was young to understand that everybody hadn’t been shown God as I was shown. I thought they all saw God as the centre of everything, and I was very surprised when I grew up to find that this wasn’t so.
How do you define God? Who is God?
God is mystery … we can’t possibly know. The point about being a Christian is that we believe only one person ever was able to look deep into the mystery and turn round and say to us: ‘It’s Father …’ Jesus saw that the infinite mystery was the Father, it was total supportive love, and we live in the strength of that. But we can never make a definition of God or have an idea of God, because then it is something limited. We can’t define what by its essence is so infinitely beyond the concepts of our mind.
I know that you admired both your parents very much. What were the qualities you detected in them? And did you see them like that at the time or was it only in retrospect?
I don’t think my parents would have believed that I thought they were wonderful people, because I was so rude and self-willed with them and far too proud to say what I thought. So all the actual understanding is in retrospect, but I knew consciously that I was very fortunate. I was absolutely certain that if there were needs to be considered, they would always put their children’s first. And also, I didn’t know that adults ever quarrelled or spoke sharply, because I had never seen it in my home. I thought only children did that, and I was looking forward to being grown up and being part of a world where nobody was ever unkind or impolite or spoke sharply. There were big shocks ahead for me. I’m not really sure about your relationship to your order.
Are you a nun in the same sense as your sisters? Are you subject to the same vows?
This is a tricky question and one really only a Catholic could understand. At age 16 I entered the teaching Sisters of Notre Dame and very soon realised that in fact I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to pray, and I asked them if I could transfer to a contemplative order, but they said no. They believed God wanted me to be a teacher, because I had a good mind for teaching, and I thought – and I still think the same thing – that if you offer yourself to God and you have the vow of obedience, you don’t take it back when you don’t like what you’re being asked to do. But from early 1947 till 1970, I kept asking if I could transfer and being told no, and accepting it as God’s wish for me, until in 1970 they told me that they thought I had perhaps been right, that I did need more prayer, and that they were going to let me go. It’s a complicated story, but to simplify it: the Carmelites said that they would allow me to live as a hermit in their grounds and the Notre Dame nuns said that I could live ‘exclaustrated’, a technical term meaning that you’re living somewhere else but you still belong to your order. I said I didn’t think that was honest, that since I wasn’t going to teach I shouldn’t be able to belong to my original order. In the end we got permission from Rome to transfer me to being a consecrated virgin and living under the authority of the Carmelite nuns with the vows intact, but not in their community. So I don’t really belong to an order; I’m a kind of singleton nun, but the Carmelites act as my order and I obey the friaress. Whatever money I make goes to them. It’s different only in the sense that I live alone, but it’s not different in the sense of the obligations.
What exactly does ‘consecrated virgin’ mean?
It’s a new thing in the Church, though it used to be an old thing. Before the Church had orders of women, it had single women who made a vow of virginity and worked for the Church; they were called consecrated virgins and the bishop was vaguely in charge of them. I would imagine that most of them were virgins in the physical sense too, but whether that was gone into, I don’t know. Widows also became consecrated virgins and the vow of chastity takes no account of what has happened before. In the very early days of the Church when the Benedictine nuns – the oldest order – took their final vows, they each also took an extra vow as a consecrated virgin. I don’t know whether this happens in all the Benedictine convents, but I know at least one where it has been dropped, because there are girls entering now who are not virgins, and they say that although they are going to live a virginal life, they don’t feel happy about making this extra vow. They say it adds nothing because they are making a vow of chastity anyhow, so why add this bit which they feel verges on being untrue. It doesn’t affect me, because I feel perfectly justified in accepting this term which the Church is now offering to women who don’t live in convents. I am a consecrated virgin, and I am also a virgin, but that’s just been my good luck, or bad luck. I don’t actually believe the state of the hymen has very much to do with the holiness of the person. It’s just a fact like whether you have all your teeth.
But in this regard you have more liberal views than do ordinary nuns .. .
