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Falling in Love with the Desert
by Tessa Bielecki


photo by Loren Haury

I first fell in love with the desert in 1967 when I moved to Sedona, Arizona to join the Spiritual Life Institute. I had grown up in lush green New England, yet I loved everything about the desert: the heat and the aridity, the stark landscape and sparse vegetation, the clear air and bright skies, and especially the spaciousness and the silence, where the inner as well as outer landscape drew me far beyond familiar horizons.

I learned how to garden in dry soil, to watch the habits and habitats of shy desert animals and cheeky birds, to wait through long droughts and then revere the power of lightning, thunder, and flash floods through the dry snaking arroyos.

I gathered rocks, bones bleached white in the glaring sun, cactus "skeletons," dried seedpods and grasses. I learned the names of all the wild plants because they were my friends and companions. I discovered where they "lived" and when they might appear, but they were always surprising me. My favorite plant remains the evocative four-wing saltbush, a lovely pale green in spring and an equally lovely sand color in autumn.

When we lost our monastery in Sedona to land developers in 1983, I was heart-broken. Just as every Carmelite around the world considers the slopes of Mt. Carmel (outside of Haifa in Israel) the "homeland of the heart," I called Sedona my "homeland." Yet a new desert found its way into my heart and taught me deeper dimensions of the meaning of the desert.

Sometime after we relocated the Spiritual Life Institute to Crestone, Colorado, the monks who had moved there first took me to the Great Sand Dunes an hour away. The massive rounded dunes reminded me of the Sahara and seemed as close as I'd ever get to the North African desert that has captured my imagination since childhood. I looked at the vast expanse before me and said out loud: "This is worth losing Sedona for."

As I wander the Dunes over the years with friends and monks, with our students from Colorado College, and especially by myself, I always look for a concave spot where I lose sight of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains and see only sand and sky. Then I know even more deeply what William McNamara meant when he wrote: "The desert is not merely a natural phenomenon, but a way of life."

At this stage in my life, then, as I move into my seventh decade and make a major transition, leaving the monastery after almost forty years as a monk, it is natural that my heart should lead me more deeply into the desert itself in all its meanings, and to the creation of the Desert Foundation.

 

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