Desert Mothers

Three women nurture engaged spirituality in Tucson.

Since ancient times, the world's deserts have been the preferred environment into which have ventured many a mystic, ascetic, shaman and sage. These spiritual seekers come to the desert to confront the essential questions of human existence and the meaning of life. From Egypt to Arizona, Moses to Castañeda, the arid, austere nature of the desert has enabled a deeper, more pure connection with "God," "spirit" or "The Great Mystery." Void of material reference points and worldly distractions, the desert's empty, vast expanse is conducive to silent contemplation. With tranquil mind, heaven and earth can meet and the devotee ultimately engages in a mystical experience of harmony and oneness with everything.

In Western Christian history, venturesome spiritual hermits, from about the third century onward, were known as the Abbas, or Desert Fathers. Characteristically, they were monastic males, wrestling with their inner demons and passions in the sanctity of solitude, later returning to the monastery with heart and mind cleansed and free of sin, sex, women and temptation.

While the revelations and accounts of the Desert Fathers are important confirmations of the spiritual path, many remarkable women through the ages also shared in the quest for divine union. Although pushed to the margins of written history, they, too, ventured into the desert and lived as recluses, or in community with other women. These Ammas, or Desert Mothers, faced the same pragmatic and soul-searching challenges as their male counterparts, augmented by the cultural overlay of being female in a predominantly male tradition.

Yet despite being maligned as temptresses or elevated as virgins, monastic women were often politically and socially influential; they advised the powerful on spiritual matters; they were activists, artists, musicians, herbalists and healers who worked toward a contemplative and holistic way of being in the world. As dynamic as they were, little has been recorded of their journeys or of the presence of the feminine in encountering and experiencing the sacred.

As the centuries have passed, the age-old longing to find meaning and purpose in life and to feel closer to a larger truth beyond social convention and a strictly masculine model of being remains ever present. Even though traditional gender roles are breaking down, we still have not fully authenticated the feminine experience. For however cynically society determines what is valid for us as individuals, people are starting to understand that there is a larger picture. We are disproportionately out of balance with the cosmos, with the feminine and with our own true nature.

Nowhere is this more apparent, and one could argue needed, than here in Tucson, with its ever increasing population and commercial development, ongoing health-care crisis, shrinking natural resources and escalating social problems.

With exigency of spirit, women have come to the Sonoran Desert to address the questions of our new century and apply the wisdom of lost generations to healing the world. Local women such as Susan Berryman, Beverly Lanzetta and River Fire Jameson by all accounts are Desert Mothers--they have consciously chosen the desert as the place in which to serve as agents of peace and social change as spiritual advisors and healers.

Radically different from traditional monastics, these women embrace an interfaith worldview, are married with children and have professional and educational backgrounds ranging from Ph.D. to shaman. Their personal journeys are both this story and their life's work.

SUSAN BERRYMAN CONSIDERS HERSELF AN eclectic, spiritual mix of artist, psychic and social activist. She is 55, has raised four sons, lives in the desert and works out of a sustainable, solar-powered home and studio with her artist husband, Peter, in the Sierrita Mountains. With a nursing background and a degree in public health education, she worked with Dr. Ron Pust in developing and teaching the International Health Program at the University of Arizona, training physicians and health care professionals to work in rural areas of developing countries. She and Pust also devised C.U.P. (Commitment to Underserved People), a medical outreach program for the underserved as well as for Central American refugees in Tucson.

Berryman was drawn to the spiritual life and healing after 20 years of work in academia and medicine. She continues to feel that those two institutions, along with organized religion, fail to address the needs and wounds of both heart and soul. In her opinion, such wounds are rooted in the old, male, linear, rational, logical, territorial method of thinking and being. She says that relying exclusively on this model separates people and keeps everyone--not just women--fragmented and bound.

"Hoarding and personal greed at the expense of others is contrary to divine law," she says. "It has reached epic proportions as to have the capability to destroy our fragile home, the earth. We are at a time and place in our evolution that calls for an awakening to an inclusive model of being, and to be free of any system that condemns or controls for selfish or self-centered ends. This includes individual, community, national and religious ends. There is enough for everyone. Everyone is needed and valuable."

The spiritual healing Berryman speaks of is not about religion, although religion can be an aspect of it. According to her, healing comes from the commitment to stay in relationship with and to love our fellow beings. "Spiritual healing is compassion in action, and not just for victims--it is especially needed for the powerful," she says.

