Some Of My Favorite Things

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sects, Lies, and the Wild, Wild West

"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 [1988] 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Creek in Sedona, Arizona. The community disbanded when one of the members ran off with a local woman.

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.

Cynthia Davis

Flagstaff, AZ

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:
  1. Time: All day event
  2. Summary: In the Shelter of Each Other
  3. Location: Upaya Zen Center
  4. 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 upaya@upaya.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.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another possibility. He heard a good tape and did not expend any energy or time fact checking 'Mother Tessa'. He referred to the tape again and didn't fact check her again. The only thing he need be 'guilty' of is thinking that someone who claims to be 'Mother Tessa' was what she claimed and still is what she claimed. You make him responsible for 'Mother Tessa' which he is not. I think someone really wants to ruin Mr. West.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

"Mother Tessa" lied about herself and her spiritual heritage.

She gives seminars at New Age retreats with the likes of the pro-abortion Jane Fonda.

She equates Christianity with fascism.

The group she is with has a history of celibate members running off with members of the opposite sex and attempted suicide as a result of the way the group treats them.

She was trained by a man who denies the sacrament of the Eucharist and who left the priesthood.

If you think authentic Catholic spiritual insights can come out of such a background, then I cannot help you.

Anonymous said...

I’m confused. I recently read Mr. West’s TOB for beginners and it was great, and to my knowledge was very orthodox in teaching. This is why it disturbs me to hear such things. It seems that so far most of the criticisms have come from either his lectures or articles he has written. Has anyone ever found anything wrong with his books?

Anonymous said...

Is there any evidence Mr. West knew about the irregularities in the history pf 'Mother Tessa'? Is there any evidence that Mr. West supports the present heterodox teaching of 'Mother Tessa'? Has anyone asked Mr. West specifically about this? Or is it guilt by association?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

West's talks are the most problematic, followed by his articles. His books have had the fewest overt problems, but even those have not been free of difficulty.

His first edition of "Good News About Sex and Marriage" essentially endorsed anal foreplay as permissible. After being chastised for that, he modified the passage and produced a second edition that wasn't quite as offensive, but was still erroneous. To date, West and his defenders are still trying to claim his position is acceptable, although none of them have produced Magisterial teaching for holding such a position.

As the article link to his same book demonstrates, he severely distorts the story of St. Pelagia in order to promote his theory that we are all able to definitively overcome concupiscence. This theory is rank heresy, but he currently still attempts to support it by snipping out small sentence fragments from Pope John Paul II's writings, stringing them together to give the appearance that JP II taught this error.

Further, as the linked article in my own article (above) points out, his book "Heaven's Song" simply distorts the writings of St. Louis de Montfort, again, in order to support his idiosyncratic theories about sex.

If Mr. West was well-grounded in Catholic theology, he would not be attracted to Tessa Bielecki's spiritual musings.

As it is, by his own admission, he is captivated by them.

This isn't a situation where he is ministering to a lost soul (no one can be chided for that - that would be Christ talking with the tax collectors and prostitutes).

No, Christopher West is actively pursuing the spiritual advice of a lost soul, and he is recommending we all imitate him and actively pursue the spirituality of that same lost soul.

Thus, this is not guilt by association.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Wow. Christopher West really is full of it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve for your response. Yes, I do remember reading also about the anal foreplay incident, and it did raise a red flag and was disappointed that Mr. West took such a strong stance on that particular issue. It was good to hear that he has taken at least some initiative to modify his position. Just goes to show that one must not look at presenters like Mr. West as “infallible” whenever they speak, even though they have books printed with imprimatur and nihil obstat.

Although I always like to give such presenters the benefit of the doubt and trust that if anything erroneous did come about during a lecture or writing, that they are called out on it and have it corrected. I do hope Mr. West is not going down the wrong path; as a RCIA mentor I would like to recommend his TOB books for new coming young couples preparing to marry and in need of such a beautiful teaching from JPII.

-Anonymous 10:51

Steve Kellmeyer said...

A lot of people have written beautifully on Catholic marriage and sexuality.

If you are concerned about "modern" language or finding something that speaks to today's couples, you should explore Catholic authors from the last 50 to 100 years or so.

Father Daniel Lord's materials, for instance, are excellent - he's writing in the 1930's through the 1950's, and addresses many of the same concerns that West did in his "Good News", except Fr. Lord does a fantastic job.

If you really just want TOB, there are other people who promote it without presenting as many problems as West does. Check out the various alternatives.

But, to tell you the truth, there isn't much new theological insight in TOB. It's just a synthesis of what the Church has always taught, with important pieces cut out for reasons best known to JP II.

I've come to the conclusion that TOB is mostly a theological advertising gimmick promoted by Weigel and West.

It repackages some basic theology, but it isn't even complete on the theology of marriage, and JP II takes pains to point all of this out in the last TOB audience. But none of the TOB promoters talk about that last audience. It hurts sales.

Dawn Eden said...

Regarding great expositions on the Church's teaching on marriage, I would highly recommend Three to Get Married by Fulton J. Sheen, which is still in print. People who read it who know the TOB are shocked at how much it reads like TOB. Pope John Paul II was a great fan of Archbishop Sheen.

Doug Pearson said...

Steve,

Great job once again! You are tenacious!

I think that CW has a responsibility as a teacher to thoroughly check out anyone he is recommending to his audience... if he has done his homework on "mother Tessa" and still recommends her- shame on him!

If he has not done his research- shame on him!

Either way it comes out the same- shame on him!

Doug

Dymphna said...

The more I hear about West, the weirder it gets.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Am I the only one getting a "Father Andrew Greeley" vibe? (Really.)

