I traveled a lot of miles, with a bag full of Big Questions to bring to the sanctuary of the Christ in The Desert Monastery.
Me, in my well-abused rental car and straw hat, ready for a cosmic breakthrough, I wanted some divine answers, dammit. I hoped to hear something omniscient and awe-inspiring by the cemetery overlook, or to find an eagle feather on my canyon hike. Maybe a coyote or a monk would cross my path just when I asked my heart-bleeding question and that would be my Big Sign.
Instead, I met Fred, in the gift shop. “When you’re ready to pay for your candles and books you can just do it yourself on that table over there.” D-I-Y cashier style, there was a shoebox of cash and a stack of credit card slips… how civilized, I thought. “Gotcha. Cha-ching,” I answered to Fred. And his curiosity about what “cha-ching” meant started us talking, (remember, no TV in the monastery, no People Magazine… I was probably the biggest dose of pop culture they’d seen in them hills for a while.)
Fred was a fifty-something Hispanic guy originally from L.A. For eighteen years, he’s lived at the monastery as the custodian. “Eighteen years?! And you don’t feel the call to serve as a brother after all this time?” I asked. “No way. I serve by serving the brothers.”
“Wow. Well, way to go for making such an intense choice,” I said.
He just swore in the monastery, I thought.
Fred continued. I was rapt. I set down my Frankincense and leaned in. His eyes sparkled.
“Say more,” I nudged.
“When I left my old life to come here I was so afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” I asked.
“Everything. I woke up two or three nights a week in a sweat, just afraid of life, of my choices. I was terrified to, you know, just live.”
“Terrified to live.” I repeated, nodding my head.
“And then four and a half years into it, I woke up and I was free. You know, free. Instead of always seeing just fifty feet in front of me there was a vista–I could see forever ahead of me.”
He slid his hand out to gesture to the expanse. I could see it. I could see his state of being and there was nothing impeding his delight. We both kind of giggled, nodding, communing.
“Fred,” I said, “That’s all I need to know. I thought I was coming for the monks. But you’re The Dude.”
“Why thank you then. I’m happy to be the dude for you today.”
You know that the teacher appears when you’re ready. Sometimes it’s a pop tune, or an ad on the bus, sometimes it’s the handy man.