Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Tessa Bielecki. Tessa is former Mother Abbess of the Spiritual Life Institute, a Carmelite community with hermitages in Colorado, Nova Scotia, and Ireland. Tessa recently created the Desert Foundation, an informal circle of friends who explore the wisdom of the world's deserts, focusing on peace and understanding between the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She's the author of Teresa of Avila: Ecstasy and Common Sense and Holy Daring, and is also the publisher of Forefront, a quarterly magazine of contemporary spirituality. In her release through Sounds True, Wild at Heart: Radical Teachings of the Christian Mystics, a six-session audio learning program, Tessa invites listeners to a loving realization that God is our divine birthright, and an intimate experience of the Divine is not just an experience for saints and mystics.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tessa and I spoke about the vitality in monastic life and some of the obstacles that prevent this vitality from running through all of our lives. We also talked about what it might mean to balance polarities in our lives and how this is such important work for the Christian mystics. Finally, we talked about courage and the transformative nature that courageous acts can have on our lives. Here's my very heartful and honest conversation with Tessa Bielecki.
Tessa, you were part of a Carmelite monastic order for 40 years, and to begin with, I'm curious to know why earlier in your life you decided to join a monastic order—what was happening in your life? And my second question is, why did you leave a few years ago? So let's begin with that.
Tessa Bielecki: I think I would have to be very honest with you and say that initially, I was a reluctant monk, and when I joined the community that I was in, which was called the Spiritual Life Institute, we actually weren't even monastic at that time. It was this wild adventure of living out in the desert of Arizona. I had no intention of living a monastic life. What attracted me was the vitality of the life that was being lived. That was what was intriguing to me, as well as the desert, which has always had a fascination from me even though I come from very green New England and grew up there for the first 21 years of my life. There was something about the arid desert that really appealed to me. So I didn't join a monastery per say, I joined a community that I thought that was very exciting, very new. It was right after Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, and in a sense the life was very similar to the whole commune movement of the '60s that was going on in lots of places—particularly in the southwestern part of the US. So it was sort of a Catholic, Christian, a little more disciplined, community life. And that was what attracted me.
I loved it for all those years, although it wasn't easy. At a certain point, about three years after I had joined, we started to take on these monastic forms, which I found very congenial. Then at a certain point, they were no longer very congenial to me, let me say. It's very difficult to talk about why I left. We ran into a very serious crisis that's really not possible for me to talk about too openly just yet. At some point in the future, I look forward to writing much more openly about it, but that's not possible at this time. We hit such a huge bump in the road that 11 of us left from the community left around the same time and went in various directions and have done various things. Only one of those 11 ended up continuing with monastic life. All the rest of us opted for living in the world [outside] of the profound lessons that had learned from monastic life. I don't mean to be vague, but it's a little bit tricky for me to talk about it.
TS: That's fine. I feel totally respectful of that. Thanks for your candor.
TB: OK, good.
TS: Now, you talk about how anyone could be what you call a mystic—that the life of the mystic is actually available to anybody. It's not only for people who are called to join a community or take on monastic vows—but that it's as simple and natural as breathing. That's the comparison you make. So talk a little bit about that.
TB: Yes, so this has been one of the deepest convictions of my life. And it is really the basis of whatever work and teaching I do in the Christian mystical realm. What I was taught and believe with every fiber of my being is that the mystic is not a special kind of person, but everyone is or ought to be a special kind of mystic. This was from the Christian perspective. This has been controversial down through the centuries and there used to be a much more aristocratic attitude toward it—that you had to be living a monastic life or you had to live in a very rarified way. My focus has been—first in my years in the community life that I lived and then subsequently—proving or just showing people that no matter who you are, no matter what your lifestyle, it is possible for you to be living mystically. But I think it's important to clarify what we mean by that.
My favorite description of what I mean by mysticism is—well, as a Christian I have to speak of God, but it would be very possible to drop the word "God" from this description and still have it hold if you were part of a tradition that is not theistic. That description would be: mysticism is loving, experiential awareness of God. I think it's very valid to say that the contemplative life or the mystical life, for me, contemplation and mysticism are equivalent. Another way of saying it if you are not from a theistic tradition is that the contemplative life or the mystical life is loving, experiential awareness—whether you want to say of life, or of the source, of being, whatever, or say nothing at all. Just awareness. Loving, experiential awareness. The two key words I think are "experiential," that this is an experience that we're talking about, not ideas in the head. And I think it also needs to be "loving," although some traditions would prefer the word "compassion." Compassionate experience, which would also be very valid, from my point of view.
