Robert Ellsberg "Dearest Sister Wendy" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, someone whose own writing is an important and valued resource to spiritual seekers. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they are beloved by God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of talking with one of my favorite writers, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, Robert Ellsberg.
Robert was the former managing editor of the Catholic Worker, and has edited selected writings, diaries, and letters of Dorothy Day, whom he knew personally. He also was a good friend of Henri Nouwen, and he published both books written by Henri and some wonderful books about Henri Nouwen.
In 2016, Robert began an email correspondence with Sister Wendy Beckett, a religious hermit living in England. They wrote back and forth until her death in 2018. These emails are the most marvelous, deep conversation of faith and friendship that I’ve ever read. Robert, I have simply loved this book. Take us back and tell us how the friendship began.
Robert Ellsberg: Gladly. Thank you very much, Karen. The relationship went long before we began this correspondence. It actually started in a funny way. I knew about Sister Wendy from watching her on television. Like other people, I found her charming. I couldn’t turn my head away from her, when she was going through museums talking about art. I never suspected that I might get to know her, this hermit who lives in a caravan on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England. But one day, I got an inscrutable little card from Sister Wendy – it had her address label on it, so I could read that – asking if we could spare a copy of a history of Vatican II that we had published at Orbis Books, where I’m the publisher. And I said, “Well, gladly.” I sent her those books. It was a very good investment in a future friendship.
And from that, we began to exchange notes from time to time. And I eventually even published four volumes of Sister Wendy’s writings at Orbis. But as far as our communication, it was just occasional, friendly, in business-like notes, written in her absolutely inscrutable handwriting. You needed a Rosetta Stone to interpret what she was saying. So, they were very frustrating. And that was one part of her fortress that protected her from too much interaction with other people. But we exchanged notes from time to time. And in fact, in one of her letters, she said, “I enjoy writing to you, your letters, but if I’m really to live the life of a contemplative, I really don’t have time or space for correspondence, unless it’s about things that really matter.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s the end of that.” That’s fine. I was not trying to press the point. So, it was all the more remarkable that this exchange between us began several years later. The occasion was an Easter card that had gone astray. She used to send out cards for Easter and Christmas – museum cards of her favorite paintings. And this card had not reached me, because we had changed our address.
Now, by this time, she had moved out of the caravan and into the enclosure of the monastery, because she was too old and infirm to live by herself. And she now had the services of an American Carmelite sister, Sister Leslie, who would visit her once a day, bring her her food, attend to her needs, most of which were delivering new books from the library. And she would also help her with her correspondence, which Sister Wendy would dictate to her. And she would type onto her laptop computer, which Sister Wendy called her “machine,” and she thus was able to communicate through email.
So, Sister Leslie wrote to me to find out about the address, and I wrote back, and I happened to mention that we were publishing a book about Vincent Van Gogh. And that evidently interested Sister Wendy, and she wrote me back herself. She wanted to hear more about that. And I began to tell her about the books we were doing in our Modern Spiritual Masters series, that includes volumes on Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton and many other people. And she was very interested. And we began exchanging notes about the subject of holiness and spiritual masters and saints and what that means, a topic of great interest to both of us. And gradually, as I began to share a little bit more about myself, it turned into something much deeper, as you’ve discovered, reading the book. There was no longer just a kind of artificial subject matter between us. It was really sharing our hearts on the deepest level. And that continued and extended and grew even deeper and deeper for the next two-and-a-half years, as we exchanged letters on almost a daily basis until she died.
Karen Pascal: It is a fabulous journey that you take us on. I mean, it just starts as a friendship, and you sort of think you’re going to exchange letters, but it gets deeper and deeper and deeper. And one of the things I was so struck by is that the two of you are equals. You have an equality in the sense of your interests, of the things you’ve read, of discussing things in great depth.
But before I go there, into the things that you focus on, can you explain to me what does it mean to be an ascetic? What does it mean to be a contemplative? What did it mean to Sister Wendy?
Robert Ellsberg: Well, first, it’d be helpful to go back a little bit. Sister Wendy was born in South Africa. When she was a child, her family moved to Scotland, where her father was a doctor in training. Later, she entered the religious congregation, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Now, she says that at the age of four, she had a kind of almost mystical sense of the presence of God that was so overpowering as to leave her with absolutely no other doubt or conviction or certainty, except that she was going to spend her whole life being with God. So, she couldn’t wait until she was old enough to become a nun, which was at the age of 16. She joined this religious congregation.
Now, she thought that in becoming a nun, she would just spend all her time in prayer, without having shopped around and learned that there are different kinds of congregations. She’d been taught by this congregation of teaching sisters. It was a teaching order. And so, that meant that her life would be teaching school – schoolchildren, teenagers. She went to Oxford and got a superb education there. She got a teaching certificate, and went back to South Africa to be a teacher.