Patrick said...

There certainly are no vetting procedures for most Catholic authors. However, someone at the Vatican level needs to take a serious look into how Imprimaturs are handed out. I've read way too many books or booklets with one that can easily mislead the unwary.

maryvictrix said...

Enbrethiliel,

Father Andrew Greeley, as a matter of fact, is an advocate for the Phallic Paschal Candle Myth that is so dear to West.

Interesting that I see here the argument in support of West that he was unaware the nature of his source. I am still waiting to hear from anyone which father of the Church teaches that the Paschal Candle is is phallic symbol.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

It sounds as if I do more background checks on the 'bloggers I link than West does on the "authorities" he promotes. Yet I don't have thousands of faithful Catholics hanging on my every word.

Brendan said...

Steve, do you care to comment on the Paschal Candle thing? You alluded to it in sscity.mp3.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Sure, Brendan.

I will confess some interest in the idea when I first encountered TOB. Indeed, I discussed it with several other colleagues at about the time I recorded that particular MP3, shortly after getting my MA from Franciscan U.

In the intervening years, as I've read more of the Fathers and seen more concerns raised from the liturgical side of the issue, I'm convinced it's not a good or useful connection to make.

I understand why West makes that particular mistake. Heck, I understand why he makes a LOT of the mistakes he does.

Take, for instance, the Westian error on concupiscence. If you read the TOB audiences without reference to the larger Magisterium, it would be easy to come away with a wrong understanding of concupiscence, because JP II says things that appear very contradictory about whether or not concupiscence can be overcome.

In one passage, he'll appear to be saying it can be, in another, he'll flat out say it cannot be. Reconciling those passages can be tough. Chris West ultimately lands in erroneous terrain on this point because he's not well-versed in moral theology.

As for liturgical connections, JP II says virtually NOTHING about the liturgy. He spends a July 4 audience discussing "fear of the Lord" and ends with a sentence stating "conjugal life" can become liturgical. "Conjugal life" not "sex." Are they the same? Not necessarily.

JP II also spends a couple of audiences on the connection between sacraments and conjugal life, but he certainly doesn't mention baptism or the Paschal candle at all.

Almost everything anyone, including me, says on the intersection between liturgy and TOB is us trying to make sense of the audiences, with varying degrees of success. It ain't explicitly JP II.

To make TOB relevant, it has to be tied into the life of the Church, but the life of the Church is sacrament and liturgy, not sex. JP II left darned few explicit hooks to do that. There are a few connections, but not nearly so many as West likes to pretend.

Furthermore, it has to be tied into the life of the family, because the family is the cell of the Church and society as a whole. But JP II's TOB famously ignores the whole subject of "family." The word barely appears at all in the audiences, there is essentially no discussion of children. He even points out that his TOB audiences are incomplete. He doesn't use TOB audiences even as footnotes in any of his other teachings (there's only one footnote reference I'm aware of in his writings).

So you have this huge convoluted mess of a teaching levitating by itself in the middle of a big empty room, but Weigel said it was a bombshell, so everyone thinks it must be. To a real extent, I think most TOB commentators, including West and myself, got suckered into promoting a shibboleth.

West has built his life around it, and he can't let it go. So, he's straining to make connections that can't be made. I've pretty much given the whole thing up as a bad job.

We could go back to Archbishop Sheen and Fr. Lord without missing a beat.

Brendan said...

Thanks Steve.

One great thing about Archbishop Sheen (vs. TOB) is his words require no distillation or interpretation. In most cases simply quoting them provides far more clarity than even trying.

M said...

I have known Tessa Bielecki for many years. Ms. Bielecki, and many others associated with the SLI were very Orthodox in their beliefs and devotion to the Holy See. The laicization of Fr. McNamara was a painful experience for many members of the community. Most of the priests in the community left. Christo-fascism is a reference towards Christian people forcing their beliefs and practices on others. It is not, in any way, a reference diminishing belief in Jesus Christ. Ms. Bielecki and the other monks, as they always referred to themselves as being, were adamantly pro-life in their views. Their charism was ecumenical outreach and dialogue with other spiritual traditions as fostered by the spirit of Vatican II. This article is biased and distorts many of the facts.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

M,

When you can explain to me how calling Catholicism "Christo-fascism" is really orthodox, I will accept what you have to say.

BostonPaul said...

This kind of self-righteous literalism is everything that Jesus was against. He would have chastised hiom roundly.
What about all his exhortations not to judge let ye be judged. And take the plank out of your own eye. It is amazing how often people distort and miss the basic message. This is probably what Mcnamara meant.

BostonPaul said...

This guy steve gives me the creeps. To take a shor phrase out of context and use it to discredit a man who gave his whole life to honoring God is horible.
This kind of self-righteous literalism is everything that Jesus was against. He would have chastised hiom roundly.
What about all his exhortations not to judge let ye be judged. And take the plank out of your own eye. It is amazing how often people distort and miss the basic message. This is probably what Mcnamara meant.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

BostonPaul,

Part of the Daughters of St. Paul, perhaps?

They spent over a year deliberately trying to destroy my TOB book... hmmm...

In any case, if you don't like reading, then.... don't...

West endorsed a heretic and has never pulled his endorsement.

patcala said...

Dawn - I used to have to watch Bishop Sheen as a teenager. It was a religious program that took place during the day time when my, faithful, parents could hear something of Catholic faith. I REALLY disliket Biship Sheen. First his dramatic entrance with flowing robes put me off right away. Next when he was "sent" to the city of Rochester, he took it upon himself to give away Church property to a minority group of non Catholics. I am not a devotee of Bishop Fulton J Sheen.
Patricia Cala