TS: It's interesting [that] when you talked about the community back in the 1960s, what drew you to joining, you said, [was] the vitality. Often when people think about life in a spiritual community, they think of people being quite quiet and speaking in hushed tones, and walking slowly. Yet what you're describing, even in your definition of mysticism, is a type of loving energy—something different. I wonder if you can talk more about that. That seems to go against people's, or some people's, initial ideas of the life of the mystic.
TB: Yes, I'm so glad you asked that, because for me, vitality is actually the greatest quality. If you were to ask me what I think is the essence of Christianity or the essence of the Gospel, I would say that it's the only passage from scripture that I know that I can actually give you the verse and the number by heart. You know, Catholics normally don't do that very well, and I'm typical like that, but it's John 10:10 where Jesus says, "I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full." Or some translations say, "I've come that you may have life and have it abundantly." I think that the saddest thing is a Christian who isn't vital like that. I think it was Saint Francis de Sales who said, "A sad saint is a sorry saint," or in other words, somebody who isn't very alive. And I think it's been an aberration of Christianity, of monasticism, of contemplative life, that it has been understood as a diminishment of vitality, instead of an enhancement of it. That's what attracted me to the particular brand of Christianity that I was drawn to.
First of all, I was raised like that. I came from a very vibrant family and I've always understood Christianity as [being] full of vitality—learning it first from my family, and then from the life of the saints. The most influential people in my life were all very alive people. I think we see a lot of caricatures of Christian life, monastic life, and mystical life. We see a lot of stereotypes. People have been forced into a certain stereotype or a certain mode of being. My whole work is about helping people be free enough to be themselves because that's really what it's all about.
TS: What have you found in your own prayer life, your own contemplative life, releases your vitality or enhances it?
TB: What releases vitality? That's a very good question. I guess I have to confess that I feel vitality most of the time. It's not so much what releases it as what works against it. That has been more of my focus. What are the obstacles against it? One of those obstacles would be workaholism. Another would be something that the writer Walker Percy called "everydayness," which is that we get stuck in routines, and what are most seductive are the good routines. We can recognize the bad routine or a bad rut, and we are much more inclined to get out of a bad rut than a good rut. I think living on the surface of life works against vitality. I think moving too fast [works against it]. I think [also] living an artificial life that is not natural enough, that is not in tune enough with nature and the rhythms of nature, the rhythms of the seasons.
Probably for me, I would say connecting with the earth, and the seasons of the earth, which in the Roman Catholic tradition are reflected in what we call the liturgical seasons of the year. There's a very big connection between what we do liturgically and what's [happening] on the earth seasonally. I think that would be the way that I most profoundly connect with my own vitality. That would be what most awakens vitality in me, but as I said, I'm really, really interested in what works against our own vitality or against the natural eruption of the mystical life.
TS: You know, the first one you mentioned was workaholism, and you kind of said it and kept moving. And I thought, "Wait, she identified my biggest obstacle to vitality right there as the very first comment." So say a little bit more about that.
TB: Yes! I think that good hard work is a very positive thing. I work extremely hard and because I live out in a big rural area off the grid, on the land, I work very hard physically. We cut a lot of our own firewood. I live without running water. I've been spending years hauling water. So I work hard. Also, if you are committed to changing life on the planet, if you care at all for other people and for what's going on in the world, you do work hard. I may live as a hermit out in the middle of nowhere, but you'd just be amazed at the voluminous correspondence I carry on.
It isn't so much that hard work is the obstacle, it's more our attitude towards the work. It's becoming obsessed with it and not seeing it in perspective. I know right now, it's been a particularly busy season for me, and I find that I'm so far behind because there's so many demands on me—there's been a lot of travel, I've had an unusual number of visitors, people that I don't want to say "no" to because they were coming to Crestone from far away. So I have found myself in some ways, I want to say, overextended, but as I put it to myself this morning: "Well, I'm stretched, but I think I'm holding the balance pretty well." And part of that is absolutely stopping by a certain time of the day, and then just sitting and being and emptying out of all of that, and leaving the rest for the next days.