But she found it a very oppressive life for her that did not leave her the space that she really wanted to devote herself to prayer all the time. That’s what she felt called to. And when she asked for more time for prayer, her superiors told her, “Well, that’s not your vocation. That’s not what God wants you to do.”
So, she accepted that, but eventually she had a series of epileptic seizures. And really, her whole body kind of rebelled, and they decided, “Okay, let’s let her have her heart’s desire.” And they dispensed her from her religious vows. And she became recognized by a local bishop as a consecrated virgin and hermit. It’s really a kind of total life of contemplation and prayer, much like the life of an anchoress or something like Julian of Norwich in the 14th century. Now, in those days, that meant actually being sealed up in the walls, you know, next to a church. In her case, she actually said she would’ve loved a life like that, except that Julian of Norwich had a window onto the street, where people could talk to her and ask her questions. She said, “I wouldn’t like that part of it.” So, she would’ve liked to be totally enclosed.
She was given permission to live on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery, so she wasn’t an actual Carmelite. Now, Carmelites are a contemplative order. They spent a lot of time in prayer, but not enough for Sister Wendy. She would pray about seven or eight hours a day. Just by herself, not spoken prayers, not reading the breviary, just in silent contemplation. And then the rest of the time, she considered it all prayer. She would be reading books or looking at art pictures. She would attend mass once a day, and she lived in a little trailer, a caravan, on the grounds of this Carmelite monastery.
Now, in the 1990s – it’s a long, hilarious story – but she was somehow discovered by the BBC, and they gave her own television program, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, which became a huge, international hit; it was on public television in the United States. And she would go to museums, without any script, and would pick certain pictures she wanted to talk about. And she would just walk up to them in front of the camera, in just one take, nothing written down. She would give these marvelous kind of meditations on what she saw there. And she became quite the celebrity.
And you could say, “Well, what did that have to do with being a contemplative hermit?” But she managed to do that and sort of preserve this kind of interior sense of enclosure, so that she wasn’t really touched or affected by the world that she encountered. She focused exactly on what she wanted to say. And she felt that it was really not about art. It was really, for her, a religious, a spiritual ministry of talking about beauty, talking about truth, and talking about a way of seeing deeply into the heart of reality with a contemplative eye, and that that would affect people and affect the way they live, and affect the way they see everything. Talking about God to people who aren’t comfortable or familiar with the language of God.
But when that was all over, she was very happy to return to her contemplative of life. So, she said she would get up at 10 o’clock at night or something like that. And the time actually began to go back further. She said she only slept a few hours every evening. She’d go to bed around six, sleep for a few hours, and then she’d get up and she’d sit in the darkness of her cell for the rest of the night, until it was time to go to mass the next morning. But she’d achieved this level where everything was prayer for her, because prayer for her was simply being in the presence of God. That was her life.
And her life had not been very much a matter of being involved in particular kinds of friendships or relationships with other people. And that was not just a matter of vocation for her. It was also a reflection of her temperament and personality. She never had really felt like she belonged with other people. Always felt like she was strange, that people didn’t understand her, that she was a misfit. And that made it all the more remarkable to me, that somehow, I unlocked something in her that allowed her not only to let me in, but to let herself out, and the kind of connection between our hearts that occurred in these years together.
Karen Pascal: Something I was so aware of as I read the book, is the depth of your friendship. It becomes deeper and deeper and more trusting. And I was very touched by the fact she really sees you; it isn’t that you just really see her. And it is such a treat to meet this woman. I mean, line upon line that you want to go back and savor, but she also pulls you into this conversation that gets deeper and richer and more and more meaningful. It’s something that I just loved about the book. You must have loved it, too. It’s wonderful to be seen. It’s wonderful when somebody kind of gets you.
Robert Ellsberg: Totally. And you know, when you’re in a relationship with someone like that, in a unique kind of relationship, you discover things about yourself that you wouldn’t know. The fact of just reflecting on my daily life, or on things going on in my life or in my past, reflecting on my own peculiar kind of spiritual journey, having someone there who is sitting there taking that in and listening in this very non-judgmental and understanding way – you know, it makes you see things and understand things about yourself that you wouldn’t recognize except through someone else’s eyes. And evidently, I did the same for her.
She is a person who had a very definite aversion to self-examination or thinking about her interior life, or much less describing that to someone else, or even looking back at the past. She lived so totally in the present moment of her relationship with God. And yet, as I began to share things about myself, it kind of elicited some response in herself, and I think she began finding herself recollecting things and sharing things about her childhood and her own story that she hadn’t really thought about before, and the kind of patterns that began to emerge. It was just a kind of remarkable thing to witness.
