The Hermits of the Spiritual Life Institute

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“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….
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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…

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.

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.”
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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.” …

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.”

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.”…
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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.”…

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….
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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.”

Extracts from “Desert Monks” by Melissa Jones (a free-lance writer living in Littleton, Colorado) in the “National Catholic Reporter”, February 21, 2003
http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives/022103/022103y.htm

The website of the Spiritual Life Institute is http://www.spirituallifeinstitute.org/
The website for Nada is http://www.spirituallifeinstitute.org/Nada.html

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