There's another great gospel teaching that has meant a lot to me and that is: do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow has enough concern of its own. This is the sort of letting be and stopping. I make sure I go for a walk at the end of the day. I make sure I light candles and make sure that I sit and look out the window and listen to the birds or the thunder and watch the clouds moving. So I think it's extremely important to be willing to work hard, and at the same time, to be willing to stop and recognize all the other aspects of life that are so crucial to us.
Another huge—it relates to the workaholism, because how you mitigate against that? Celebration and play, I think, they are extremely important. They are aspects of just a good, decent human life. I think they are just essential for a life of prayer and contemplation. That's what liturgy is all about. That's what keeping Sabbath is all about, which is another huge aspect of living the contemplative life, being able to take Sabbath to celebrate the Sabbath.
TS: You mentioned that, in terms of what releases the natural vitality running through you, spending time in nature is one of the keys. You also spoke in the beginning of your love of the desert itself—that that was part of the reason you were interested in joining the spiritual community that you joined so many year ago. I'd love if you'd talk a little bit more about the desert. I know that you are one of the cofounders of the organization called the Desert Foundation, and that there's this idea in Christianity of both an inner and outer desert, so I'm curious about that—especially about the inner desert.
TB: Yes. Well, first of all, I spent so many years in the desert of Arizona. When we had to leave Arizona because of encroaching land development, we ended up moving here to Crestone, Colorado, and I know that I was concerned that we were going to the mountains of Colorado. The amazing thing about Crestone is that it is actually—that where we lived, which is in the San Luis Valley—the largest dry, high-altitude valley in the world.
Now, I am sitting, at this very moment, in my hogan facing out my West window. I am looking way across the San Luis Valley to the other side of it, which is the San Juan Mountains. Those mountains are 50 miles away. They look like you could just walk there, but of course you can't. (Well, I mean you could, but it would take you quite awhile. It looks like it wouldn't take you that long.) In between where I am and over there is this vast open space. It took me many years to understand. You know how something can move you on a profound, symbolical, or mythic level, you're moved to the depths of your being, you don't necessarily understand why? Well, it's taken me years. As you know, I have done a lot of dialogue with Buddhists over my lifetime and I have been very influenced with my dialogues with Buddhists, specifically Buddhist friends that I have. I learned the term shunyata, which I came to understand through my encounters with Buddhist friends as "spaciousness." It's actually through my encounter with Buddhism that I understood what it was about the desert that so attracted me. It represents for me this incredible, vast openness, spaciousness, and also receptivity.
I find as I look out at this outer landscape, that there is a profound interior resonance for me—whether I'm drinking the outside and bringing it in or whether I'm recognizing in the outside what is already going on interiorly, I wouldn't even know. It's all mixed. It's all one to me—the inner and the outer are one. I'm really interested in the relationship between landscape and soulscape. And to me, it's just kind of a natural thing. That's why at this point in my life my—whether you want to call it—meditation or prayer is very much sitting, looking out the window, and drinking in this vastness that I see outside, and then feeling it deep and very profoundly on my inside.
TS: You said you're very interested in this relationship between the outer landscape and an inner soulscape. Are you interested in that as an idea—as in, wherever anybody's living, if they're living in the jungle, if they're living by the ocean? Tell me more of what the interest is for you.
TB: I spent a lot of time lately thinking about it and just letting it sink in and [wondering] what is it that I mean by this? I don't think we are determined by landscape, but I think we are influenced by landscape. I'm emphasizing that we are not determined by it, because that would condemn certain people who live in what they mind find to be very difficult landscapes and would not be able to experience what I'm experiencing.
