"Recently, while preparing for a long drive, I decided to look through my old collection of tape series for something to listen to (yes, I still have a cassette deck in my car). My eyes landed on a box set called "Passion for God" by a Carmelite Abbess named Mother Tessa Bielecki."That's how Christopher West began his newspaper column's recent two-part series discussing "Mother Tessa's" thoughts on sex and St. Teresa of Avila.
Given that this is part of his "old tape" set, it's clear that West has spent a lot of time contemplating Mother Tessa's wisdom. Indeed, while he does not refer to her Spiritual Life Institute by name, in his talks, he often holds up as an example a remarkable order of monks and nuns living together in celibate community. Yes, once we discover this community, empowered by Pope John XXIII's personal permission, headed by Discalced Carmelite Father William McNamara and the Carmelite abbess, Mother Tessa, we are taken aback by the breathtaking break with the whole history of monastic life that it represents.
But, we are taken aback even more when we discover that "Mother Tessa" is not now, nor has she ever been, a Carmelite nun, much less an abbess, that the community was not, in fact, set up with the advice of Pope John XXIII, and that none of the men and women there, apart from Fr. McNamara, is under binding vows to the Church.
The truth about the community came out more than 20 years ago, when the September/October 1988 edition of Yoga Journal ran the following letter correcting the inaccuracies in its laudatory portrait of "Mother Tessa":
I am responding to an article in the March/April  issue of Yoga Journal entitled “Everything and Nothing.” Misinformation in an article is bad enough, but total inaccuracies in glaring, large print are more than I can ignore. As a retreatant in 1970 and 1971 and a member of the Spiritual Life Institute from 1972 until 1975, I would like to clarify a few points.
- Tessa Bielecki is not, and never was, a Carmelite nun. She has no formal affiliation with any authorized religious community. In 1974, Tessa and Father William decided it would be nice if the community wore robes to community prayer. A Carmelite nun who was in residence at the time designed and sewed robes and woollen capes. We all joked about being “monks and monkesses.” In 1975 Tessa decided that all women in the community should wear headscarves and began signing her letters “Mom.” A split in the community occurred in 1975, and five of the 10 members left. The day I left I witnessed a remaining community member taking a vow of obedience to the Spiritual Life Institute. That was the inception of a probationary period for aspiring community members and the taking of vows. It was several years later that I first saw Tessa referred to in print as “Mother Tessa” and the institute associated with the Carmelites.
- Tessa was born in September 1944. This is 1988. If it is true that she is now returning to the world after 27 years, then she was 17 when she became a contemplative. Since she was 22 when she met Father William, That’s very unlikely.
The evolution of mythology is fascinating, and I have watched with interest and some dismay the develping myths and mystique of the Spiritual Life Institute. The community I first visited in April 1970 was a loosely organized interdenominational contemplative group with Father William McNamara as spiritual leader and Tessa Bielecki as gardner, business manager and chief cook. Back then, the permission from John XXIII to start a “new order… which would bring the message of the contemplative life… and which would be composed of both men and women” was a brief papal audience in which John XXIII approved Father William’s desire to begin a more strictly eremetical community. Father William’s original community was comprised of three male religious, each of whom lived in an individual hermitage along
Oak Creekin . The community disbanded when one of the members ran off with a local woman. Sedona, Arizona
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this and other articles published about the Spiritual Life Institute has been the lack of response from former community members or communities involved in the not-so-glorious side of the institute. One ex-member who attempted suicide after rejections and ostracism by Father William wrote a thinly veiled novel about her bitter experience, but her religious community never spoke out against the institute. As far as I know, the Carmelite nuns have never issued a statement protesting Tessa’s self-designated Carmelite status. I almost wrote a letter in response to a National Catholic Reporter front-page article several years ago, but didn’t.
Father William McNamara is a powerful, charismatic man. Even these many years later, I hesitate to sign my name to a public statement against the Institute because I still fear the powerful impact of Father William’s wrath.
The mythology that the Spiritual Life Institute has created for its beginnings and its present may be harmless but… The Spiritual Life Institute is just another flawed, many-faceted sect; Tessa is still a Polish-American girl trying to believe that she is another Teresa of Avila; and Father William McNamara is a charismatic priest whose charisma has a dark and possibly dangerous side.
