sharing experiences of the desert’s transformative power
by Gussie Fauntleroy
Tessa Bielecki has two small paintings on a wall in her hermitage near San Isabel Creek north of Crestone, images very similar to one that has enlivened her imagination since she was a child. In it, a camel caravan materializes in the distance on endless Saharan dunes, emerging from the desert’s vast unknown. The image reflects not only a lifelong attraction to desert landscapes and cultures; it also speaks of the age-old movement of prophets, saints, seekers and outcasts who enter the desert, purposefully or unintentionally, spend time there and then return to share what they have found.
Tessa, co-founder and former abbess of the Spiritual Life Institute’s Nada Carmelite Hermitage in Crestone, describes this movement as a natural rhythm between “radical solitude” and “contemplation-in-action”—the nurturing depths of silence and then going out into the world. It is how she aspires to live, as does Father David Denny, also a former Nada member whose own hermitage is within walking distance of Tessa’s one-person-sized home but separated by a thickly-treed landscape and by the mutual respect and understanding of decades of committed solitary life.
The two are co-founders and co-directors of the Desert Foundation, a Crestone-based non-profit organization whose primary means of sharing and interconnection are its website and semi-annual newsletter, Caravans. The foundation is a “circle of friends” with a common interest in the three Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam, especially in their mystical forms—and the metaphoric and physical deserts from which they emerged.
Through writings and reflections, occasional talks and classes and networking among like-minded individuals and groups, the Desert Foundation seeks to help create interfaith bridges of understanding, respect and peace, in particular in response to troubled relationships in the Middle East. Among the ways the co-directors have sought to fulfill this mission: spending two weeks studying Islam at Dar al Islam near Abiquiu, NM; traveling to Palestine; and listening to an Israeli Bedouin feminist in Denver—and then writing and speaking about these experiences. Sharing thoughts on the desert, in all its richly layered meanings, also provides fodder for individual spiritual growth, the co-directors note. They welcome contributions to the website and Caravans.
The Desert Foundation’s genesis took place, appropriately, in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert as Father Dave and Tessa were driving through the saguaro-spiked landscape in the winter of 2005. Searching for a way to combine and express their overlapping commitments to a contemplative lifestyle and interfaith sharing, they quickly became aware of the common theme of the desert. Six months later the Desert Foundation was incorporated as a non-profit.
Dave traces his passion for the Abrahamic traditions and monastic life to a confluence of formative experiences as a young man. His family moved from Indiana to Arizona when he was in junior high school, sparking a love affair with the desert. Then at 17 he spent a summer in Afghanistan as an exchange student. “I suddenly realized there are so many languages, cultures and religions out there, and what depth and beauty there are in them,” he relates. “It was a profound opening to other ways, other lives.”
During his college years he studied Islam and Arabic, had a Buddhist teacher, did a month-long silent Vipassana meditation retreat, read Thomas Merton, and visited the Spiritual Life Institute whose Carmelite retreat center at the time was in the desert near Sedona, AZ. Tessa, who served as the monastery’s abbess for almost 40 years, remembers of Dave, “Even then, he radiated such a depth of stillness.” In 1975 Dave converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and joined the Spiritual Life Institute. He was ordained a priest in 1980.
In recent years Father Dave’s conception of the metaphoric desert has expanded to include loss, grief and the opportunity for spiritual growth that arises from those experiences. “The Hebrew prophets and Sufi mystics talk about life falling apart and what happens then,” he points out. “In our tradition it has to do with the dynamic between the cross—the ultimate desert—and resurrection. There’s a transforming, mysterious relationship with Christ that knocks the wind out of you, knocks you down to size. That, to me, is a very hopeful thing.”
While Dave focuses on overlapping themes within the three Abrahamic traditions, Tessa’s personal lifestyle and teaching—through writing and as an invited speaker—revolve more around the desert landscape itself. It’s a place whose defining qualities she sees as expansiveness and receptiveness. “A major part of my teaching is about the relationship between landscape and soulscape,” she says, gazing out a west window at the vastness of the valley. “To me, the desert is about my heart needing to become as open and spacious and receptive as this.”
Walking lightly on the earth in rhythm with the seasons is an integral part of both Tessa and Dave’s commitment to the contemplative lifestyle, Tessa explains. From that base, which she calls “good humanness,” the Desert Foundation provides ways for sharing and reaching out. “Connection happens,” she notes, adding that the foundation is less aimed at growth and more at expanding interfaith understanding and respect through quality networking and sharing. “It’s serendipitous, spontaneous, small and simple,” she reflects, “the way living in the desert ought to be.”
For more information visit desertfound.org. In October the foundation will offer the class, “Desert Spirituality: From the Middle East to the American Southwest,” at Colorado College in both Crestone and Colorado Springs.