Tuesday, 25 December 2012

HM Queen and Sister Wendy

Christian viewers got more than the usual worldly fare today, on BBC2 TV. First, there was The Queen's Christmas Message followed by a programme about Catholic art critic Sister Wendy talking frankly about her life in terms of paintings of Christ  ("Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel").

This led me to contemplate on their constrasting lives. They are a pair of believing women, of similar age (though the Queen is slightly older). The Queen was once beautiful and still looks amazing.  Sister Wendy is "all teeth and glasses" as the interviewer says. Both are devoted church attenders, one Catholic and one Protestant. Both want to use TV to communicate their faith and their understanding of what living as a Christian woman means to them.

The Queen has endured the most public life of history. She has been more than a woman, a wife and a mother. She has also been a successful Queen and Head of State for 60 years. Sister Wendy has never married and has lived a life so private that she has hardly had a relationship or a proper conversation. Since a nervous breakdown in her forties, she has lived for her, in blissful solitude, as a hermit in a wood at a Norfolk Carmelite monastery. This, in spite of getting the Top First ever at Oxford, in English. Intellectually, she is clearly far more than adequate.

Inspite of this, Wendy calls herself an "inadequate, frail woman". I would reply that anyone with such a limpid mind would have difficulty being what we would call "normal". Clearly, she is extremely sensitive and she felt overwhelmed by life in the world, which is something I have felt, in my time, too. She feels that being "inadequate as a woman" does not mean that God could not use her.  Interestingly, our highly capable and, in a sense, worldly-wise Queen, in this Christmas broadcast, also communicates, in her own way, her own complete dependence and inadequacy.  Perhaps being in one's eighties frees up complete and refreshing honesty and humility?

Elizabeth II calls being Queen "a duty", which I understand, in the light of her other comments,  as a duty to God, first and foremost, calling her to serve the Commonwealth.  Sister Wendy talks about sensing that her whole life was not about people or about public service. She regrets that she had not been "interested in people" but in doing what God called her to, even to the point of being seen as eccentric in the eyes of others.  She clearly thinks too many of us want to be told what to do, not think for ourselves, or listen to our inner voice or conscience.

The Queen talks about the coming of Christ calling people to put "love and service" at the heart of social life. She see Christianity as active service and duty (self-giving). Wendy emphasizes the aspects of prayer and silence (leading to greater self-knowledge).  Wendy feels that though people are no more sinful than earlier generations, by wanting constant entertainment, we are dangerously less spiritual. She is clearly doing her best to counterbalance our tendencies while admitting her own sinfulness.  The Queen values the ongoing generosity of people in public service.

Finally, Sister Wendy says that she is "not important" to anyone but God. Impressively and movingly, the Queen communicates the same thing, symbolically, by having a military choir stand in front of her throne, singing "In The Bleak Midwinter".  She is clearly saying, to those with eyes to see:  "All my service is done to and for God. Any achievement is entirely through His Grace".

Both women are impressive but also, in a sense, unemotional in living out their faith. The Queen is well known as being rather matter-of-fact. Sister Wendy claims that she has, in human terms, a "cold heart".   One would have to know them both to judge the matter properly. They are likely to be hidden carers of those in real need.  Certainly, I happen to know that The Queen's warm smile could light a thousand beacons.

This is not the first time I have heard famous, intelligent, gifted, Christians who have given encouragement and guidance to others through words and actions, claim to be "unemotional", "dutiful", even "cold fish".  Maybe they feel that they lack something, in spite of being "millionaires of giving" and know that human emotion is a great gift that they have not been given.  Certainly, there are famous films suggesting that moral human feeling and emotional love is the great gift of the Universe.

If one is not brilliant, like Wendy, or persevering, like our Queen, one might at least take comfort in being moved by emotions under God as a sign of human fulness.

The heart is precious and there is much to kill it in this modern age. Christians should guard the heart, (a warning in Scripture) by protecting it consciously from hurt and disappointment (which are temporary) but also by using it in compassion.

Perhaps, we should note that emotions all gone awry, taking the dominant role in life i.e. in concepts such as "All that counts is human love" are impediments to Christianity. The female "great and good" have made an art of keeping distracting emotions strictly under their control.

The Queen's Christmas Message 2012  is here:
"Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel" is here

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