I don’t think you should be too quick to think that all nuns think this or that. Many nuns and many Catholics, many priests and many non- Catholics would feel that the Church has a lot of rethinking to do about the role and the definitions of sexuality. I would not like to go into that as I would not want to discuss those areas where I think the Church hasn’t quite got it right. The Bishop of Durham, every one of whose views practically every thinking Christian would accept, has actually not helped the Church in this regard. It’s rather like taking an image of art – obviously the best thing is to have the real work of art in front of you, but if you can’t have that, you can have a coloured reproduction or even a black and white reproduction. Now you could say that a black and white reproduction is so far from the truth that it’s better to have nothing, but this would be wrong. The best thing is to have the whole picture, but for people who haven’t got that, a black and white reproduction can still give them an awful lot of pleasure and understanding. It is a question of half a loaf being better than no bread at all. A lot of the understanding of Christianity which goes on today is very inadequate. But if you take that away from people and tell them it isn’t in the least true, you run the risk of leaving them no bread at all because they’re not yet able to digest the whole loaf. It would damage people’s faith, just as I think the dear Bishop of Durham has damaged the faith, although his intentions are of the highest. So with sexuality and the Church, we wait for the Church to grow in wisdom, as it will do, and until then we are obedient; but that doesn’t mean we can’t think it wrong. We may think the Church is mistaken; but we don’t say so.
Why exactly is chastity so important? What has chastity to do with God? He has after all created our bodies which are designed to function in particular ways, including sexually. That must surely also be a gift from God.
I agree with you totally. God gave us these beautiful bodies, and He loves all parts of them. Anybody who feels that the vow of chastity involves pain and frustration should not take it, because God does not like us to suffer.
He takes no pleasure out of people making themselves frustrated and unhappy. But we only have so much psychic energy, and for myself I know I could never have had a deep emotional relationship with anybody, let alone a sexual relationship – even on the emotional level I couldn’t have done it. All my energies are utterly absorbed in loving God. This is not everyone’s vocation; obviously most people’s vocation is to come to God through loving somebody else. I don’t compare myself to Jesus, but I’m sure he couldn’t have had a sexual or emotional involvement at very great depth, because he was so totally taken up with his father.
Has chastity involved any degree of suffering for you?
No. I’m a totally fulfilled woman, and I don’t miss a thing, but I recognize that it is not the normal way to God. The normal way is by receiving His gifts in gratitude and using them. But our vows are functional; they are meant actually to set you free for God. Obedience is to set you free from all the struggles of having a career and making your own decisions; poverty is to free you from all the hassles of earning and possessing; and chastity is to set you free from the psychic involvement with close friends and family. All your energies can then get out; if you’re an active religious they go out to the world in service, if you’re a contemplative religious they go out to the world in prayer.
Do you not need a remarkable number of dispensations to free you from your order to follow the profession of art critic and historian?
First of all, I don’t follow the career of art critic and historian, and I won’t let the BBC put on publicity that Sister Wendy is an art critic. Sister Wendy is a nun, and her profession is to pray. The other business is just a sideline which I hope will soon peter out. But if I were a true Carmelite I couldn’t do it, because Carmelites never leave the enclosure. Of course I didn’t realise this was what was going to happen when I came to live in solitude…I expected I’d just be spending the rest of my life in prayer, but it so happened that I can come out without dispensations, because as a consecrated virgin living under their protection I simply have to ask them if this is all right, and they always trust me. No dispensation is necessary, and there is no profession, no career. Art isn’t the centre; it is very much peripheral.
Have you ever been criticised for doing what you do?
I may well be, but I don’t know. People write saying how they love it, but the world may be full of people saying they think it’s shameful. There was someone who wrote a letter after I was on the Terry Wogan Show, saying she was very ‘disedified’ by seeing me showing off on the programme and telling dear Cliff Richard that he was mistaken in his Christian views, and she said that she looked for more humility in a nun. I wrote back to her and said I was very sorry I had disedified her and would she please pray for me to become humble.
How did it come about that you entered an order in Sussex, such a long way from South Africa?
The nuns with whom I was at school in South Africa were an international order in America, on the Continent, in England, in Africa and in Japan, but their novitiate was in Sussex which I entered 47 years ago on the 1st of February. I keep that day with great joy.