Someone reading this described it as a kind of dance between the two of us dance partners – one, an old hermit in a wheelchair and me, thousands of miles away, living my own life in the world. But there was this kind of way in which we just, I don’t know, prompted or triggered reflections or understandings in one another in the course of talking about things that really mattered to us.
Karen Pascal: The shared wonder that it was emails – things could go back quite quickly. Like, you could say something one day and you would hear the next day. There was immediacy to it, which I thought was really quite wonderful. Certainly, an intimacy, an amazing. . . I don’t know, I just felt like layer upon layer was disappearing, and the two of you were getting more and more honest and more and more real. And I love this business about just seeing each other, really seeing the real person and, and saying “yes” to that person. And that was kind of what I saw in this dialogue that was happening between the two of you.
One of the things that I loved was, I loved the joy that I find in her. There’s a phenomenal joy. I mean, that alone would draw me to her as a model for faith. Did you see that? I mean, obviously you had to see it. I mean, it just keeps coming, because she has a joy in Jesus, a purity of her joy.
Robert Ellsberg: She was a hilarious person. She had a tremendous sense of wit and sense of humor, without, you know, telling jokes or anything like that. And the funny thing is, she even describes when, at a time when she was a young novice, when she was in university, she said a Dominican priest that she met – she never saw him again – she happened to talk to him and he said, “What I really miss in you is I don’t detect a sense of joy.” And she thought that was the strangest thing to say. She’d never thought about that as a virtue or as a good thing, to be joyful. And then she began to think about how much scripture talks about joy and how much Jesus talks about joy.
And she, I think, tried to incorporate that as a part of her discipline – much in the way Dorothy Day talked about the “duty of delight.” There was a lightness about Sister Wendy. There was nothing morbid about her. You had to be a joyful person, I think, to spend so much of your life looking at art and beauty, and seeing that as a kind of entryway into reflecting on the nature of God and the nature of creation. So, I think that was very much part of her personality and her spirituality.
Karen Pascal: Her life had a great simplicity to it. Amazing. Like, you don’t get the feeling that she even had a beautiful view to look at. It was so – as she describes where she’s living, and the simplicity of her meals and there’s a part that just opens volumes to me about a world that I couldn’t imagine. And yet, there was a richness in it, incredible richness in her intellect and in her spiritual depth, that was so striking to me.
What I think is very funny – there are certain themes that go through the book that I quite enjoy. Obviously, she has a passion for a number of the writers that you have a passion for. First of all, Dorothy Day. She’s a great, obviously, has been inspired by, and that’s a place the two of you connect. Maybe you might just tell me a little bit about that.
Robert Ellsberg: Well, that was probably one of the things that connected her with me originally: knowing that I had worked with Dorothy Day and edited her writings. In fact, she endorsed, I think, one or two of the books that I edited of Dorothy Day’s writings. And early on, before this correspondence began, she told me that she’d been invited to be on a BBC program, to talk about three books that she would take to a desert island. And one of them was Dorothy Day’s Diaries, which I had edited. So, she said that she thought that Dorothy Day was a great saint of our time.
The fact that I knew her and I’ve edited her writings, and in fact have been involved in the process of her cause for canonization, she said it made her feel like that old song. I’ll get it wrong, but, you know, “I danced with a girl who danced with a man who danced with the Prince of Wales,” or something. I got it backwards there.
But that she felt in touch with, had her finger on the pulse of the church, she said. The fact that Dorothy lived her deep spirituality encounter with Christ in the world, and that she was a contemplative in action, in effect, was something that she greatly admired. And of course, her courage and her service of the poor. But the fact that I think she managed to live such a life of inwardness, surrounded by so much chaos and so much distraction. Whereas, of course, in her case, she felt that she had the enormous privilege of being able to live that life without any distraction, which is just the way she liked it.
So, Dorothy Day was somebody that we exchanged a lot of thoughts about. And of course, there were other people, like Thomas Merton, where there was a little more contention between us. And then of course, our dear friend Henri Nouwen. Those are just some of the people that recurred frequently in our conversations.
I love the fact that over the two-year period of your conversations, two-to-three-year period, she was in a growth mode. I mean, she was very set on her opinions on Merton, and she would often put forward her attitude about that. But I also felt like there was a becoming; this was a woman who didn’t stay fixed. She moved in her thinking. And I was very touched by that, because I love people who grow. I love people who aren’t in the same place they were a year ago or two years ago. I just really love that. And I sense that about her.
I also sense she had a very honest assessment of Henri Nouwen. Tell me a little bit, because I know you brought him to the table and could hear what she had to say there. What did you think of her assessment of Henri?
