William McNamara, also known as Abba Willie, was one of the most influential spiritual writers and mystics of the 21st century. The founder of the Spiritual Life Institute in Crestone, Colorado and Sligo, Ireland, and the author of more than a dozen books on Christian mysticism, McNamara was an elusive, mysterious, controversial figure who touched the lives of thousands, over more than 50 years as a Catholic priest, through retreats, spiritual conferences, personal counseling, books and tapes. He died at 5:50 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, after a long period of illness. He was 89 years old.
This website is dedicated to McNamara’s unique brand of “earthy mysticism,” a soaring, Christian-based spirituality that nevertheless is inspired by such down-to-earth, life-affirming, passionate figures as Zorba the Greek. It is not affiliated with any organization nor did he endorse any of its contents. It is merely an attempt to preserve the legacy of a unique approach to Christian mysticism that resonates with many people today.
In 2001, after celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Catholic priest at the community’s fourth foundation in Sligo, Ireland, McNamara collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with massive internal bleeding. He received seven units of blood yet the Irish doctors were unable to stop the bleeding. As a result, McNamara was transferred to a hospital in California where doctors were able to insert a shunt and perform what they termed a minor miracle to keep him alive. They gave him less than two years to live.
Two years after McNamara’s prolonged convalescence in the hospital, catastrophe occurred: the spiritual community he founded nearly 40 years earlier began to disintegrate. Factions developed. A new prior took over. Some members, including ordained priests, left the community. McNamara himself resigned as abbot, was laicized and was no longer publicly associated with the Spiritual Life Institute, which now has only a handful of members (although he considered himself a member of the order he founded in 1960, the Community of Apostolic Hermits).
Long-time members, such as co-founder Mother Tessa Bielecki and Fr. Dave Denny, also left the Spiritual Life Institute, founding a new “circle of friends,” the Desert Foundation, to maintain the original Carmelite spirit and ideals. For the last 13 years of his life, McNamara himself — then known simply as Abba Willie — lived alone as a hermit first in a rugged mountain wilderness in southern Oregon and then, as he grew older and suffered from numerous health problems, in Borrega Springs, California. Afflicted with numerous life-threatening ailments, he struggled, with a few close friends, to build a new foundation to carry on his unique vision of Christian spiritual life.
Below is a mini-biography of William McNamara, written 15 years ago by one of his oldest associates, Fr. David Denny of the Desert Foundation:
Carmelite Pioneer: William McNamara
By Fr. David Denny
Until you’ve kept your eyes
And your wanting still for fifty years,
You don ‘t begin to cross over from confusion.
Reflecting recently on the future of Carmel, Superior General Camilo Maccise, O.C.D called for “risk,” “daring,” and “structural changes” in “an ever-valid charism and identity.” He challenged Carmelites to adopt a “creative fidelity” to the Teresian charism: “New wineskins are needed to express (our spirituality) in intelligible, relevant and existential language.” Carmel needs the “establishment of centers and institutes of spirituality,” “small praying communities” living “close to real life,” sharing their spirit with the larger lay community.
After an audience with Pope John XXIII in 1960, Abba William McNamara, received permission to risk founding such an institute of spirituality, a “new wineskin” that is at once a return to primitive Carmelite eremitical life and a creative contemporary response to the needs of what he calls a “waist- high culture” whose contemplative vision has atrophied. “Without vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Throughout his priestly life, this provocative thinker and playful man has quietly initiated deep visionary changes in Western spirituality. A review of these creative initiatives reveals that many of the Father General’s hopes for future may be found in the Spiritual Life Institute community. Such a review also confirms French Jesuit Louis Lallemant’s contention that a man of prayer accomplishes more in a year than most accomplish in a lifetime.
Renowned preacher and author of The Art of Being Human (1962), The Human Adventure (1974) Mystical Passion (1977) and Earthy Mysticism (1982), Fr. William celebrated 50 years of priesthood at his Holy Hill Hermitage in Skreen, Co. Sligo, Ireland in July 2001. A second Jubilee was celebrated at Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado October 5-7.
Spiritual Life Magazine
Once described by Walter Burghardt, S.J. as a man of ”Isaian Woe and Irish wit,” Father William (Willie) founded Spiritual Life magazine in 1955, and served as its first editor. As subsequent editor Stephen Payne, O.C.D. once wrote, “If it weren’t for you, there wouldn’t be any magazine for us to edit. Every day I thank God for those who have gone before me, and remind myself that I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Willie not only published groundbreaking authors, but also befriended them. He introduced British philosopher of mysticism E.I. Watkin to America readers and hosted Christian humanist Gerald Vann, O.P. during a lecture tour. Fr. William fondly recalls the absent-minded Dominican packing a half-empty open Coke bottle into his suitcase, along with his white habit! When the University Chaplain prevented Jacques Maritain from presenting his paper “Truth and Human Fellowship” at Princeton, Willie had the courage to print it.
