On Wanderers, Chili Peppers, Rolled Cigarettes, Bakeries and a Small Cave in Palestine
I have never driven more than when I was a monk. That is an ironic situation, but it's true. Without getting into details in order to protect the guilty, I ended up helping to run the monastery business about an hour and a half from the monastery itself. (It was a bakery.) So every morning, it was up at a quarter past four for Matins, stay for about ten minutes, hop in the bakery van, and then we were off. It was tiring. I hardly got any sleep. And little else got done in my life other than making tea biscuits and cakes.
That must have made me pretty holy, right? Wrong! I was probably one of the most bitter people I could have possibly imagined. I hardly had any time for anything other than baking, and even the little time I actually spent in my cell, all I did was sleep. But the whole time I told myself that this was God's will. Maybe it was, but I didn't accept it with gratitude. And truth be told, I think that there are very few people who could have.
One day, after a long day of baking and the hour and a half trek back to the monastery, a man was sitting on the monastery porch. He had unkempt hair, a long beard, and looked as if he hadn't seen the sight of a bed for weeks. Nearby was his bicycle, packed with a pile of rather worthless belongings: clothes, rags, books, and a few icons. When I saw the icons, I knew he wasn't just another inhabitant of the run-down desert community looking for a hand-out. And his mannerisms and his manner of speaking proved that he was definitely someone who had led life on his own terms.
As the evening unfolded, his story only got more and more interesting. His adopted name was Obadiah. He had been a spiritual wanderer from monastery to monastery since 1972. For the last few years, he had lived in an Orthodox Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and decided that it was time to move on. He had crossed the desert from New Mexico to the Mojave in California on his bike in high summer. It had taken him almost two months. During that time, he had begged for food, went to religious sites, and slept in the open air. His bike broke a few weeks before he had arrived at the monastery, and he had been pushing it ever since.
The abbot gave the blessing so that he could stay on the monastery grounds overnight. That's all Obadiah wanted anyway, since his real destination on this leg of the trip was the Coptic Orthodox monastery about ten miles away. He had been to plenty of Orthodox monasteries, so ours was nothing new.
We went into the trapeza for dinner. I remember that it was an informal one since no one had had time to cook that day, and all we were having were leftovers. I remember that there was a particularly spicy dish that was probably left over from the Sunday potluck. I warned our guest that this dish was spicy, so he had best try it before he served himself a lot of it. He tried the dish, and a delighted smirk appeared on his face. He removed from his bag a small jar of dried chili peppers and liberally sprinkled it on this "spicy" dish. As a man with a Mexican palette, I was impressed, and dare I say it, a bit humiliated.
After dinner, we went on the porch again and continued talking. He rolled a cigarette and began to give me the in and outs of his way of life. Usually, he said, he slept outside. Sometimes he would be given a helping hand by people, other times he would be run out of town pretty quickly. He slept in ditches, fended off wild animals from his belongings, and endured all kinds of weather. He had a number of books with him: the Ladder of Divine Ascent, stories of the Father of the Desert, and other staples of the monastic tradition. Also, he said, he had started at his last home doing his own translation of the Prophecy of Isaiah with the little Hebrew he had picked up here and there. He told me that he would be heading north since he had never been there before. There were a few churches he wanted to see and people he wanted to talk to.
The next day, I got up at the same time and saw Obadiah for the beginning of Matins. By the time I got back that evening, he had already left. He was setting out for the Coptic monastery and hoped to spend the night there. Once again, my life returned to the same old routine of baking and little sleep.
About two weeks later, I was making some cakes on a rather hot and sunny day in Big Bear Lake. The room I baked in would get so hot that occasionally I had to go into the shop area in order to cool off a bit. The shop opened up on the main boulevard in the small valley between the mountains. As I entered the empty shop area, I saw a man walking by with a bike headed into the downtown area of Big Bear. It was Obadiah! "What the hell!?" I thought to myself. "Did we tell him we had a bakery in Big Bear Lake? What the hell is he doing here?"
He continued to walk by completely oblivious to being near the bakery of the monks he had visited a couple of weeks before over 90 miles away. I stood incredulous for about thirty seconds, trying to verify to myself if it was indeed him. Finally, I opened the locked door and cried out, "Obadiah!"
He turned around very meekly, recognized me, and walked toward the bakery.
At that point only Sean (Br. Spyridon) and I were in the building. We were so glad to have our visitor again since he broke the monotony of ovens, flour, rolling pins, and sugar. We began to offer him any bread and goods we had available to take with him. I even heated up some microwavable burritos, wrapped them in some paper, and reassured him that they would still be good in a few hours if he wanted to have them for dinner.
He had explained that he had come up to Big Bear after receiving a cold reception at the Coptic monastery, pushing his bike on the five thousand foot climb up the mountain. It took him a week and a half. He had been staying at an evangelical Christian retreat center, witnessing about the Spirit and seeing many baptisms in the lake. He said that he knew some people in San Bernardino and that he was going there. (I explained to him that he was pointed in the wrong direction.). He also explained how he wanted to go visit a convert bishop to the Syrian Orthodox church in Fresno. I jumped on the computer and tried to give him directions from Big Bear. Who knows if he followed them?
Having rested with us a while again, we saw him on his way. I looked at him vanish going over the hill on Big Bear Boulevard: a man and his bike, and the hardest working guardian angel that any mortal has been priveleged with.
Everytime I think of Obadiah, all I can think is that there exist in this world some very heroic people , and then there are just the rest of us schmucks. I had nothing on this guy! So what I dropped out of Berkeley to go to study for the priesthood?! So what I was withering my youth away on a monastic business venture that was making no money!? Have I ever slept in a ditch for the love of Christ? Did I really give up a sense of security like Obadiah had? I was nowhere near as real as this guy, nor will I ever be.
It is people like Obadiah that make me tire quickly of what passes for religion among most people. You can talk and talk and talk about the things of God, but until you have actually seen them, until you have actually seen a man who is totally dependent on God's love, then you in reality know absolutely nothing. Truth be told, I hesitate in writing ANYTHING that passes for theology on this blog, since I have seen the real deal, and no matter what I write I will always fall short.
But then again, that is the real reason for the season, isn't it? The main message of the Gospels for me has always been that we do not know the ways of God. And the more we guess them, the wronger we will probably be. Just as the Son of God was born in a manger in Bethlehem, so we will continue to be suprised by God. Let us get used to getting it wrong, then, in joy and in wonder.
Sometimes, while on the highway or looking out on the street late at night, I think that Obadiah may once again go by. Just as that small family from Nazareth went from door to door looking for a place to rest, so my friend wanders in the cold and the heat, through the rain and the glorious days of spring, towards the final destination of all flesh, towards our Father's house. If you see him, please open the door and give him a bit of rest for his weary head.