Robert Ellsberg: Well, first, it’s interesting to compare him with her feelings about Thomas Merton, which were confusing to me in the beginning, and fascinating at the same time. She was absolutely obsessed with Thomas Merton. She’s the one who was always bringing him up. And of course, I’ve had a lifelong interest in, you could say kind of devotion to Thomas Merton, notwithstanding his own faults and things that he admitted about himself. But for me, what was so fascinating was the way that Merton never held still. That he was always on this ongoing search, this journey, discarding one kind of mask to try to find his true self. And there were many missteps along the way, but I think of him as not so much as a saint, as a kind of spiritual explorer who is constantly trying to go deeper and deeper into the heart of his vocation.
Now, she saw something very different. As a contemplative and as a religious, she found a kind of doubleness and falseness about him. She thought he was brilliant, but she thought there was a kind of glibness; that he spoke too quickly and too easily about many things. She felt that he had a spirit of disobedience to the monastic rule. His journals show him kind of grumbling all the time about his abbot and the fellow monks and this sort of thing, and we didn’t seem to be able to get past that; she would always bring it up. She would say she was reading him all the time, from cover to cover, and always expressing this ambivalence.
And I would push back and I would say, “Well, I think that Merton has his limitations, but he represents a kind of explorer, a bridge between different kinds of models of contemplative life. And in doing so, he’s opened the world of contemplation to lots of other people in the world.” And his concern about social justice and peace that very much redefined the monastic vocation.
And anyway, she would have none of that. And then amazingly, a couple of years into this, there’s this enormous turnaround. Now, you say that she’s a person who is growing and capable of growth. Well, clearly, she was, but she didn’t show a lot of evidence of that, frankly. She was the kind of person who says, “What I’ve written, I have written,” you know? She said she never corrected a single word in any of her books. It was all just done in one draft. She said, “Maybe it would’ve been better if I’d taken a second draft.” But she didn’t see the point.
Same thing with her television broadcasts; she never took a second take. She would just get up there, think about what she wanted to say, and she would just get up and deliver extemporaneously without notes. I mean, she was a total genius. She was curious. She was always expanding her interest and her knowledge of different things, amazingly current on things going on in the church, in theology. She was an avid and voracious reader of books of all kinds. Anything I sent, she would read it overnight and give these expert opinions and judgements the next day. But she was pretty fixed in her ideas of things, her assessments of what she thought was true. And there was a falseness that she saw in Thomas Merton.
Well, then suddenly that changed. And she said one day, “You know, I feel I’ve been completely wrong about Thomas Merton. I’ve completely misjudged him, and I’m humble enough to say that that reflects on me and my own limitations, my own smallness compared to him.”
She said, “I should have realized a long time ago that even his wrongness was so deeply rooted in his rightness.” And for her, the rightness was his longing for God, his hunger for God that was always there, and that she felt, from God’s point of view, canceled out any other limitations he might have.
Now, you have to have read that far in the book to appreciate it. But it was absolutely astonishing to me. If there was one thing that she was obsessed about and had such definite opinions about, it was Thomas Merton. And for her to make that kind of change. . . I compared it in the book, and I don’t know whether I’m overstating it, but to me, it felt like an analogy to the experience that Thomas Merton himself described famously in his journals, back when he’d been a monk for many years, and he went into Louisville and he had this kind of revelation at the corner of Fourth and Walnut – as all students of Merton know – where he said, “I suddenly saw that all these people on the street, I was one of them. They were one of me. We were all one; everybody shining like the sun.” He said it was like awakening from a dream of separateness. And what he meant by that was this idea of the ascetic life in the monastery, as this special, holy place that set apart from all the complexity and compromise and sin of the world – that was a false conception. He was waking up from this dream. And after that, his spirituality, his work took a completely different turn. Instead of just writing about prayer and spirituality, he began to look with compassion about subjects of social justice and the poor and nuclear war and racism. And it led into his exploration of dialogue with Buddhism and other religions. So, it represented a deep turning-point in his own path and spiritual life.
I felt that there was something like that going on here with Sister Wendy, in effect a wakening from a kind of rigid sort of sense of the proper role of a monastic or a contemplative, to see that there was more going on there than she had allowed for. And it’s hard for me not to think – not that I planted those ideas in her mind – but that just this kind of long, patient, back-and-forth relationship that we developed over a couple of years, that I daresay she’d never really had with anybody, was an opportunity to kind of test and enlarge some of her ideas. And even to become, I don’t know, a less-judgmental person, you might say. And I would say a more loving person, more compassionate person, in that sense.
Not that she needed some kind of great spiritual growth, after this extraordinary life as a mystic and contemplative. But I think that she was so focused on the love of God, and I think in the course of our correspondence, she opened herself to capacity for maybe a different kind of love. And it affected the way she saw things, just as she hoped that looking at paintings would affect the way people see things.
