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Religious Life

Desert Monks

Crestone, Colo.

The monks at the Spiritual Life Institute are hermits focused on mysticism, yet the group embodies an earthy pragmatism, enabling them to build bridges between the institutional church and those struggling to find spiritual health and healing.

In their 40-year history, the hermits have founded four monasteries: in Sedona, Ariz.; Kemptville, Nova Scotia; Crestone, Colo., and the newest in Skreen, Ireland.

The Sedona and Kemptville hermitages have been closed because of vanishing wilderness. Residents think a border of wild lands is necessary to preserve the hermit spirit, but at these two locations developers have encroached on these borderlands.

Founded by Discalced Carmelite Fr. William McNamara, the Spiritual Life Institute began as an effort to renew the ancient Carmelite vision in a contemporary Christian community. In 1960, McNamara had an audience with Pope John XXIII, who blessed his effort and even gave advice on which bishops would support or oppose the project.

In 1963, McNamara became administrator of the Holy Cross Chapel in Sedona. Living in the high desert formed what would become known as the “desert experience,” an elemental part of the Spiritual Life Institute. McNamara believed a renewal of the eremitic Carmelite tradition required a desert or wilderness.

Striving to maintain the spirit of Vatican II, McNamara favored an ecumenical thrust, and pondered the ideal of a male-female community. The theory became reality when Tessa Bielecki came in 1967 after college. She had been impressed by McNamara during a college retreat. Bielecki is now the abbess of the institute.

The Nada-- Spanish for “nothing” -- Hermitage in Crestone sits at an altitude of 8,000 feet, where the vast San Luis Valley meets the towering Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. The monks’ -- as both men and women here are called -- small dwellings, bermed on one side with desert sand, evoke images of Colorado’s first hermits -- miners seeking gold in the frigid mountains.

These 21st-century prospecters seek God, not gold, but do so with similar fervor. This life is rigorous, unbearable for the unfit or faint of heart, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

McNamara asserts, “Contemplation is for everybody.” Not just for monks in monasteries, but for all, because the primary human relationship must be with God. The monks provide hospitality and “the desert experience” to those seeking relief from worldly distractions.

Retreats at the hermitage offer an antidote to today’s rushed, materialistic society. Bielecki said the solitude and wilderness setting of the hermitages is unique, “People come here and they’re all alone. They’re learning from the silence and from living close to wild nature.” Retreatants stay in individual hermitages. No preaching or teaching is done. McNamara said he enjoys watching people arrive at the hermitages because he can tell, without a word, “that they are deeply moved by the glorious rawness of the environment.”

The hermits’ own searches for mystical experience at the Spiritual Life Institute are also connected to wildness -- the wildness of God. Bielecki said throughout history, people, including the church, have tried to “tame, manage, control and spoon-feed God, but God is a wild mystery, and that’s part of what you encounter when you come to a place like this in silence.”

Like the ancient monks, who were originally bothersome innovators at the fringes of society, the hermits strive to provide fresh alternatives to a jaded culture and ossified church practices. Bielecki said, “We live at the heart of the church, but at the same time manage to be a prophetic and critical voice ... especially regarding its loss of mysticism.”

They are great admirers of Pope John Paul II, who is a Third Order Carmelite. They believe he has renewed the church’s mystical vision. However, they see a breakdown in implementation of the pope’s vision. “It’s a middle management problem,” said Bielecki. “People don’t even know that [a mystical tradition] exists,” Bielecki said. “Parish priests aren’t trained to deal with mystical hunger.”

True to their ecumenical basis, the group respects other religious traditions and does much East-West dialogue. As “apostolic hermits,” they work with disenchanted and disaffected Christians, many of whom have turned to Eastern mysticism. The monks don’t seek to reconvert such Christians, but hope to assist healing and closure so the search for God can be made without anger or bitterness.