At this stage, Fr. William was also deeply involved in the movement for liturgical renewal. But he grew dissatisfied with its direction and outlined his concern for Maritain, who subsequently articulated them in his Liturgy and Contemplation. Important as liturgy is for the health of the Christian community, these astute mystics both realized that the fundamental issue was not a crisis of ritual, but of contemplation.
Willie joined the Discalced Carmelites in 1939 at age thirteen. He traveled by train from Providence, Rhode Island to Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin. As confrere Richard Madden put it, young “Willie” was “usually in some kind of pain, somewhere or other in his body, but never complained about it. Rather, he continued to be a source of merriment that penetrated the deep cloak of monastic silence.” Ordained in 1951, Fr. William began giving retreats and parish missions immediately, traveling eventually to every state except Alaska, to Ireland, England, France, and Canada.
He changed the structure of parish missions by forming teams of priest, nuns, and lay people, and by shortening the missions to five days, making it easier to for busy families to participate. He also led retreats for extended families in their own homes, beginning in Arizona and Minnesota.
Shifting the emphasis of the parish mission from “hell-fire and brimstone” to a more positive, and always humorous, focus on Christian humanism, he preached the infinitely attractive beauty of Christ and called for conversion fundamentally motivated not by fear of hell but by worship and wonder. He insisted that the supernatural life is rooted in a healthy natural life. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, grace perfects nature with out destroying it. The young Carmelite encouraged listeners and readers to seek Christ not only in Roman Catholic Christianity, but in Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism; and not merely in religion, but the novels of Dostoyevsky and Kazantzakis, in movies such as “Becket” and “Dr. Zhivago,” music as diverse as Cesar Franck’s “Symphony in D Minor” and the folk songs of the Kingston Trio, as well as in painting, poetry, and nature. “Our peak religious experiences are not always pious,” he insists, “but they may be our holiest acts.” Therefore we must be “earthly mystics” and find both human and Divine in ordinary earthy acts, in “the secret surprises of customary objects and the regular, repetitive commonplaces of life: cleaning the house, baking bread, weeding the garden, romping with the dogs, lying in the sun, running in the rain.”
Willie’s prophetic critiques of Western culture are not rooted in puritanical world denial; rather he bemoans the apathy of the majority, the vapidity of mass media, the pollution of language, and an unmystical Christianity that turns the drama of Jesus’ story into a pharisaical power structure. In short, he insists that we are not erotic enough. His notion of eros has nothing to do with pornography. It has to do with Plato and the Hebrew prophets. Accordingly, he describes eros as a “reaching and stretching of the whole-body person for the fullness of life and love.” Its end is not self-gratification but a free and ecstatic self-sacrifice for the sake of Christ, the divine Beloved.
Contemplation for Everyone
Contemplation, the highest human act, is not for an elite, but for everyone, and so for Willie, “The mystic is not a special kind of person; everyone is, or ought to be, a special kind of mystic.” Mysticism is not a peripheral anomaly, but the heart of Christianity. But after the great flowering of mystical life in the 16th century, the West lost its mystical moorings and caved in to an Empire driven more and more relentlessly by a “techno-barbaric juggernaut” that demands ever-larger profits and Machiavellian “rational bulldozer” that sweeps away the vestiges of mystical wisdom only to replace it with “mendacity, mediocrity, and manipulation.” Although this Empire may change its name and rearrange its priorities in various ages, it remains the same respectable conspiracy, the “pretty poison” that killed Christ.
Our desert monk developed the theme of contemplation for everyone by expanding the understanding of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night. He coined the terms “dark night of the Church” and the “desert experience” and demonstrated that this threshold experiences applies not only to an individual’s prayer life, but to life in the family, the workplace, marriage, the priesthood, the church and society. For example, the sense of the loss of God, of nothingness (nada), the desert that John described, happens to married couples: the romance fades; we become acutely aware of our own brokenness and our spouse’s; natural means of communion and renewal no longer work; we may drift toward addictions or extramarital affairs; we are tempted to give up and divorce. Placed in this new context, people who may have been baffled by John’s exotic descriptions of what happens to the cloistered Carmelites begin to see that he describes something very familiar. Fully acknowledging the terror and disorienting loneliness of this night, both Fr. William and St. John nevertheless insist that it is a happy night, “more beautiful than the dawn” because in it lover and beloved are transformed into a higher communion that turns “death” into new life.