That, of course, is just the beginning. In the interview with Yoga Journal that the letter references, West's publicly endorsed "abbess" avers that Buddhism is a great counterweight to "Christo-fascism." In this light, it is, perhaps, also useful to notice who Mother Tessa's friends are. Consider this summer 2009 event:
- Time: All day event
- Summary: In the Shelter of Each Other
- Location: Upaya Zen Center
- Description: Morning: Participants will begin the day with movement practice led by Zuleikha. This will be followed by teachings on aspects of female power by Jane Fonda, Rabbi Malka Drucker and Roshi Joan. Afternoon: Participants move into two groups: Barbara Tedlock (Mayan shamanism and power); Tessa Bielecki, Jean Wilkins (Christianity, Buddhism, women and power). Evening: Colleen Kelly explores the I Ching. Roshi Joan weaves the day.Upaya Zen Center is hosting “In the Shelter of Each Other Women’s Retreat: Power, Compassion, Resilience and the Shadow” July 16-20, 2008.The instructors are Roshi Joan Halifax, Zen teacher; Jane Fonda, social activist and actress; Mayumi Oda, social activist and artist; Zuleikha, dancer; Tessa Bielicki, co-founder of The Desert Foundation; Cynthia West, poet; Rabbi Malka Drucker, founder of HaMakom; Barbara Tedlock, specialist in Mayan shamanism; Colleen Kelly, I Ching teacher; Marty Peale, field naturalist; Beate Stolte, vice abbot, Upaya Zen Center; Jean Wilkins, Yushin Hieleman and Jisen McFarland, Upaya Zen priests. Call for exact times of morning, afternoon and evening events. $450 for nonmembers; $400 for members; Web site is www.upaya.org; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 505-986-8518.
We should also take note of the fact that Father McNamara, Tessa's spiritual mentor, recommends praying the Our Father backwards. He asserts that the more spiritually mature a person is, the less s/he needs the Eucharist. Father McNamara is also of the opinion that "Jesus didn't institute a sacrament of the eucharist (sic), he entered into the sacramentality of the universe."
Make of these statements what you will, but it cannot be denied that Tessa's spiritual formation is certainly something Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI would find... remarkable.
Now, in fairness, it should be noted that today, Tessa Bielecki advertises herself as having left the Carmelite community. In fact, Tessa seems to have "left the order" at about the same time her instructor, Father McNamara, was allegedly laicized. Perhaps the Carmelites finally got tired of the personal use Tessa (and by proxy, Father McNamara) was making of the Carmelite name. But, as the recent workshop announcement testifies, that hasn't stopped her from being advertised as an authentic teacher of Carmelite spirituality, not only on her own authority, but also on the authority of none other than that paragon of Catholic catechesis, Mr. Christopher West.
Despite her endorsements by the inestimable West, Tessa Bielecki appears to be a New Age leader of a non-Catholic "ecumenical" cult who massages St. Teresa of Avila's Catholic mysticism into something that Jane Fonda would find acceptable. This is the spirituality that Christopher West not only finds personally enthralling, it is the spirituality he explicitly recommends to other Catholics, Catholics who have far less theological training than he.
As I've noted earlier, Christopher West has a well-documented past with cult movements. He also has a history of "adapting" stories to his particular use.
Most famous, of course, is his version of the story of St. Pelagia and St. Nonnus. His "adaptation" of the spiritual conversion and subsequent life of that holy woman is substantially different from the actual historical account handed down to us by John the Stylite.
Similarly, West's rendition of the writings of St. Louis de Montfort, are, as Father Angelo Mary Geiger points out, starkly different from anything St. Louis de Montfort actually wrote.
Now we find Christopher West endorsing "Mother" Tessa Bielecki, who has, herself, taken certain... liberties... with the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. Well, and with the use of the name "Carmelite" in general. And with essential historical facts, for that matter.
A couple of possibilities follow:
1) Christopher West had no knowledge of Tessa Bielecki's dissimulation. Conclusion: Christopher West's grasp of Catholic theology is such that he was successfully taken in by the spiritual writings of a marginally Catholic "business manager and chief cook" pretending to be a nun.
2) Christopher West knew of Tessa Bielecki's dissimulation, but chose to ignore it because her marginally Catholic theology fit in with his own highly idiosyncratic interpretation of John Paul II's teachings. Conclusion: let us pass on in silence.
It is certain that Cardinal Rigali had no knowledge of Chris West's predilections in this matter. However, it does raise the question of how reliable West's recommendations are when it comes to his other "spiritual lights," his other... muses, as it were.
Taken together with his other very personal renditions of history and doctrine, it also raises the question of how we are to approach his take on any Catholic doctrine or any point of Catholic history he claims to raise.