At the heart of the church

However, the monks do seek to level the theological playing field. With a hint of irritation, Bielecki explained that people often become sophisticated in their understanding of Buddhist, Hindu or Sufi meditation, but have only a fundamental knowledge of Christianity. She said, “If you’re going to look at Sunday school level Christianity, then you’d better compare it to Sunday school level Buddhism. If you want to talk on a sophisticated level, then you’d better know about the Christian mystical tradition.”

Categorization of this group is difficult. Conservatives criticize the mixed group of men and women living in the wilderness. Liberals coldly eye the habits and strict adherence to tradition. Bielecki said, “We make a huge effort to live at what we believe is the heart of the church, which is neither right nor left -- which is the mystical center.”

In the past, bishops generally viewed the Spiritual Life Institute with suspicion, but McNamara said the group’s stability has earned them respect. He clearly enjoyed the days of rattling bishops’ cages, and is a bit uneasy now with the monks’ apparent acceptability. “It worries me,” he said with a laugh.

The monks at the institute take their vows seriously. The founding members questioned everything during the1960s formation of the order. They retained many traditions, but also brought innovations, such as adding a vow of leisure. True to their pragmatic spirit, the traditional vows are boiled down to a pithy aphorism coined by McNamara: “No Fuss, No Lust, No Rust.”

Upon entering the cloister, visitors pass under a large wooden sign that reads, “No Fuss.” Once inside, the meaning quickly reveals itself. Here, poverty does not mean destitution, but rather simplicity, frugality and sufficiency. The monks ask: “What is enough?”

Bielecki said many people picture monastic poverty as drab or ugly, but she said, “Poverty does not mean a lack of beauty.” She asserts that beauty is found in wholeness, in organic or handmade objects: “It’s wood, a wreath, photographs we take, stones we pick up -- it has a sense of fullness to it. That’s also what you get when men and women live together.”

Hospitality is a major part of their ministry and they maintain a cheerful, comfortable environment for visitors. Seeking to emulate Teresa of Avila, the monks strive for freedom of spirit in what they have or lack. They try to avoid enslavement to a rigid image of poverty. For example, they don’t buy meat for themselves, but when the local restaurateur sent them a Thanksgiving feast they enjoyed it. “For us, fasting has more to do with simplicity,” Bielecki said, “but if someone arrives with a case of champagne and steaks, great! No fuss.”

They also hope to show visitors the connection between sacrifice and celebration. After an austere Advent fast that includes two weeks of strict solitude, Epiphany at the monastery is celebrated with a lavish Middle-Eastern banquet fit for the Magi. Bielecki stockpiles gifts and donated treats all year and brings them out at Epiphany. The gifts, food and laughter have shocked guests staying at Nada during Epiphany, but the monks are unapologetic about their party. “It’s the lavishness of kings bringing gifts,” said Bielecki, “It’s deep and it’s meaningful as well as fun.”

Taking celibacy seriously

The male-female community is an essential element of the institute. “Sometimes we even say it’s the most important contribution we’re making to the church, Bielecki said. “And celibacy is key. We take our celibacy very seriously.”

McNamara said in the beginning he approached the concept of a mixed community as “a dark and dangerous idea.” He wanted to do it, but didn’t know how. Then, he said, “it just happened.” The first member to join the hermitage was Bielecki, and both men and women followed. “Now I can’t imagine living any other way anymore,” said the 76-year-old McNamara.

Fr. Dave Denny, publications editor at the hermitage, said the male-female mix was one of the things that attracted him to the monastery: “It seemed so natural and healthy. Not having grown up Catholic, the whole idea of an all male or all female community seemed strange.”

Denny considers it a countercultural witness: “American culture is always vacillating between Puritanism and indulgent promiscuity.” He finds real beauty in the affection and friendship that exists within the mixed group.

McNamara noted that the physical separation of the eremitic life is more conducive to a successful mixed group. He cautions against attempting a mixed community without a thorough education in the physiological, psychological, emotional and spiritual ramifications of celibacy. Many of the church’s problems concerning sex can be traced back to poor education, he said.