How aware were you of the political situation in South Africa while you were there? Was it possible for you to help in any way?
I was completely unaware. I only knew the servants in my parents’ home. My grandmother was a great benefactress of the African schools, and I can remember her buying a huge box of sweets when I was about 9 and taking me with her to distribute them to the African children, and it never entered my head that this was all terribly wrong. It was only when I was an adult that it came as an awful shock to me to realise that in fact the only citizens of my country were white. It just shows that you can live in a situation that’s crying out aloud to God for vengeance and never see it; rather like the American southerners who say all their black servants are so happy. It shocks me now to think that we were so fond of our servants and we did not see the injustice of it at all. I pray a lot, and I get very upset about South Africa, and although I tremble for them at the moment, there’s no doubt whatever that it’s got to be lived through.
At the age of 16 you were separated from your parents for years. How did you cope? Were you ever homesick?
It’s a shocking thing, but no, I wasn’t. I was so delighted to be a nun that I tripped off to the plains with a heart full of happiness and never thought of the grief, especially my father’s. I entered the convent in 1947 and after the novitiate I was sent to Oxford, so I came back to South Africa only in 1954, and even then I was teaching, not living at home.
Did your father feel he had lost you to the Church?
He was thrilled by the idea of my becoming a nun, but he just wondered how this difficult, selfish teenager was going to cope – that was his problem. Also he had only been back from the army for about a year or so, and he thought he needed to get to know his children again, but by then I had left. It wasn’t that he felt unhappy about losing me to the Church; in fact he had given me to the Church. Both my parents said to me that the only child you keep is the child who becomes a nun; she doesn’t start a new family with other interests, she remains your child. My mother was certain that I idealised them both because I never had adult relationships with them. My brother and sister who grew up with my parents saw them in a much less glowing light than I did, because I had kept enshrined the child’s view of wonderful parents.
I read somewhere that you were unable because of your vows to set foot in the Ashmolean while you were in Oxford. Did this not strike you as being an unnecessarily harsh and pointless restriction?
I went to St Anne’s which allowed the nuns to live in the convent of Notre Dame. We had a new Reverend Mother who was worried about these young nuns going to the university, and she said to me, ‘You must remember that the rule of silence holds. You mustn’t talk to the students and you don’t go anywhere but to your lectures or tutorials and back again.’ So it wasn’t the vows, because all the other nuns went everywhere – it had to do with this particular nervous young Reverend Mother. And I didn’t mind particularly. It gave me a wonderful Oxford in fact, because since I didn’t get to know people they all kept their glamour and stayed romantic to me. And in those days I’d never been to a museum or a gallery, so I didn’t really know what I was missing. I only knew art books, so I didn’t hanker after the Ashmolean. In the fullness of time when I went to make a programme I got to drink deep at the cup of the Ashmolean. So it all came right in the end, and when it did I was so much more ready to understand.
When you are in your caravan do you talk to anybody?
No, I don’t. I don’t live with the other sisters. After morning prayers, the sister who looks after me brings me some coffee and sits down and tells me what’s going on. Perhaps I’ll say to her that I need a new pair of socks, or something like that, but I don’t chat. As soon as Mass is over I take my basket of provisions and go back to the caravan and I stay there all day in complete silence.
But how is it possible to live in silence when you so obviously like people and enjoy talking?
This is going to sound very rude but I’ve never met anybody I’d rather talk to than be silent with God. That to me is the height of joy.
How did you reconcile your love for art, and its liberal expression, with the rather repressive teaching of the convent?
I was never taught repressively at a convent.
Would you dare in a convent, for example, to look at a painting of a nude and discuss pubic hair – as you have done in your books?