For example, let me say this: I think what we're really talking about here is the depth of human freedom, which is possible anywhere. So even related to this is my deep interest in prison literature and what happens to people who are locked up—whether they are locked up in a physical prison, or in some other kind of a prison where obvious freedom and mobility is severely limited and what happens to them interiorly. Because then what happens is people have to go very, very deeply inside, and I think they are capable of—but don't always find—profound human freedom in other kinds of ways. I'm very affected by the poetry of someone by the name of Jimmy Santiago Baca. He has an incredible poem called "Who Understands Me, But Me." He was locked up in prison from a very early age, and this whole poem is about all the freedoms that were taken away from him, and the essential freedom to be himself and find himself beautiful, which he discovered when everything was taken away from him externally.
I happen to live in the desert. I prefer this landscape. I love this landscape. But what I'm talking about is not limited to any particular landscape. I think it's more challenging for people, and therefore in many ways, it may be more rewarding.
TS: Yes, I think that's a good point. Now Tessa, in the beginning of your program that you created with Sounds True, Wild at Heart, you talked about how one of the great teachings that you have learned from the Christian mystics and particularly from their lives, as well as from their teaching but from the way they lived their lives, was what it means to balance polarities in our life—the polarities of discipline and wildness or silence and activity. I'm curious if you can talk some about this and why this theme is so important and how you see it in the lives of Christian mystics.
TB: I would say—I guess I'm always saying this is the most important thing in my life, but I think I've already said that. This is another one of the most important things. I think that there is a tendency in us when we are younger—certainly this is true for me, and I don't mean to universalize it, because it may not be true for everybody—to succumb to the "either/or" mentality, where it's "either this or that." If silence is a big value, then communication isn't. If we value the dark, then [we don't value] light. If we value work, then we don't value play, or vice versa. And that's part of what I mean by why I so value the rhythms of the seasons, because when you at an entire natural year—what are the rhythms of the seasons out in nature—and again, because I always relate that to the liturgical year in the Roman Catholic tradition and I think the liturgical year is one of Catholicism's great, great strengths, then you see that there's this whole variation and constant movement and dynamism. So you have the bursting of life in spring and you have life dying in winter, and both are absolutely valuable and essential.
So it's neither one nor the other, it's both, "and." But there's a rhythm that we go through. One of my favorite images for this is tightrope walking. You're not on either end of the tightrope. I'm very fascinated by Philippe Petit, the very famous tightrope walker who's done astonishing things, including walking between the World Trade Center buildings years and years ago. I've read what that experience was like for him, and he talks about how the real exhilaration and vitality comes out in the middle of that wire. So he's at neither end of the pole, but he's balancing in the middle. I used to talk about balance and I don't anymore, because it seems static to me and I think it's a constant balancing act. I prefer the word "balancing" to "balance."
TS: Seeing this balancing of polarities in the lives of some of your favorite Christian mystics who came before, I'm curious how you see this in their lives.
TB: That's what I see. Well, my favorite saint, the one who has influenced me the most and is actually my name sake, is Teresa of Avila. [She] was held up as this very high-level mystic, and yet she was one of the most active people that I know of in the roster of Christian saints. When you're the founder of a community—as I know well, because I was not only a part of this community, I was the cofounder of it—the responsibilities that you carry are enormous. So I see especially the balancing act in Teresa between action and contemplation.
Actually, I think that is the essential balancing act for anyone who is at all interested in the spiritual path. The big challenge for all of us is the action/contemplation polarity. It's a very individual thing. Some people are going to be more active than contemplative, but never without the contemplative aspect. Some will be more contemplative than active, but never without the active aspect. I think that's how each one of us has to find our way. So you can look at all these different saints and mystics and you find varying degrees of whether they're active or contemplative. But both exist in all of them and that is the heart of the struggle for everyone.
When I give workshops and retreats, the big question that people always have is how do I find the time to meditate? How do I balance my family, my work, and my contemplative practice? I think that's the essential question for all of us, and I don't think there's any one easy answer for anybody. I think we're always trying to figure out the correct balancing for us as individuals.
TS: Well, there might not be one-answer-fits-all or an easy answer, but what have you found in working with people that helps the most with this balancing?
TB: On my Wild at Heart program, I know towards the end in the final two sessions, I began by saying that I'm going to give you the best years of my life, and what I do is describe what I think are the most important ways to pull off the balancing. It is what we talked about earlier: a congenial attitude toward work, the incorporation of celebration and play, the importance of silence and solitude according to your way of life—obviously the kind of silence and solitude that I live out of isn't the same for a young mother of three children—and the importance of slowing down and living very deliberately.