Now, getting to Henri Nouwen: Henri Nouwen was not somebody she’d really studied carefully. And people make facile comparisons between Nouwen and Merton, of course, because they were both very famous and influential spiritual writers, but there’s no question that Merton is in a kind of different universe in terms of as an intellectual and thinker and philosopher and writer, et cetera. And Nouwen was so much more of a shepherd, a pastor, a spiritual master, I think, who was famous for the fact that he shared so much of the resources of his own, complicated personality. And that kind of tone of intimacy that he established with people made people feel very connected with him and made them think that you don’t have to be a perfect person to live the spiritual life and to realize that you’re beloved of God. On the other hand, there were obvious parallels between their journeys, because both of them were kind of searchers. Both of them were explorers, Henri with his tremendous restlessness. And you know, he even thought of maybe being like a sort of make-believe Trappist monk, like Merton, living in a monastery for part of the year or something.
But he also went to Latin America, and he followed around with a circus, and he taught in various universities. And then, toward the end of his life, he finds the kind of environment, the ambience at L’Arche that was really the home that he’d been searching for all along. And he thinks, “Okay, now I’ve found my true home.” But then he discovers that that doesn’t resolve all the problems that he brought with him, and the personality that he brought with him. And he had to still keep working out of that sense of his own woundedness, and finally coming to almost accept that wound as a gift: That was a gateway for him, for access to the love of God, even though it involved a lot of personal anxiety and suffering.
So, you see them both, then, kind of on this onward journey, and then they both die very suddenly, you know, Merton in Thailand at the age of 53, and Nouwen in Amsterdam at the age of 64. But you have the sense that they were on this trajectory. They were kind of launching off into the next steps somehow, after having accomplished their mission in this life. So, you know, there is a way in which it makes a lot of sense to kind of think of these two together – and I do all the time – as people that I wouldn’t necessarily regard as saints, but as a different kind of witness and a different kind of messenger about the spiritual life, and what we are called to do in terms of exploring and sometimes going places that are where we travel without maps and have to figure out for ourselves. Like, to use Nouwen’s metaphor of the flying trapeze, you know: a certain kind of trust and faith that carried them all the way to the end.
Now, I think that she had this complicated obsession with Merton. In the case of Nouwen, she said, “I appreciate him a lot. I think that he did not have the complexity of Merton. He didn’t sing many different songs. He sang one song, but he sang it very well.”
And she felt in that sense, there was, from her point of view, a deeper truth in Nouwen than she found in Merton. Nouwen was very much, “what you saw was what you got,” sort of. And there was a kind of truth and authenticity about him, even though he was exactly the kind of person that she would never want to spend time with. She was a person who was so overwhelmed by the stimulation and the distraction of the world, that in order to function, she just really had to be contained and enclosed in her cell.
And there was a little space for a relationship like the one she had with me, that was at a distance, and it was just through, once a day through an email or something like that. But she said, “If some friends are demanding, I’d say, Nouwen would be bankrupting.” At least, for her, his kind of energy and angst and expressiveness would have just made her want to crawl into a shell and lock the door. And yet, she had deep respect for him and the pathos and the poignancy of his kind of ministry and his message. But, you know, I thought there was a striking thing that I quoted in the epilogue. It was one of the last things that she said about Merton and Nouwen, and she said, “There is much self-deception and muddle in their lives, and yet there is an unwavering concentration on God. I think many people would find this very encouraging, that it’s the direction that matters, the desire, and not the spiritual achievements, as it were.” And I thought that was, in her amazing way, in just the one sentence she could kind of capture them in some way, you know?
Karen Pascal: I love that. There is another thing that weaves its way through the book, and I really enjoyed it. And it was a shared love for and support for the Pope. I just found that very moving. It seemed that she took deeply to heart what was going on. And so do you, obviously, and the two of you in this dialogue, it moved me a great deal to listen to this between you.
Robert Ellsberg: That was something that we definitely shared, a love of the Pope. I have, you know, at Orbis, published many books by and about him. I’ve edited volumes of his writing. So, I’ve spent a lot of time going over them. And almost from the very first moment when he appeared on the balcony at St. Peter’s, he just captured my heart. And I think that what the Pope did, and what Sister Wendy could see very clearly, was that he was really trying to call the church to follow Jesus. Now, that’s exactly the message that Henri Nouwen had, which was to not be so obsessed about the institution and about doctrines and theology. And the thing is, is your heart with Jesus? Are you trying to live more like Jesus? The church should look more like Jesus.
And Sister Wendy understood that completely and identified with that. And it’s kind of interesting because, again, people could see her in this medieval-looking habit and think, “Oh, she’s one of those really old-fashioned nuns or something. She’s going to be very traditionalist. She’s going to care very much about how Vatican II has spoiled everything,” or something like that. Not at all her attitude. She had this openness and this deep understanding, which we both shared, which was of love for the Pope, and wanting to encourage him, support him with our prayers. You know, the Pope always ends every speech with, “Please pray for me.” And she was very aware of the opposition that he faces, and she felt it was just extraordinary that the parallels between the opposition that the Pope generates among bishops and Catholics, and the opposition that Jesus faced around very much the same issues – that he’s too free and easy with the law and doctrine and tradition, that he’s trying to change things, that he’s too merciful, that he likes to hang around with outsiders instead of good, religious people.
