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Religious Life

Wilderness grows scarce for lovers of solitude

“It’s amazing and tragic that with our emphasis on being in the wilderness, we have created four monasteries and lost two specifically because of the loss of wilderness,” said Tessa Bielecki, abbess of the Spiritual Life Institute.

The group lost their original home, Nada Hermitage in Sedona, Ariz., to land development. Rocks and desert surrounded them when they began in 1963. However, the group owned only nine acres and was squeezed out as the Arizona hills began to prickle with houses. “Where we were is now a golf course and condominiums,” Bielecki said.

Sedona still holds traces of the hermits -- a hermitage wall was inexplicably left intact. The monks sometimes take candidates to visit, sneaking onto the golf course before dawn. Orienting themselves by the surviving trees, they show newcomers where their origins lie.

Nada Hermitage was moved to Crestone, Colo., in 1983. This area is also becoming populated, but the hermits planned a buffer zone of undeveloped land around the monastery. Land is cheaper here than in Sedona, and they have acquired almost 100 acres. They remain optimistically hopeful that this Nada can remain undisturbed.

The group’s most traumatic loss was of the Nova Nada Hermitage in Nova Scotia, which fell prey to logging. After acquiring the former hunting lodge in 1972, the monks labored there for almost 25 years. Nova Nada, located seven miles down a dirt road, was surrounded by thousands of forested acres.

Around 1997, J.D. Irving Ltd., began clearcut logging of those pristine forests. The loggers worked 24 hours a day using heavy machinery. The monks heard it through the night, constantly reminding them that “the integrity of our life was at stake,” said Bielecki.

When the company refused to give a two-mile logging-free buffer around the hermitage land, the monks chose a public fight. Bielecki said, “We were taking a stand on behalf of preservation of the wilderness not only for its own sake, but also because of what it does for the contemplative life and for the contemplative soul.”

Supported by the Sierra Club of Canada and other organizations, the fight garnered huge media attention in Nova Scotia. The monks found themselves running a public relations campaign. This was difficult, as Fr. Dave Denny said, since they had only a cellular phone for emergencies and “it was a 40 minute drive to a fax machine for us.”

The hermits learned lessons in corporate business tactics, but the struggle was not conducive to monastic life. It emotionally drained the monks, most of whom had come to Nova Nada in their 20s and were strongly attached to the land. They finally left Nova Scotia in 1998. Fr. William McNamara issued a news release stating: “The monks are exhausted. As founder and abbot, I must remove them from this battlefield.”

After a three-year search for an appropriate buyer, Nova Nada was sold to two women for use as a secular retreat house. The sale freed the monks to focus on their newest project, Holy Hill Hermitage in County Mayo, Ireland.

McNamara and his followers were amazed in 1995 when Bishop Thomas Finnegan invited them to his diocese. “For the first time in our lives, a bishop invited us to a place. That had never happened before,” Bielecki said with a laugh.

The hermitage is located in northwest Ireland, a place of poverty and high emigration. The bishop’s invitation was an effort to keep people on the land and to revive Celtic monasticism -- which was surprisingly close to the way the monks of the Spiritual Life Institute live.

Daunting in climate and location, the Irish property was far from what the monks had previously experienced. Although it is wilderness from an Irish perspective, it looked like pastureland to the hermits. The land is tidily checkerboarded with dividing walls, and the marks of human endeavor are everywhere.

The centerpiece of the place was a run-down, 200-year-old old manor house. The outbuildings were in ruins. The monks replaced roofs and repaired stone walls. They struggled to adjust from their previous hermitages made of glass and wood, to the stone manor house that was icy cold, but insulated from the sounds of nature. They have now built new hermitages that blend with the landscape and provide windows to nature, and are creating vast gardens to keep themselves connected to the land.

They are also building spiritual bridges. McNamara said he sees too many young, disaffected Irish Catholics who have been “soured and bittered.” He dreams of constructing a chapel with an 80-foot-high traditional “round tower.” Cylindrical stone towers were often built near Irish monasteries between the 10th and 13th centuries. They were used for bell ringing, praying and standing watch.

McNamara’s experiences with the Spiritual Life Institute hermits taught him that the young are drawn to challenges, and often meet them heroically. He hopes the challenge of building and prayerfully keeping watch in the tower 24 hours a day will “draw young people into the heart of the church.”

-- Melissa Jones

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003