She felt that a good place to start dismantling the incongruency in her own life was to move from medicine to metaphysics and into the heart of the desert to find the methods to heal and align with something spiritually creative while socially engaged, much in the same way Gandhi had done. He allowed new content to be released into the world, free of the established order and traditional social services.

"The way Gandhi transformed society was through his spiritual nature, not just by being a politician," she points out. "He felt people were already whole and pure and complete, and they had been damaged by the external negligence and disregard that greed and power have imposed on them. That's how they were kept in place. It's impossible to be greedy, unjust and lack compassion if you're participating in life from a heart connection. The kind of healing we're talking about is an internal transformation, not outside."

Just how does Berryman accomplish those ends? Take a look at the diversity of individuals who participate in a monthly potluck and women's healing circle she co-facilitates. It includes a Catholic nurse practitioner whose husband is a UA sports coach, a Buddhist artist, an Eckenkar minister and health professional, a Quaker mind-body therapist who commutes from New Mexico to attend the circle, an interfaith computer programmer and an Episcopal priest from Central America.

She particularly likes working with women who are in transitional phases of their lives, and draws from the psychic, intuitive and creative realms in helping to heal the wounds she speaks of. Everything from artwork and meditation to tarot cards can be found in her spiritual toolbox.

The group seems excited and bonded through this experience. Local chaplain Ginny Bonner describes Berryman as a wise spiritual woman who has helped her tap into her own inner strength and wisdom. "That gentle reminder has empowered me to be confident," she says. "I now feel good about my life--what else is better than that?"

With such positive feedback from participants and the appeal of things spiritual, one of Berryman's many dreams is to expand the vision of the women's circle. As a seeker herself, she enjoys the healing companionship of fellow seekers and would like to manifest a spiritual healing center in the Sierrita Mountains based on feminine, intuitive and creative knowing.

WHILE A RETURN TO THE SPIRITUAL may be popular these days, with visits to the West by exiled Tibetan Buddhist lamas and the promotion and sale of spiritually inspired music, books and TV shows, Beverly Lanzetta, founder and director of Tucson's Interfaith Theological Seminary, maintains that seeking out an authentic contemplative spirituality is increasingly relevant to the new global community.

She feels that new spiritual forms and revelations are available to people with unprecedented ease. It's almost as if we're finally discovering the fundamentals that have been constant in the human spiritual quest. Lanzetta can't imagine anywhere better than the desert as the place to be in touch with these things.

Although she's left a few times, Lanzetta has been coming to Tucson since the 1960s.

"So much of contemplative, monastic life took place in the desert," she says. "People entered into it to let go of attachment, old identities, old 'wineskins,' as they say, to be in touch with the parts of themselves that lead one toward their deepest love and desire, the place of transformation where God speaks to the heart directly."

With a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University and an M.A. from the UA, Lanzetta started her own school and center where people could come to study the contemplative, mystical life as well as honor the sacred. She feels the contemporary world diminishes and violates the fundamental beauty and simplicity of everyday life and assaults the spirit and soul. She realizes, then, that the spiritual life she advocates is somewhat in conflict with our dominant culture.

"As a culture, we don't have the language of the spirit, we don't know how to speak to each other to lend meaning to daily life," she says. "True community emerges out of a place of spiritual unity; we don't have to try to 'create community' in an artificial way. The Desert Fathers and Mothers left the cities of Asia Minor trying to find a more authentic way to live. It's a narrow path. When you embark on such a path, you become focused on the one thing necessary: setting your sight on God within you. Your life becomes in service to that, not in a subservient way, but in the true balance of things, and then that true connection is what overflows into the world."

Lanzetta doesn't see herself as having much choice but to contribute to helping others, and giving people meaning. In fact, she states it would be an act of will for her not to do it. On the other hand, she believes that one of modern culture's main distractions is thinking we have to keep doing, doing, doing, which often results in people giving to the world when they really aren't ready, when they haven't reached what she refers to as the "ground of their understanding."

The main issue in that journey for her is gaining an understanding and deep experience of the spirituality of nonviolence, with nonviolence implying more than just rejecting gunplay.

"We can export cigarettes to other countries but we don't want them here," she says as a small example of our hypocrisy in dealing in dangers that we largely reject at home. "The examples are endless. Nonviolence calls us to heart, even if we are incapable of making changes in our lifetime. The experience of divine love keeps us attuned to the nuances of human nature, where people are hurting, where they long to know God."