And yet, he began his first speech at the conclave where he was elected Pope, in fact, it probably won the hearts of the cardinals there. And they elected him as Pope. He gave this extraordinary, just four-minute speech that encapsulated his whole ministry, where he said that the great problem for the Church is when it becomes enclosed in self-referentiality, it lives for itself, of itself, by itself, where instead of following Jesus out to the margins and the peripheries, that’s what evangelization is. And a church that doesn’t do that has become sick. So, for me, he has been this great doctor of the Church, a healer of the Church and of the world. And I would, from time to time, write him letters that were both to tell him about what we were doing at Orbis to promote his mission and agenda, but also just to express my personal devotion and support, and prayers for him.
And she would say, “Keep on writing him those letters. It doesn’t matter if he ever sees them or not. I’m sure the intention will reach him, and they’ll mean so much to him.”
So, they were partly written for Sister Wendy’s benefit, too. And of course, in the epilogue to the book, I described some of the things that happened in the year after she died. And one of those is I finally got a letter back from my unrequited pen pal, Pope Francis. And it was so funny. In the letter, he said, “I’m so glad to hear about your devotion to Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.”
And I knew she would laugh at that. But yes, we both felt that Pope Francis is one of the great lights of our time, and privileged to be living in this Franciscan era.
Karen Pascal: We certainly are privileged to be living in this Franciscan era. I agree with you completely.
I want to talk about two other wonderful parts in this book. And I wouldn’t normally expect to be saying this is wonderful, because I’m the kind of person when somebody starts to tell me their dream, I’m like, “Argh.” My eyes glaze over. But there are dreams in this book from you and from Sister Wendy, and it’s so interesting. And it just struck me: There’s such intimacy in that. You trust each other with a dream, but not just a dream. You also get interpretations back. In other words, you don’t get away with just saying, “I had this really weird dream last night.” But you share your dreams. She thinks about it and comes back and challenges you with some thoughts about it, and vice versa. And I just loved that. Tell me a little bit about that aspect of your friendship.
Robert Ellsberg: As I was editing the book, I left out a lot of the dreams, because I thought, oh, people are going to start rolling their eyes: “Here comes another one of his dreams.” And I apologize if you don’t want to hear about this, I won’t do it. But she was fascinated by them. And at that time, I don’t so much anymore, but I used to have these absolutely extraordinary, prophetic kinds of dreams, where I would be meeting with people like Dorothy Day or Pope John Paul II, or Mother Teresa or something. I’d have these conversations with them. I’d have deep dreams in which Pope Francis and I were walking along and he’d say, “Why don’t you come home, stay with me tonight?” And we’d climb up this craggy cliff in like an Irish monastery, and I’d be thinking, “Gosh, this guy, he’s too old to have to live like this. He should have a more comfortable apartment or something.”
And we sat and began to talk, and he said, “Well, you’ve talked a lot about what you do, but your life is about more than what you do.” And so, I began to tell him about my children, and he began to ask questions about that. And then he would say, “It’s getting late now. You should stay the night here.” You know, it’s almost like the road to Emmaus or something like that.
And anyway, they could sound like I was making this all up, but it was real. Now, she began to share her dreams, too. And her dreams were also fantastically symbolic, and often had a deep expression of the relation between art and her contemplative vocation, because a lot of her dreams involved looking at paintings and looking at art objects and interpreting them.
There was one in particular that I thought was just amazing. I said, “If dreams could be awarded prizes, I would say, ‘Well done, Sister Wendy.’” I was in awe of this dream. She said that in the dream, it had three parts to it. In the first part, she was looking at paintings of lakes and admiring these beautiful paintings of lakes. And then at a certain point, the lakes became real lakes, and she was walking around these lakes. But then in the third part of the dream, the lakes were inside of her. And at this point, she realized that the lakes were polluted in some way. They were damaged. And somehow, through her own prayer, her own interior heart – I pictured it as almost like dialysis or something – that the lakes were being purified and cleansed.
And she said, “That seemed to me like a statement or expression of what the Christian life is, that in the suffering of Christ on the cross, we take on the whole suffering of the world within ourselves, and through our love and our prayer and our devotion, we’re somehow contributing to the cleansing or the purification of the world.”
And she said, “That’s why we don’t just flit off to heaven, because God’s lakes need us.”
