Spectator on Advent

Last week, I went through three years of Christmas cards. It says something about my acceptance of clutter that the three baskets 2004, 2005, and 2006 were shoved beneath a table in the passage that I walk along 100 times a day. Still, it’s a good Advent job, a time of spiritual preparation which also means tracking down the window cleaner and the chimney sweep, bringing the first paper whites into the house, a subliminal acting out of the collect for the four short weeks, when we entreat God to ‘give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness…’ Near the bottom of the 2006 basket, I found a card written in a familiar, tiny handwriting, with the portrait of Doris Lessing by Leonard McComb that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. The description of the picture was in language as fresh and clear as the portrait itself, a present from Sister Wendy Beckett, nun, art critic, friend, Consecrated Virgin and hermit. The last two terms have specific meaning in her Catholic world, referring to her chaste devotion to God and the caravan in which she lives in solitary contemplation at the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk.

Advent is also the time I mend patches of neglect. I gazed guiltily at Sister Wendy’s letter, then remembered that she thinks guilt is self-indulgent and ego-fixated. She prefers contrition which moves you forward. I promptly sent a contrite email to Amanda, our go-between, who gets in touch with Sister Wendy and arranges to collect her and bring her here to lunch. This isn’t easy. Sister Wendy only leaves her solitary life if it is to do something ‘useful’, something which will generate income for the monastery. I organise a book signing of her two most recent books, a collection of her favourite 100 poems, and Sister Wendy on Prayer, her most personal book.

As soon as she enters the restaurant, the eyes of fellow diners open wide in recognition and surprise. No one expects to see a nun dressed in full habit here, but her black cloak looks at home nestled among the Nicole Farhis and Jaegers on the coat rack. Over the years, I’ve asked Sister Wendy all the questions you long to ask a nun. Yes, she loves wearing a habit ‘it simplifies life’, and yes, she shaves her head ‘so much easier.’ She only ever wanted to be a nun. She became a novice at 16, and, two years later, ‘because I couldn’t cook or sew, being so very untalented, I was sent to Oxford’. She read English at St. Anne’s and emerged with a Congratulatory First. A scholar and a reader (she loves Jane Austen, Henry James, Agatha Christie) she is as open-minded as she is open-hearted: she believes that her Church will eventually accept contraception; she thinks priests should be able to marry; she is all for gay partnerships.

An aura of holiness and happiness surrounds her, but everyday life intrudes. Despite repeated promises from her publishers, only half the books arrived. Plus, she has a painful cough, caught in Kiev last week where she went to look at one of the eight surviving pre-iconoclastic images of the Madonna. She is worried because next week she flies to Texas to deliver a lecture at the Kendall Museum. At 77, she doesn’t feel inclined to slow down. As the wine arrives, I start to apologise for my neglect, to explain my Advent vow, when she begins to fish into the folds of her habit. She presents me with a collection of meditations on Advent she has made for me, and gently suggests a different vow: jump off the ‘treadmill of regret’. We toast to ‘Advent’, because truly, the wait is worth it.