Lanzetta seems to be making a difference. A distinct feature of her Interfaith Theological Seminary is that its students are not leaving behind their own Jewish, Christian, Islamic or other faiths for what some may perceive as a watered-down New Age lovefest. There's a lot of teaching going on in combination with contemplative practice and community service. The religious and cultural backgrounds of the faculty rival the U.N. The curriculum includes the world's religions, the healing arts, social justice, contemporary theology, meditation and ordination as an interfaith contemplative minister. A further option is a joint M.A. in religious studies from Prescott College.

Students are men and women ranging in age from 30 to 70. They are medical doctors, university professors, retired CEOs, massage therapists. They aren't attracted to the program to perform weddings and funerals upon graduation, although some may include this in their repertoire. People are there primarily, according to Lanzetta, to live their lives to the best of their ability with spirituality at the center.

Neema Caughran, executive director of the Tucson Women's Commission and a graduate of the seminary, concurs.

"I was talking to a friend regarding the effect seminary has had on our lives," she says. "We don't look well put-together from the world's criteria and perspective, and we haven't made it in our careers in the sense of having stocks and bonds. We may have Ph.D.s, but the criteria the culture wants us to live by isn't ours. I don't feel I could hide behind 'my truth is better than your truth.' I'm always working inside myself to balance the contemplative life with social-justice work. If you meditated on capitalism, you wouldn't have that perspective."

Evan Kligman, a family practice physician and co-director of the UA's Center on Aging, is another seminary student. Kligman heard of Lanzetta's work and the seminary several years ago at a spirituality and healing conference. After taking classes from her, he began to look at ways in which he could transform his medical practice.

"Health is integrity of mind, body and spirit," he says. "I had to find a way to transcend the limits placed on me by my profession. I realized I needed to go further and become more vocal about my own spiritual growth, and extend the role of the doctor. Going back a thousand years, physicians and shamans were the same. In indigenous cultures, they still have these individuals."

Kligman says that his experience at the seminary has been nothing short of transformative. What Lanzetta has made available to people is, in his words, "a depository of human wisdom gathered over the millennia that can move us toward greater unity than ever before. The great teachers and prophets of wisdom traditions weren't developing religion per se. They were saying that with the purity of the divine part of consciousness, we can go further into the future."

Other people I have spoken to regard Lanzetta as one of the great mystics of our time, saying that she's a hard person to have as a role model--she truly walks her talk and lives in that space all the time.

I doubt she would agree. In the time I spent with her, she continually reflected on whether or not it was beneficial to share so much of herself with the media without knowing where I was coming from. After two hours of weathering out one of the season's fiercest rains with her, what I did understand was that it's a balancing act for Lanzetta to both go "within" and to be of service, to make this type of experience available to those seeking it as well as recognize that her work is not about granting interviews and mass marketing.

She has, however, published two books, is working on two others and is keenly aware of the paradoxical nature of holding her public and her spiritual efforts all together. That's hardly surprising. Finding that graceful balance is the hallmark of wisdom expressed countless times by mystics of many traditions. "In the best cases, there doesn't have to be a dichotomy," she says. "It's more a quality of consciousness that couldn't be articulated in one lifetime."

IF SUSAN BERRYMAN AND her healing circle and Beverly Lanzetta and the Tucson Interfaith Theological Seminary seem a far stretch into the ideal world of heavenly ascension and global unity, then you haven't met shaman and curandera River Fire Jameson. Unlike Berryman and Lanzetta, Jameson invites people into a reality-based experience of spirituality that is beyond anything Hollywood could dream up.

"When I'm in total breakdown, a dark-night-of-the-soul type of thing and have to look at all of my 'stuff,' River is the last person I want to see," admits Gabriella Marmo. "She sees me at my worst and calls me on it. She's also the first person I want to see."

What Marmo, a fitness and movement therapy instructor at Canyon Ranch Health Resort and Spa in Tucson, is referring to is something Jameson and her shaman husband, Diamond, call the hands-on experience of "Living Freedom and a whole being domain shift." Using the earth and the desert to midwife the process, Jameson and her team of "expansion guides" use didgeridoos, Native American flutes, African drums, breath, sound, dance and other ancient technologies to support people in a "guts and grace" experience of releasing guilt, denial, addiction, control and judgement.