It gave me some insight for me into what looking at paintings meant for her, that the paintings were about reality in some deep level, and that she took that reality deeply inside of herself, not just to think about it or to look at it, but to interact with it in some way that had consequences on that reality or that world that it represents. And taking beauty into herself and taking even ugly images into herself, that was all kind of parallel to the way that she took the world into her heart, in her life of prayer.
Karen Pascal: I loved that she really opened up, in a sense, she pulled out of you themes that became part of this two-year journey. Your father was one of them. I mean, that was quite fascinating to me. Daniel Ellsberg: very well-known as the person who, with the Pentagon Papers, was willing to go to jail for 115 years. I mean, what an important kind of influence in your life! But in a way, I thought she called you back into that relationship at a certain point, or encouraged you in it. At least, it seems like an arc within the story, because we go from that right through to the movie. So tell me a bit about that.
Robert Ellsberg: Well, yes, early on, just in kind of setting the stage for her, I said, “You know, you may have heard of my father, he’s quite a famous person, Daniel Ellsberg,” and she knew about the Pentagon Papers somewhat, didn’t really know the Watergate and Vietnam story very well. So, I shared some things about that, and it was part of the way that I began to open up more about my own journey and the way that things in my early life, my relationship with my father, who is, you know, obviously a heroic person, a brilliant person, and a kind of overwhelming personality. And that is a great privilege, you know, to have someone like that as your father. But it also is a certain kind of burden, and it’s a lot to live up to. And a lot of my life feeling, as a child, very inadequate compared to this larger-than-life kind of person who, for a lot of time, I felt didn’t really know me all that well.
And I had gone on through my life at the Catholic Worker, and then coming to Orbis Books, becoming a religious publisher. But a writer and a publisher, very concerned about the relation between faith and the world, social justice and peace. I felt that I had been very much inspired in my vocation by impulses that he planted in me at a very young age. But she really understood in a deeper way, I think, than most people do, what the kind of balancing-act there was in my own heart, between the difficulties of growing up with a father who was on trial facing 115 years, having the Nixon administration literally trying to kill him, and having him constantly going to jail and witnessing on this kind of great stage, and in my living this more quiet, domestic life with raising children and being a writer and publisher. I came to the point where we became very close, especially through my using my editorial skills.
He finally came to me and said, “I need your help.” And I helped him first finish his first memoir about the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam. And then during the course of the time when I was corresponding with Sister Wendy, I was working with him on what he felt was the last great accomplishment of his life, which was to write a memoir about what he calls the Doomsday machine – the whole system of preparation for nuclear war, which has been his lifelong obsession. And he felt that his life would be a failure if it ended before he had done everything possible he could do to warn people about this danger. But he was utterly blocked in his writing. He’d been working on this for decades, literally, but he finally hit rock bottom and asked for my help.
And over a period of a couple years, we talked every single day. And I helped him with drafting things and rewriting things and going back and forth. And it was an extremely rewarding experience for me, as a son, among other things, to be able to do that for my father. And to have him recognize that as a labor of love, and as a contribution that I had made to his life and his work through my own professional skills, as well as my filial devotion.
And she had a very interesting kind of take, which was that my parents had divorced when I was young. I grew up with my mother, who was an Episcopalian, who didn’t want to have anything to do with publicity or being known or recognized or considering that her happiness or her role in life was to save the world. She wanted her children to be happy and to be good people, you know? And Sister Wendy said, “You know, you had a very fortunate balance between these influences. If it had been just your father, it would’ve been just too hard to live up to, and overwhelming. If it had been just your mother, you might have become too soft.”
“But, she said, “you have learned. You’ve got the best from your father, both in what you are and what you are not.” And she felt that both in the way that he had contributed to my own dedication, to my vocation, and my own way of serving the cause of peace and justice in the world, I had taken great lessons from him. But I’d also taken lessons, perhaps, in how to be a better father. So, yes, Sister Wendy almost was like a mother to me in these letters. And I often felt like I said to her things that I wish I’d said to my mother, that I could have said to my mother.
Karen Pascal: I found it was so touching to me. She was so concerned about your health. She was really concerned that you slow down, and clearly you went through some health issues in the midst of this letter exchange. And I just felt her love for you and your love for her, I mean, over . . . it just kept getting deeper and deeper and more tender. There’s so much kindness on the page. That’s a rarity nowadays, that we get allowed to be in on the kindness of others. But there was a kindness on the page that I treasured as I read it. I really treasured it as I read it, and I know people are going to love this book. It’s wonderful. I wholly endorse it right now.
I found myself. . . I will say one thing: You have the most interesting dialogues. Both of you are so well read. I mean, it’s just incredible, the depth that the two of you have. And I was left with wanting to read all the books you were talking about. I didn’t want to be left out. I wanted to come into the discussion, and there was lots there that I had not read, and it was really special to me. I would say this is a book that plant seeds. I will really encourage whoever’s listening, I’d say, “Please, please, please, you’re going to love this book. It’s something very, very special. It really is. And it will bring you closer to God.”