I think living deliberately is extremely important, and that means with clear intention. Many of us get swept along in the rat race, really, by all of the demands in our lives. We don't step back often enough (which I think is partly what Sabbath is all about) and look at how we are living and choose to live one way rather than another way. It also means not succumbing to peer pressure and human approval. I think it means going against the grain. I think it means standing out and being willing to be different, which is partly what I think is the message of the desert fathers and mothers from the earliest centuries of Christianity. They deliberately chose a countercultural stance, and I think that's a very important thing in our world today. We really need to be countercultural, and it takes a lot of courage to do that. That's why we also need to support one another on the path, because it takes a lot of courage to be different and to swim against the current. Thomas Merton talks a lot about that.
TS: Are there moment in your life, Tessa, that were moments where you really had to act courageously, that you could look back and say, "This was a moment when I had to stand in a certain kind of courage"? I'd be curious to know what some of those moments might be.
TB: I would say, going back to the beginning of our conversation, I think it took a lot of courage when I joined the Spiritual Life Institute and helped create it. I helped build four different monastic retreat centers in four decades, one of which was in Canada and one in Ireland, and this was not easy. I think it took courage to be in the community and help create it. It took tremendous courage to leave it.
I would say one of the ways that I feel courageous is that I take a stand against excessive technology. I love technology. I love that I can have my computer, and with broadband, I can be connected to the entire world from my hogan. But at the same time, I'm not slave to that computer. I go against the current because I'm not always available by phone. I don't keep my cell phone on. I only turn it on a few times during the day—well, some days I don't even turn it on at all, which gets me into trouble sometimes. I've missed an important thing here and there, but that's a stand I'm taking against it. I've watched some friends of mine be constantly available and not necessarily available in high-quality ways. [They're] simply available to anybody, anytime who just wants to chat. I think it takes a lot of courage to take a stand for the value of silence in an overly communicating world. I have watched communication spoil a deeper kind of communion. So those would be a few ways.
TS: What would you say to somebody who is listening to this answer and is thinking to themselves, "I know there's this area in my life where I need to be more courageous. but I'm just not sure I'm up to it right now"?
TB: What I would say is, well, the fact that this is even tugging at you is some indication that there's something very deep going on in you, and there's some part of you that knows you need to make some kind of a change. But you don't have to do it all at once. You can do it incrementally.
I love something I read years ago from a married man who was talking about ways for husbands and wives to be better friends to each other and to enrich their marriage. He was advocating solitude, but he used this marvelous expression that I've never forgotten: begin with brief endurable chunks. Let's just say you have a similar attitude toward mine and you do feel enslaved by technology. So you don't just drop out, but you could turn your computer and cell phone off [for] certain hours of the day. And then, as you adjust to that, you realize, "Wow, I can do this!" Then you might increase the time.
So I think it has to do with brief endurable episodes, and you try it on for size. If it is congenial to you and you find that it's life-giving and your vitality is increased, then I don't think it becomes as difficult. It becomes second nature after awhile. What may start out as a challenge and an act of courage, I think, becomes a way of life.
TS: One thing I'm curious about is how our lives change when we start acting more courageously. You mentioned that leaving the monastic life was something that took an extreme amount of courage for you. And not needing to know any of the details of it, I'm curious how it changed you to take that courageous action.
TB: Oh boy! Of course, I'm really thinking more and more about this or meditating more and more about this and want to do even more writing about it. I would say it again it comes back to human freedom. For me, I feel as though I lost everything. I lost my identity as Mother Tessa, whom I was known as then. I lost a particular way of life. I lost my community. I lost a lot of friends. Again through my Buddhist friends, I learned a language that helped me. It was an experience of complete groundlessness. Out of that, I would say what has arisen is a vast freedom that I didn't even know that I didn't have before, because I thought I was free. I learned what I can live without.
