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A Gift for You from Father Eleutherius, Mojave Desert Priest

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A bell at Saint Andrews Abbey in Valyermo, CA. | Photo: prayitno/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As I write this, six blocks from where we live shoppers crowd our local mall. Only eleven more shopping days we are told. By the time you read this, even less. It is the season of giving. In the right hands, this is truly something to celebrate.

This season of giving, of course, is not all warm and fuzzy. Earlier this week I was in a store. The checkout lines were so long they backed out into the aisles. I stood in line behind an elderly woman wearing a cheery red sweater swarming with white reindeer. She clasped a croquet set in her hands, no doubt a gift for some lucky grandchildren. When I stepped up beside her to make room for the shoppers passing behind us, she glared at me.

"I was here first," she said.

I am not saying her hand went to a mallet, but I will say that her knuckles whitened.

I confess I was surprised by this wolf in reindeer clothing. Babbling apology I stepped back quickly, making mental note of the length of the mallet.

I don't fault the woman for her behavior. As anyone who has put off their shopping until now will discover, giving has its dark side. The stampede to buy gifts can turn even a loving grandmother into a mallet-wielding Hun.

I am not worried about my own holiday shopping, because Father Eleutherius has already provided me with my gift to you. Should you feel inclined, I am certain he would not object if you passed it on to those who matter to you.

I met Father Eleutherius at Saint Andrews Abbey in Valyermo for he was a monk. Saint Andrews Abbey is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery on the edge of the Mojave Desert, a place of birdsong and yucca, and tidy, low slung buildings clustered together in a narrow fold between the scrubby desert hills.

When I met Father Eleutherius he was ninety-eight years old. He did not see or hear well. He required a walker, and most of his teeth were gone. But as I would soon learn, these are not requirements for living. Recently Father Eleutherius had published his third book of philosophy.

I spent three days in the company of Father Eleutherius. It was cold in the desert when we met, but more often than not our conversations took place outside for Father Eleutherius preferred the outdoors. He would sit on the walker-cum-seat he pushed about the property, wearing a puffy down jacket and a black knit cap. I would stand beside him. He laughed and smiled often. His largely toothless smile was like a broken shutter, but broken shutters let the sun in. Whenever I said something that pleased him, he stuck his tongue out. When he did, he looked like a happy wrinkled old truant with the teacher's back turned. It always made me laugh, and when I laughed Father Eleutherius would chuckle alongside. Sitting there in the cold, we might have looked mildly insane.

A philosopher from the tip of his tongue to the toes of his boots, conversations with Father Eleutherius took circuitous routes. Sometimes they hopped from one subject to another like a happy frog. Other times they meandered easily like a slow running summer stream. Topics rose and disappeared, and then resurfaced again. We talked of winding roads, and family, and the world's progress, and how people are not always entirely comfortable sitting beside a priest.

Father Eleutherius did not drive, but he often rode the bus.

"Priests are intimidating to many people," Father Eleutherius cackled. "I have heard many blurted confessions on the bus."

Priests make me uncomfortable, too, possibly because I have no shortage of sins to confess, but Father Eleutherius had an easy manner that made him less of a priest and more of a friend. In the three days we spent together I came to like him very much. Perhaps I loosened up a little too much; now and then I said things to him I will never again say to a priest. But among his many admirable traits, Father Eleutherius possessed a wicked sense of humor. He cackled a great deal and I saw much of his tongue. These signals led me to believe that perhaps he enjoyed our newfound friendship, too.

"Friendship," he told me, "is a wonderful giving. Eleutherius is Greek. It means 'free.' It also means 'giving.'" He gave me a sly, puckered grin. "Those who know Greek say it is a beautiful name. Those who don't know Greek, they don't know."

I confess I did make one confession, though I am certain Father Eleutherius already knew. I told him I had come to Saint Andrews Abbey mostly for the quiet. I was not particularly religious. I was still wrestling with God.

Father Eleutherius cackled and told me I was not alone.

"If people don't believe in God, they just come here to see the crazy people like me," he said. "You accept people as they are."

Of course he was not crazy at all, and I will never forget him for so many reasons, among them the many thoughts he shared. But here is the thought I remember most. Sitting in a patch of wan afternoon sunlight, Father Eleutherius turned suddenly serious. It was no cake walk growing old, he said.

"I cannot see. I cannot walk. I could be very miserable." He paused, gazing out at distant hills no longer available to him. "This miserable aspect of our life we often see. I am blind. Wrong. I cannot walk. Wrong. I am still alive. Right. We miss the gift."

Father Eleutherius died at 100, for life is not a gift that keeps on giving.

In this season of giving, I pass his gift on to you.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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