That’s all I can say. It will, because honestly, you really are challenged by Sister Wendy and what it means to have a love for Jesus, and how she expresses that. But I’m also challenged by you, Robert. I really am. I’m looking at the pattern of your life and going, “Boy, you hang with some very special people!” And you seem to find your way to those people who are changing the world, but who love God deeply. And I respect that so much.
Robert Ellsberg: Well, thank you, Karen, very much. I think that that would justify Sister Wendy’s trust in this process. I think she began to feel that it might have a message for people. And it was very close to the message that she had always tried to communicate through her art programs. She wouldn’t care if people got to know her or love her better, although I’m happy if they do. She wanted people to love God more and to see how God was present in their lives, whether they recognized it or not. That was one of the things that she’s shown a mirror onto me, and made me think so much of the way that God’s grace has been present in my life. But not just in the great moments of awakening or achievement or enlightenment, but in the times of darkness and brokenness and confusion.
And the most gratifying response that I’ve had from people – and I’ve had a lot of responses like this – people saying, “Reading your book made me think more about my own life.” And in that sense, I wanted people to feel that they were a part of this conversation. It wasn’t just between me and Sister Wendy, but they were being drawn into a kind of walking meditation that they were part of, a community, a friendship, in which they might really begin to awaken to that sense that that motto that Sister Wendy had. She often liked to say, “This is heaven. Heaven is all around us. It’s not in some other world, not after we die. It’s a matter of having the eyes to see it, even though it’s disguised in various ways.”
And I hope that this is a book, you enter into it, and by the end, you have that sense of touching something beautiful and true.
Karen Pascal: She says this lovely line about you and your writing. She says, “Anything you write has the warmth of the Holy Spirit in it.” And I agree with that. I would agree with that about your writing.
It’s difficult to read this book, because I’m falling in love with the two of you, both of you. And at the same time, I know the book’s going to end and I know it’s going to end because Sister Wendy is not going to live. I know that already as I read it. And so, there is a kind of anticipation there that I find hard. But I love how she tells us about the joy, the anticipation she has, that finally this will be over and she’ll be face-to-face with God. She has beautiful expressions about that. It’s a book, if you are in some way faced with dying, either around you or in you, this is a book that is very, I think, very rich and helpful, just because of where she comes to.
Robert Ellsberg: Well, she had spent every single day of her life living in the presence of God, you know, in prayer and the anticipation of being face-to-face with her creator, her beloved, was something that she looked forward to. Not in a morbid way, not because she was tired of life. From the very first letter, she was saying that here she is, too old to live in a caravan anymore, living just in this little room without a view, without any windows basically, in this Carmelite monastery. And she said, “You have to understand, this is the golden time of my life, the happiest time of my life.” And every time she would have a little heart attack or something, she would think, “Okay, this is maybe preparing the gateway to the best that’s yet to come.”
The last message that she sent to me – and to all of her friends, not just to me – where she announced that she was moving to a hospice. It was just a few days before she died. It was too much of a burden for the sisters to care for her, and she didn’t want to be a bother. She said, “If you hear that I have made that transition, please rejoice with me. Note how happy I am.” And then there was a P.S. at the end: “How embarrassing it’ll be if I don’t actually die after all of this.”
Karen Pascal: There was one little phrase that I felt was very sweet. As you saw her declining, you were wanting to relieve her of any responsibility or tension of having to respond to you. Or, you know, there was that whole process somewhere in the middle, where there was even some thought that she was going to do a book on icons. And then she kind of ran out of the strength to consider that. But there was a lovely expression, she said – and maybe this is where we’ll close – she said about you: “So many lives would be impoverished without Robert in them.”
And Robert, I agree many lives would be impoverished without you in them. I love the books you choose to publish. I would encourage people, and we will have lots of links with this podcast to Orbis and to books that you have published. But I would especially encourage them that this is one they must get – Dearest Sister Wendy: A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship.
Thank you so much, Robert. Rich and wonderful to be with you again and to hear you and truly to know more of you through this book, which I have really enjoyed. Thank you.
Robert Ellsberg: Thank you. Thank you so much, Karen.
Karen Pascal: Thank you, Robert, for this wonderful book. As Mirabai Starr wrote in her comments, “This book blew open the gates of my heart. What a quietly magnificent example of a spiritual friendship.”
Thank you for taking time to listen. I hope these interviews and stories continue to bless and encourage you. I trust you’ll come away from this interview with Robert Ellsberg as inspired and as moved as I was. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs-up, or share it with your friends and family. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes for our website and any content, resources, or books discussed in this episode. There’s even a link to books to get you started, in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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