For me, it was the worst possible thing that could ever have happened. So now what that means is any challenge that comes to me is not frightening, because I feel like I've faced the worst thing that I could ever face. This is not a big deal. I will say this: it was like an extremely messy divorce. And anything that happens to me now, whether it's financial insecurity or the possibility of health breaking down, or anything that might come my way, it's like, "Well, I'll be able to deal with that because I faced this other thing." So I think that's what happens to us when we can get through something out of courage. Everything falls into perspective.
I would also say that compassion has been hugely increased in me, because I know that on the one hand, I wouldn't want anybody to go through it. On the other hand, I know that because I went through it, I can be a witness and a sign of hope for them no matter what they're going through. I would say this really changes how I teach. For example, I just did a retreat and workshop recently up at Shambhala Mountain Center. It was just wonderful to be back there. I hadn't been there in almost 30 years, since one of my early Christian Buddhist dialogues. I just love being in Buddhist settings, I have to confess. And I actually began by telling my participants that when I left the community, I was actually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from which I still suffer from time to time because you never really get over that. You just learn how to live with it.
At the end of the weekend, I asked everybody to say what was the most important thing you learned this weekend. One woman said, "What I learned was vulnerability, and how possible it is to be vulnerable and carry on. That fact that you started this weekend by being so vulnerable and telling us this story about your PTSD just changed everything for me." I never would have done that before. I would have opened out of supposed strength. Instead, I opened with my vulnerability, which then makes it possible for everybody to respond vulnerably in very open ways. That would be a huge difference as a result of what I've been through—being able to be publicly vulnerable. What a different world it would be if we all could be vulnerable with one another instead of having to play our roles and do our strong man acts, and one-up one another. It would be a very different world.
TS: Throughout our conversation, we've been talking about the lives of great Christian mystics and how they relate to our conversation. As you are talking about making a courageous move [where one] loses everything—where you have to potentially lose your friends, community, status, and title—what I was reflecting on as you were speaking is that it seems to me that this is such an important theme in spiritual life and in the lives of mystics, that there's always some kind of turning point like this. And I'm curious what you think about that.
TB: Yes, I agree totally with that. I guess I would want to speak most specifically in the Christian tradition. What lies at the heart of it is what we call the paschal or the Passover mystery, which is the passage from death to life, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now, we have this as a very vivid, not only image but also reality, at the heart of our tradition, but again you come back to the landscape. That's what we see all around us as we live through a year. We see depth and we see life burgeoning again. I think that is true of all traditions.
I think there can be some really dramatic instances such as I went through, but I think it's actually a regular rhythm. And that's really what impermanence is all about—coming back to another big Buddhist teaching—that there's this constant change and movement. Again, that comes back to vitality. Life is about movement. There's nothing static about it. So I think it goes across all the traditions. Because of the Desert Foundation, I'm interested in the Abrahamic traditions. I've already spoken about Christianity. If you look at Judaism, you look at the lives of the great prophets. Even look at Kind David, who is one of my favorite figures in the Jewish testament. I mean, David just blew it, lost everything, was hunted, haunted, and hounded. And yet, he's this great wisdom figure from the Jewish tradition. In the Islamic tradition, Mohammed is thrown out of his place of birth and has to make a trek through the desert before he emerges as the leader that he becomes. So we see it everywhere.
TS: And making difficult passages in our lives, you talk about prayer. You have a fabulous description or definition if you will as: a cry of the heart. I love that phrase, Tessa. I'm curious how your prayer life took you through this difficult passage. How is there, or how is it not there for you?
TB: It has always been there. I know when some people go through a difficult passage such as I made some will say they lost their faith. That certainly didn't happen to me. I felt Christ absolutely close to me through this whole thing. I want to say that one of my favorite descriptions of God is Presence (with a capital P). Even though I experienced this groundlessness that was really on the human level, I never felt the loss of the Presence.
I would say that the way my prayer has changed—and it very definitely has changed—is that I use far fewer words, far fewer images, and mostly I am simply sitting in the Presence, aware of the Presence. So it's very still, even though what I went through was the most upheaving and agitated experience I've been through in my life. When you go through something like this and you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, you are actually in a state of shock. You're like a deer in the headlights. You're stunned and you're numbed. So for a long time, it was simply that. But the interesting [thing is that] externally, it looks the same. But internally it isn't, because now it's this deep, peaceful stillness. It is possible to go through enormous change and loss to feel passionate grief, and then you reach this utter stillness as a result of all of that. That's what I live out of. It's how I would describe my prayer. I'm simply sitting in that still Presence.