Bielecki agreed: “People here are prepared for celibacy in a way that most priests and religious in the past were not.” Celibacy was often merely presumed without preparation, she said. She also believes that past rules about celibacy were often based in apostolic efficacy -- solitary clergy work better. “Well, that’s not going to get you through a night of temptation,” she said.

Among the hermits, celibacy is understood as a great gift for the sake of mysticism. “You’re giving up something, but you have also been given the gift of celibacy for the sake of mystical growth. We are wedded to God, and that’s what celibacy is all about,” Bielecki said.

The hermits talk together about celibacy, they laugh about it, and they support each other. Bielecki said, “The men and women are close friends, but we have boundaries.” Because of those boundaries, she said, “You can be yourself, you can be affectionate. You have freedom from erotic static, which is a great freedom.”

McNamara said after years of hearing confessions, he came to the conclusion that “all the little sins are happenstance, the real problem is misdirection.” He said people must place God at the center of all, then “everything else falls into place.” He continued, “If love of God is the one big passion, then that orders all the little passions.”

The passion for God is renewed by contemplation, by listening to God. McNamara pointed out that the Latin root of “obedience” means “to listen.” He said the mind must be alert, alive and attentive, “when the mind is actively engaged it doesn’t get rusty.” The Christian must listen to a heroic degree because, he said, “From eternity God speaks one word -- Christ. Nothing else remains to be said.”

Although their roots were in the 1960s, there is no antiauthoritarianism at the hermitage. “We believe in strong authority and we have it,” Bielecki said. Because obedience means listening, she said, “A leader is the one who has to listen the hardest. We jokingly call leaders ‘the big ears.’ ”

Bielecki said, “We’re small and we’re based on trust. We are a family, we are friends.” St. Teresa’s Carmelite reform limited a monastery’s population to 12 persons. The Spiritual Life Institute follows that rule. “If we get too large, then we have to start another place,” Bielecki said. There are about 10 monks at the Nada Hermitage in Crestone, and about six working to build the Irish Holy Hill.

Fr. Denny said he’d be hard pressed to remember a time when a formal, direct command was given. He said the size and family atmosphere of the community makes decision-making an almost organic process. “There’s something relaxed about it. Fr. William is the composer and Tessa is the conductor, and together we all make beautiful music.”

Vow of leisure is hard

The monks all agree that their innovative vow of leisure is the hardest one to keep. McNamara added this vow, he said, as, “a witness against a workaholic culture.” He said, “If we really trust God we can waste time prodigiously. It gives such glory to God.”

Bielecki said. “Strictly speaking, play and prayer are the two most nonutilitarian aspects of life, but there are connections.” She explained that leisure and play involve surrender, and that’s also what prayer is about.

Sr. Connie Bielecki, Tessa Bielecki’s sister, left a successful career in medical research many years ago to join the group. “Play is a very important part of being human and it re-creates us, ” she said. “ We laugh a lot.”

Quoting McNamara, Sr. Connie said, “We need to take God so seriously that we take everything else, especially ourselves, lightheartedly.” She added, “We live in a pretty serious culture. People are serious about their work and serious about their play, which is really heartbreaking.” She noted that recreation in today’s society often necessitates having the right kind of equipment and clothes, going to the right places and doing the right things.

She said many today have lost “that ability to be filled with awe and wonder about everything, both the beauty and the joy as well as the pain and suffering in life.”

The monks at the Spiritual Life Institute publish quarterly magazines, books and tapes. They sometimes speak and teach outside the monastery. They maintain their own lives in the middle of wilderness, build and maintain hermitages for retreatants. Finding leisure time is difficult for the small but busy community. “But it keeps in our minds that our most important work is prayer, is our relationship with God,” Sr. Connie Bielecki said. “No matter what kind of work we do, if we’re doing it in a spirit of leisure then it will be in a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving, and that will color how we do everything.”

Melissa Jones is a free-lance writer living in Littleton, Colo.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003