Yes, of course I would. I would expect all nuns to have reverence for the body God has given them. Anything else is narrow Puritanism which has nothing to do with the faith. For some extraordinary reason this narrow Puritanism seems to have taken over, but it’s not Christian. Jesus speaks freely about excretion, for example, about faeces coming out, and He certainly didn’t feel this wasn’t quite nice. This fear of the body is a late development, and of course a lot of people have been taught it by the Irish, who have a real puritanical fear of the body. But I was lucky; I knew nothing of all this guilt that is supposed to cling to Catholicism. Guilt and sin were words never mentioned in my upbringing, and when I hear people talking like this I just feel very sad. If this is the way they think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick, they never have been Catholics, because this is not the teaching of the Church. It is a version of it that is unfortunately favoured by people who like the tyranny of Puritanism. God doesn’t live in blacks and whites; God lives in the lovely fluid greys of the world, and he asks us never to accept black and white from above, but to look into our own hearts and see what is true.
When you were obliged to teach you insisted that you were not unhappy…why then did you have a nervous breakdown?
The reason I was not unhappy was that I felt I was doing what God wanted me to do. However, it was at a tremendous cost. The price I was paying for doing what I believed God wanted me to do was evidently higher than my nervous system could take. And so – this is how I describe what happened – my body rescued me. I became so ill that my order, who were the kindest and dearest people imaginable, understood what the cost had been. Up to then I had not shown it, and because I had not shown it they thought it was just that I wanted to lead a life of prayer. The breakdown showed that I needed a life of prayer. And actually I think this will always happen: when God sees you’ve had enough, your body in itself will intervene.
What was it about teaching that distressed you so much?
I think it was this constant having to act a part. This is also why I don’t like television. When I’m in the caravan there’s simply God and me and I can be absolutely free, but when you’re speaking to other people you have to be attentive to what they’re asking you, you have to respond to them, you have to play the part that a social relationship requires. This isn’t a bad thing in itself; there is no higher vocation than to be a teacher, but I wasn’t big enough for it. I was too limited to be able to do it and live in freedom. It was an inadequacy in me.
Is the urge to live an entirely solitary life a strength or a weakness, do you think? Christ after all seems to have been a rather gregarious person…
I’m positive it’s a weakness. It’s a life only for the very weak who cannot stand the normal strains of life, perhaps the almost neurotically weak, who also have such a strong passion for God that they can impose upon their life the austerity that it demands.
Is there some connection between the contemplation of works of art and the spiritual life…is it an avenue to God?
For me it is, absolutely, and this is potentially what it is for everybody. Whenever you look at real art you’re looking at something that’s challenging you to be more wholly human, to enter more deeply into truth; and whenever you touch truth, you touch God. God is truth.
But I thought God was indefinable…
He is indefinable, but wherever there is beauty and truth, there is God. Yes, I put that badly, you’re quite right to have corrected me. Truth and beauty don’t encompass God but their presence shows us the presence of God, just as light shows us the presence of the sun.
You have spent more than 20 years living alone in the caravan. Does that preference not reflect a little on your sisters in the convent? I mean that you choose not to be with them.
Not at all. It’s not because of their inadequacies, but because of mine. I lead a different life pattern from them. My day, for example, has seven hours’ prayer and theirs has only two. By prayer I mean absolutely silent pure prayer. God made us to live in community with one another, He made us social animals, but occasionally you get the odd one who is inadequate. I remember when I was a very young nun another sister said of me that I was the only person she had ever known who didn’t need other people. It’s true, but it’s not nice. I’m not sufficiently able to work with other people and to grow with other people, but we have to accept the poor selves that we are; this is what I am, so I try to rejoice in it rather than lament over it.
I think many people must be puzzled by your conscious wish to be a hermit and your simultaneous exposure to many millions of people on television. Are they compatible ideas?
No. At the moment I’m what I would call a hermit of interruptions…that is, for most of the year I’m a hermit, but then for parts of the year I’m on television. But they’re not very big parts and they will diminish. I’m hoping very soon they’ll find somebody else who can do what I’m doing and then I can withdraw completely.
But you seem to enjoy doing it…
Only relatively. Compared to being alone in the caravan anything else is unenjoyable, but if I have to do this other business then I will enjoy it as much as I can; but I wouldn’t wish it.
But nobody forces you to do it.
My conscience forces me to do it, because I think there is a need for somebody who can speak about art in a very simple way and make people see that it’s something of a potential enrichment. But it’s a gap that I hope will soon be filled by somebody else. It doesn’t have to be filled by me.
