“Dearest Sister Wendy … A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.” By Sister Wendy Beckett and Robert Ellsberg. New York: Orbis Books, 2022. 336 pages. Paperback: $24.99; Kindle: $16.99; E-Book: $16.99.

It’s hard to believe that a series of emails could be so captivating, but that is exactly the case with the book “Dearest Sister Wendy … A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.” Sister Wendy Beckett, who many readers may remember as the unlikely host of a series of BBC commentaries in the 1990s on the history of art, was a contemplative nun who lived a life of seclusion on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England.

Robert Ellsberg, the editor-in-chief of Orbis Books who became the publisher of four U.S. editions of Sister Wendy’s books on art, is the son of Daniel Ellsberg, who is best remembered as the famous whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers. But it was Robert’s time spent working with Dorothy Day in Catholic Worker Houses that ultimately led to his conversion to Catholicism. The circumstance that brought these two together – a Christmas card that had gone astray – was the beginning of a fascinating exchange of emails that are replete with spiritual depth and wisdom.

These emails were exchanged during the last three years of Sister Wendy’s life, sometimes on a daily basis. Although Sister Wendy herself did not actually type them out on a computer – Sister Lesley Lockwood, OCD, would bring her “machine” to Sister’s cell and take dictation – they nevertheless reveal a woman of both great wisdom and great love. Even when Ellsberg and Sister Wendy were expressing differing opinions on a subject – sometimes markedly different — there was never any acrimony or pettiness in their correspondence, only a deep affection and respect one for the other.  When Sister Wendy signed off with the words, “Very Much Love and Gratitude” she absolutely meant it.

For his part, Ellsberg found the correspondence with this diminutive contemplative “a rich source for reflection.” As one reads the book, there is a distinct sense that these two are becoming more comfortable sharing deep thoughts with each other the longer they correspond. Sometimes those thoughts are about faith, sometimes about family and sometimes about events that were happening in the world. Given who these people are, there wasn’t a banal comment from either of them. That, coupled with the very loving and personal tone of these letters, are what make this book an unlikely page-turner.

The topics they discuss through their correspondence are wide-ranging, from saints and almost saints (Sister Wendy had a particular fondness and respect for Dorothy Day, not so much for Thomas Merton) to how their early lives led to the people they had become, to the nature of faith and prayer and the joys of art and the natural world. There are even significant sections in which Ellsberg shares his remarkable dreams, many of them about Pope Francis. But mostly, Sister Wendy wanted to talk about God, a dear friend she had come to know so well.

For a long time, Ellsberg admits that his natural inclinations as a publisher and editor suggested that there was a book in Sister Wendy’s life and thoughts – not necessarily the art books she had already done – but something more in the realm of spiritual mediations. Sister Wendy, however, refused to consider it. Not only would it impinge on her life of prayer and solitude, but she truly felt that as the subject of a book, she would be, in her word, “boring.”  “I find communication valuable and beautiful when one has something to say,” she noted at one point, “otherwise it seems so trivial.”

It was only near the end that they both realized the book had already been written, and it was in fact, the collection of their three-year-long correspondence, which Ellsberg – with her permission — began to edit after Sister Wendy’s death. “For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, this singular and solitary lover of God chose to share her wisdom and herself with me,” Ellsberg concludes. “For such a gift, there is no better way to express my gratitude than to share it with others.”

Author bios:

Sister Wendy Beckett, who died in December 2018, was a consecrated hermit who lived on the grounds of Quidenham Carmelite Monastery in England. She is best known for her commentaries on art on the BBC series “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey” and in many books.

Robert Ellsberg is editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the publisher of four U. S. editions of Sister Wendy’s works about art. He is also the author of many books on saints.