TS: It's interesting that throughout this conversation you've woven in Buddhist insights and talked about how important it's been to you—the Buddhist/Christian dialogue and conversations you've had with Buddhist friends. I'm curious if you've ever encountered an aspect of the Buddhist/Christian dialogue where you thought, "We just don't see eye to eye here, and there's no way to make sense of these two things. I can't find any universal ground here." Or have you always been able to say, "If you go deep enough, we're meeting?"
TB: That is such a good question, because I just think this inter-spiritual dialogue—we used to call it interfaith and now the word people use more is inter-spiritual, which I think is so much better. I would say that I can only speak from my own experience that my initial experience was, "Oh my gosh, we are so different." And then you go deeper, and then there's the tendency to say, "Oh my goodness, we are so the same." And then I think you go even deeper, and you come back to, "Oh, we are so different, and it is alright."
I think it was Baker Roshi who said once that really we're describing different territories. And I think that's true. The territories are different, and so what? I think what's interesting is that it's not so much [about] sameness or differences, it's can we communicate and find resonances? My experience has been, if you come out of a contemplative tradition then you can communicate, but if you are from a more superficial and fundamentalist tradition, it's much more difficult to communicate.
Another person who has influenced me a lot is—he just died recently, he was a professor at Fordham University by the name of Ewert Cousins. What he thinks, actually, that the real difference, that "fundamental contemplative difference"—it's almost not relevant anymore to speak of Christianity, Buddhist, Sufism, or whatever else you want to talk about. It's really, "Is this a contemplative tradition or is it not a contemplative tradition?" But his metaphor, which I think is fabulous, is that you're sitting around the campfire in the dark, and all the sudden somebody comes from the north, and the south, and all these different directions. And you say, well, how did you get here, and what terrain did you cover, and how did you travel? And we all end up at the same campfire but how we got there and what the journey was like is very, very different whether you come from north, south, east, or west.
Whether you're Christian, Buddhist, Sufi, or Taoist, I really resonate to this, that there are all these different paths and we can connect with one another. We can celebrate how we are alike; we don't need to be threatened by how we're different. Now, I wouldn't have said that at the first of my Christian/Buddhist dialogues—that was quite terrifying to me. I've been at it long enough now, and have grown in so many ways that I think it's a very exciting thing and that the differences need not be threatening. They are simply differences. And I think there are major differences.
TS: Very good, very clear.
TB: It does not have to be alienating.
TS: Just to end, I'm going to ask a favor of you, if that's OK. We'll see how this goes. I know you're a lay hermit. You're no longer Mother Tessa, but I always love, if it's possible in certain instances, to end these conversations with a blessing for our listeners. Maybe some kind of blessing, if you would be willing to offer it, for people in terms of courage in their own life. Is that OK with you, Tessa?
TB: Yes. I think I would like to offer [one], because another big part of my work is a comparison of desert spirituality and Celtic spirituality, which surprisingly are very different. I mean they seem to be different, but are very similar. The landscapes, in one sense, couldn't be more different, because of the greenness of Celtic lands and the dryness and even brownness of desert lands. But there's a very deep similarity in the spirituality. Because the work of the Desert Foundation is so focused on peace between the Abrahamic traditions—and certainly the biggest need in our world is for peace among all traditions and peoples—I think I'd like to offer a peace blessing from the Celtic tradition, which also focuses on all of creation—which we've also been talking about the importance of living close to nature.
TB: Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the running wave to you. Deep peace of the leaping fire to you. Deep peace of the prince of peace to you.
TS: I've been speaking with Tessa Bielecki, a wonderful conversation. She's created, with Sounds True, a six-session audio learning course called Wild at Heart: Radical Teachings of the Christian Mystics. Tessa, thanks so much for being with us and for all of the acts of courage you've taken. Thank you.
TB: Thank you so much, Tami. I always enjoy talking to you. I find your questions always provocative and life-giving to me. It's been very rich for me. Thank you.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.