‘God is asking me to do this now,’ you said in an interview. How do you know it is God?
You only know what God is asking of you through the circumstances of your life. The context of your life tells you. The good Samaritan knew that God was asking him to succour the man who had fallen among thieves because he actually met the man. If he hadn’t met the man. God wouldn’t have asked him; but that’s the only way God does speak to people, through the actual context of lives. Whom does God ask you to love? The people you know, the people you live with. So we only have to look at our lives to know what we’re called upon to do.
You said once that you hated writing and you would not do it unless you had to. Why then did you do it?
One of the reasons is that we have to earn our living in the convent, and this is the only way I can earn any money for the community. The second reason is that people tell me that they like what I write and find that it really is useful for understanding art.
You appear on television in the traditional habit of a nun. Was that a matter of course or something encouraged by the BBC?
This is what I wear –I’d never dream or wearing anything else. It’s nothing to do with the BBC.
Are you not worried that you are perhaps being exploited by the image- makers – to put it bluntly, that a nun in a habit is a good gimmick?
Yes, I think that is probably true. I think that if I were just a little old lady from Norfolk, not too many people would have watched the programmes to begin with. It was probably the nun who got people watching, but I think they stayed watching because they liked it.
I don’t wish to sound disagreeable, but do you think permission for a hermit nun to enter the world of television might have been prompted by the thought of the fees that would accrue to the order?
No, I’m sure not, because the sisters are extremely unworldly, and I don’t think it entered into their heads. In fact they were happy to let me o ahead only because I thought it was right. They didn’t know why I thought it was right until the BBC brought them down the films and showed them. Then they thought it was right too.
You have expressed some ideas which do not at first sight seem compatible with the faith. In what sense, for example, can homosexuality not matter, given the views expressed in the Bible and in the tradition of the Church?
This is one I would prefer not to answer, on the grounds of what I said about the Bishop of Durham, that half a loaf is better than no bread at all. Let me give you a parallel: the Church condemned Galileo for saying that the earth went round the sun, and not vice versa. Only when the man in the street understood, and it was common knowledge that the earth did indeed go round the sun, not the other way round, did the Church accept it. The fact that the Bible seemed to say the opposite was meant to be poetry. I don’t believe the Church is the glorious unspotted leader, marching ahead of humanity; that’s not the Church Jesus left us. The Church is a poor wounded creature and it’s moved at the pace of the slowest. When the man in the street understands the full meaning of love, then the Church will understand it, and a lot of the present prohibitions will just dissolve. But they haven’t dissolved yet, and I don’t think it helps people for somebody who’s totally committed to the faith as I am, to say the Church as yet hasn’t fully understood. I’ll say it to a friend, but I don’t think it’s wise to say it in public, because it doesn’t help the Church.
I understand what you’re saying, but do you ever conceive of a time when the Church will look upon homosexuality in a different way?
That’s a completely acceptable way to put it, and my answer is a resounding yes. The Church in the fullness of time will come to accept women priests, homosexuality, and perhaps divorce. I am sure eventually these things will all change, but they haven’t changed yet, and I wouldn’t like people to have their faith in any way shaken, or their obedience and loyalty challenged; which is why I say, let’s wait. This is what it means to belong to a church; you wait lovingly, you strive to make things different but you don’t criticise the Church in public.
Are you not at odds with the Church too about the ordination of women? Would it not split the Church and forever prevent reconciliation with the Orthodox?
No, because the Orthodox too will eventually come to favour the ordination of women. Jesus ordained only Jewish males, so why should only one half of that, the male, count as standard and not the Jewishness?
The Church ordains males who are not Jews, though Jesus didn’t, so I think the Church will in time ordain females, but not now. The average man still does not think the average woman is fully human, though he thinks he does. We haven’t in fact got equality, but when we get it, then it will be on all levels.
There will be many who see the campaign for the ordination of women as just another feminist effort directed by women with no interest in religion. Do you see it as principally a theological or a political matter?