The Spiritual Life Institute
Always attracted to a rugged hermit life, Willie asked permission in 1959 to enter the Carmelites’ desert house in France. Permission was denied at the last second. Ever resourceful and resilient, this passionate pilgrim soon arranged, with the help of Boston’s Cardinal Cushing, to visit Pope John XXIII at Castelgandolfo. Practically penniless, he persuaded the captain of the SS United States to let him hitch a ride from New York. A friend in Germany loaned him a beat up VW that limped its way to Italy. By eating every three days, the young pilgrim managed not to run out of money. The fateful papal audience in 1960 sent Fr. William on a new trajectory that brought him to found the Spiritual Life Institute, the Roman Catholic Church’s first American hermit community, in the incomparable red rock country of Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon. His innovative work continued with the Institute’s sponsoring some of this country’s first post-Vatican II ecumenical conferences.
The community gradually became more and more monastic and eremitical and, following the spirit of the first Carmelite Rule of St. Albert, developed a simple rhythm of solitude, communal prayer, and occasional apostolic work. During stimulating correspondence with Fr. William about the history and renewal of Carmel, and the need for a creatively subversive, contemplative counter-culture, Thomas Merton wrote, “The Primitive Carmelite Ideal” which appeared in his Disputed Questions. Because it so clearly reflects Willie’s authentic Carmelite spirit, this chapter is included in the Institute’s formation.
Still committed to the publishing apostolate, the Institute began Desert Call, issued quarterly since 1963. Tessa Bielecki joined the order in 1967 and soon took over Desert Call’s editorial duties while the abbot devoted much of his time to retreats, missions and writing. Having discerned that Tessa indeed had a religious vocation, Willie once again initiated a quiet but profound shift. Although Jesus and his disciples’ community included women (Luke 8:2) and double monasteries sometimes formed in Europe’s Middle Ages, mixed monastic communities of men and women were certainly a small minority. But great bursts of sanctity in the Church often found their source in friendships between men and women: Francis and Clare, John and Teresa, and Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal, to name a few. With firm commitments to celibacy and solitary life in separate hermitages, the Institute began to attract both men and women. As the community spread to Nova Scotia in 1972, Colorado in 1983, and Ireland in 1995, the witness of celibate men and women with deep bonds of love has been a hopeful witness to a society embarked on a painful, convulsive search for whole, healthy, mutually affirming relationships between men and women.
Finally, the most recent “first” for Abba Willie and his community of apostolic hermits took place during the celebration of his 50th anniversary in Ireland: the ordination of Eric Haarer to the priesthood in July 2001. Although the community has ordained priests in Nova Scotia, this first ordination in the “land of saints and scholars” marks a monumental shift from a North American movement to a transatlantic once. The Spiritual Life’s Institute’s Carmelite roots look very much like the roots of Celtic monasticism dating back to the days of Patrick, Columcille, and Brigid.
A Terrible Toll
All bodies, including the Mystical Body, know seasons of health and seasons of illness. When we are tempted to think that the Church is just another “it,” a merely mortal human institution, God sends reformers and founders to breathe new mystical life into the threatened Body. History shows that founding a new way of religious life is a difficult and dangerous vocation that takes a terrible toll. Two days after the ordination, Willie was admitted to Sligo General Hospital with massive internal bleeding. He was resuscitated, but bled again within days as doctors strove to discover the source of the hemorrhage. Having received eight pints of blood a second time, Fr. William stabilized and traveled to the United States in August to undergo surgery that promises to keep him alive so that he can complete his major literary work, Wild and Robust.
As he enters a prolonged period of retreat and prepares for the final Ascent of Mt. Carmel, his community and friends promise this lively eighty-three year old monk a special gift: silence and solitude. In the words of Chinese sage Meng-te which is posted by the door of his hermitage:
When a man has reached old age
And has fulfilled his mission,
He has a right to confront
The idea of death in peace.
He has no need of other men;
He knows them and knows enough about them.
What he needs is peace.
It isn’t good to visit this man or talk to him,
To make him suffer banalities,
One must give a wide berth
To the door of his house,
As if no one lived there.
Nevertheless, he remains a soul-friend to those in need. He feels strongly that the personal apostolate, an intimate ministry, is the most important thing to do. (Ed. Note)