Marmo says that Jameson has pointed out to her how she has been driven to be "really nice, presentable and acceptable" to society.

"She sees through the mask, what our being really wants and needs and how we try to get it from something that's not the real thing," Marmo says. "I've gotten into roles as an attempt to get some connection. At best, it's only a substitute. The real thing for me is an authentic communion with God, the universe, whatever you want to call it, and having deep, functional relationship with others."

When I asked Jameson to describe who she is and how she came to work with people in this way, she replied simply that she was born to do what she does. Like something out of a Harry-Potter-meets-Carlos-Castañeda-meets-Women-Who-Run-with-the-Wolves novel, Jameson grew up in a family headed by a Sonoran Mexican Indian father and a Christian mother. When she was 13, she jumped into the emerging 1960s and became a full-blown flower child. By the time she was 16 she had already tired of that scene, but was bonded to the desert and had all of her early awakenings and spiritual revelations here.

She went off to live in northern New Mexico at 18 and studied herbs and natural healing with native folk healers and hippie midwives before heading to an ashram in India. This was the beginning of her now 33-year career as a "shaman-expansion guide-educator."

After years of study, travel and work with some of the most gifted teachers and healers, many unknown to the world at large, Jameson returned to the U.S. to work with two council teepees full of people with hepatitis in the communes of northern New Mexico. She helped them, it is said, with an interesting concoction of watermelon and daikon juice, fully aware that "people with a little help heal themselves." She then chose Tucson to have the first of two daughters, Jade, whose home birth brought her to what she recognizes as "another level of awakening."

"The desert speaks many voices and even though some people experience it as a harsh place, I don't," she says. "I find the desert intense, but also soft, clean, expansive and nurturing. It's the perfect place to come home to one's self. The Sonoran Desert is a powerful and uncontrollable holy place; its spirit is still strong. I love that. I even strangely love this crazy desert town of ours."

Perhaps Jameson's colorful, vibrant nature and growing popularity lie in the fact that her training is not from any recognizable academic institution. It's indigenous and alternative. Her knowledge is straightforward, simple, appeals to a staggering number and variety of people and has essentially emerged from the natural world, motherhood and her 25-year marriage.

Kenya Williams, a Tucson community and youth development consultant, has worked with Jameson for 11 years and feels she has been instrumental in helping him become an "evolved and authentic male" in his relationship with his fiancée.

"The most powerful experience I have had with River is an ongoing understanding of the feminine, which has helped me to break free of old expectations of what a man is," Williams says. "Because of her red energy, her rage, her own male within her who makes clear, strong boundaries and speaks the truth ruthlessly and completely, it has inspired me to embrace that within me. How to be a so-called 'real man' means knowing how to feel and connect with those parts, and the sensitive nurturing female aspects, too. ... It has inspired me to grow as a human being because I have that part of me active, I haven't denied it."

ON THE SURFACE, IT SOUNDS easy. You chant, drum and dance and live a fully integrated balance of body, mind and soul. Yet the more I spoke with participants who have sought private consultation or had attended a Living Freedom event, the more I understood that getting to transformation means letting go of control and allowing oneself to experience the rawness, weeping and unclaimed grief that real healing entails.

There's no doubt that Susan Berryman, Beverly Lanzetta and River Fire Jameson are Desert Mothers, breaking the parameters of normal perception in an attempt to benefit people and the planet. They may even be considered crazy and eccentric, not living in the "real world." That's often been the opinion about exceptional healers and spiritual masters, specifically women.

Although these women are bright, wise and culturally savvy, one of the greatest challenges for those who commune with higher states of being is conveying what is, in essence, the unconveyable. I found that even in writing this article, bringing forth the words to describe the feminine essence of spirit, the totality of who these women are, what they do and the feelings I had in their presence, was enormously crude and intellectual.

It also seems important to consider that one of the reasons women are not as well known for their deep influence on social change is that maybe, consciously or not, as women we realize the inherent wisdom that chasing after recognition at the expense of the rest of our lives isn't really the point.

Let's face it--male or female, life's not really working and it's not all that much fun. The truth is, like a flash of lightning in the dark desert sky, the world and Tucson are rapidly changing. People are turning to spirituality and indigenous knowledge to make sense of things, to give their lives and careers meaning. Desert Mothers of all traditions continue to stand fearlessly present, with the earth, in birthing a new reality of integration, inclusion and wholeness.

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