I don’t know very much about the ins and outs of it, but to me it’s a completely theological matter, or perhaps I should say it’s a matter of practical understanding of God’s plans for His children, and in God’s eyes gender is not very important. On a purely practical level it’s a kind of lunatic arrangement in that you have a whole convent full of nuns, all of whom have deep theological understanding, any one of whom in theory could celebrate Mass, but the priest has to be imported at great expense to say Mass every morning. I don’t think it’s just a question of feminism. Men don’t realise how terrible it’s been for some women; the bright girl in the family who wasn’t educated because her stupid brother had to get all the money; or the clever woman in a firm who could take responsibility easily and is overlooked because the men get it and make a mess of things.
There is a lot of buried frustration and it’ll take a long time for this to work itself out, but I think we’ll see light at the end of the tunnel. Think how recently women weren’t allowed to go to the university, or to vote. We forget what enormous strides have been made to see women as fully human; there are more strides to be made still, but we are making progress.
Would you have wished to have been a priest had it been possible?
No. I don’t think it would ever have been my vocation. If it were open to me now I wouldn’t want it; I prefer to be alone with God. It wouldn’t have entered ever into my desire. A priest has to be a servant of the people, and the only service I can give is the service of prayer.
You were reported as saying of sexual activity: ‘There is not going to be a personal involvement, but I would cheer it on.’ That seems a remarkably liberal view for a nun. What did you mean?
I don’t remember saying it, but if I did say it I would have meant that for me there is no sexual involvement and never has been and never will be because God is complete fulfilment, but I’m delighted that the world is full of people who appreciate God’s good gift to them. Of course sex is something to cheer on. Why did God invent it if He didn’t want it to be something of a delight to people?
You speak of art as giving an insight into mysteries. Can you elaborate on that? What sort of mysteries are involved here, and what is it to have ‘insight’ into a mystery?
Art is working at a very profound level. It is almost by definition at the level of the mysterious…it is concerned with those deep things in us that are there but which we find it so hard to bring to the surface of our consciousness: the desire for goodness, the desire to be fully human, the desire for eternal life, the desire for happiness, the desire to make sense of suffering. A very great picture opens you up to a lot of these truths, perhaps not always consciously, but you’re stirred at those depths, and if you have the kind of mind that wants to reflect upon what the experience has been, then you would have conscious insight into truths that perhaps you hadn’t realised before you were faced with that great work of art. A work of art that leaves you untouched is not a great work of art, or you haven’t opened yourself enough.
A great deal of fuss is made about ‘originals’ in the art world. Largely of course that’s a commercial matter but you have been content for the most part with postcards and reproductions. Do you feel that you missed anything by being unfamiliar with paintings at first hand for so long?
I don’t myself think I missed anything. When you look at your postcard you are looking at it in ideal circumstances, alone, sitting down, quietly contemplating. Think of walking round the V and A with lots of other people and noise and sore feet. Obviously the ideal would be every man his own Cezanne, every woman her own Leonardo, but I don’t think we should ever let the ideal get in the way of enjoying what we do actually have.
How do you think the idea of art as beauty correlates with paintings whose subject matter is ugly? Of dead bodies, for example, or indeed of any picture in which the artist wishes to depict something ugly, like Goya’s ‘3rd of May 1808′.
There is a beauty in ugliness, you know. Think of Rembrandt’s old people, with gnarled features, but absolutely lit up with wisdom. Goya was indeed painting something very ugly but he was showing the human spirit grappling with it – that’s the beauty. Beauty doesn’t mean pretty; beauty means something of the spirit which can show itself in a misshapen form. Beauty is often horrible, terrifying, with nothing of the attractive or the gentle about it; but it is equally beautiful.
When one stands in front of a painting and contemplates it, what is it one should look for…perhaps ‘should’ is the wrong word…but what sort of satisfaction does one look for from an image?
If you’re looking at all you’re delimiting yourself. Let the work of art impress itself upon you, let it try and draw you into it, keep your options absolutely open, don’t look for anything. Start with the things that start to come to you, and then receive them. The more intelligently passive you are the more you’ll get.
Is there a distinction to be drawn between art appreciation and art criticism?
That’s a good question. I know that in some circles I’m criticized for liking too much. I never write about or speak about art that I don’t like. In other words I do try just to appreciate but I hope it is not an unintelligent appreciation. In that sense you can criticise appreciatively – it really means bringing your mind to bear on the work.
Speaking of Murillo at one point you say you wanted to make up your mind about his ‘importance’. What does the word mean when applied to a painter…what makes one artist more important than another?
It is partly the consensus of the centuries, but it’s also a personal thing. There are some artists who are very important to me, who are not considered among the very great artists. I was baffled by Murillo who at his time was considered possibly the greatest artist in the world, far greater than the other 17th-century artists. He was enormously successful, then he took a steep nose dive in popularity, and then people began to think
Murillo a very poor artist. Now he’s slowly beginning to creep back again into critical acclaim and I wanted to discover why people loved him so much in his century, and why he was again beginning to be the subject of serious exhibitions. But I still haven’t made up my mind. He is a most beautiful colourist, but I still find the images rather too saccharine.
You once said that words are a vulgarity. I can see that a hermit might have little use for them in one sense, but is it really possible to respond meaningfully without them? How do you even know what you feel without them? How can you know that ground of your admiration?
When I was doing English at Oxford I realized that what you had to do was to open yourself to the literature, experience its depth and dig out of yourself the experience and put it into words for your essay. Basically that’s what I’m doing in my art appreciation. But the more you are exposed to great art the more you know that what you say is so inadequate; yet it’s got to be said. It’s again the half a loaf; it’s better than nothing. I hardly ever include any landscapes in my programmes or books. It’s not that I don’t love landscapes – I do – but all you can say is, ‘Look, isn’t it absolutely beautiful…’ which doesn’t help anybody. Words are so inadequate, so vulgar compared to the depths to which you’ve been moved.
You admire the skill (which you say you yourself will never attain) of being able to use words so exactly that no one will misunderstand them. Would you agree that the language of faith is singularly imprecise, that it is impossible for one person to understand what another means by ‘knowing God’ for example?
Absolutely. I agree totally. Not only have you a language difficulty here, you have a moral difficulty in that we only know as much of God as we want to know. Psychologists say that if you’re faced with an unbearable truth, you won’t bear it; you’ll just block it out. And I can understand this. In a way, the truth about God is unbearable because it is so enormously large, and it’s easy to see that people may not want to hear it. With the real God you’re completely out of control the minute you look at Him. So where there’s a difficulty of language, there’s a difficulty of desire. Oh yes, the language of religion is absolutely hopeless. Everybody has a different picture in mind, and some are horrible. That’s why I say I love atheists, because they’re people who’ve thrown out a false God. They were perfectly right to disown the kind of God they thought was God. The point is they haven’t met the real God yet, because if you meet the real God you can’t possibly not love Him. So hurrah for atheists.
You have more than once stressed the centrality of prayer, but what is it that one prays for? To put it bluntly. God surely does not change His mind?
What one is really praying for is the strength to cope with what happens. Let’s say, for example, that you pray that your business venture will go well, but in fact it goes very badly. Your prayer is answered if you are helped to cope with that, to grow in human stature through disaster. God will always make us grow in this way if we let Him, and that’s what prayer is always for. God won’t come in and change the world. He’s not a kind of little puppet God who’ll stop the car from having an accident. No, no, what God will do is that when you have your accident He will be with you to make that accident fruitful.
Have you any ambition for the future?
Only to get back to solitude.
How can you be sure now that you have seen so much of the outside world that you will not miss it in isolation?
I don’t think we can ever be certain of anything, because we can’t put any trust in ourselves. I think it would be highly unlikely because nothing that I’ve ever seen or experienced has seemed preferable to getting back to the caravan.
What is your attitude towards death?
As a child I looked forward very much to dying. I thought how wonderful it would be to leap into the arms of God. Now I see it as the one chance to make a great act of faith, because we all go into the darkness in death. God says, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.’ When God puts the knife to the throat, and I go into the darkness I will be able to make an act of faith that I’ve never made before, so in that sense I’ll be very glad to die.