Everything is a Gift

Another fragment of the mirror ball.

In the early 1980’s I thought I’d found “the one”: Donald, a handsome “almost-former” Jesuit who had left—or taken a break from his preparations for the priesthood—a year or so prior to his ordination. I had never before met a seminarian who, when out of his cassock, dressed like one of the Village People. Needless to say I was smitten. I choreographed a romantic weekend for us in Big Sur, California.

When I say “choreographed”, I mean choreographed.

Donald lived in San Francisco. I lived in Los Angeles. I booked a cottage at Deetjun’s Big Sur Inn. I left LA before dawn and drove Highway 5 to San Francisco with a bottle of expensive champagne (a gift I’d saved for a special occasion) icing in a cooler in my trunk. I arrived in San Francisco in the early afternoon leaving plenty of time to make the drive down Highway 1 in time to sip the champagne, watch the glorious sunset over the Pacific, have a lovely dinner (the food at Deetjun’s is world class), and, in my fantasy, begin the rest of our lives together.

Donald

Donald wasn’t ready. For as long as I knew him, Donald had issues with time. We finally left San Francisco shortly before sundown. I called the Inn to let them know our arrival would be later than expected. We arrived shortly before midnight.

I had been awake and driving for just under 20 hours (if you include Donald’s four hour delay). We checked in; I hit the bed and was out for the night. So much for romance! The champagne would have to wait until the next night.

Donald awakened me the next morning to let me know that the Inn was only serving breakfast for 45 minutes more. I rushed to shower and dress (it was really cold) and join him for breakfast. He had decided to explore the grounds while I got ready.

After breakfast we hiked up the “Seven Dwarfs” trail behind the inn. Along the trail there are skeletons of seven huge trees that have been hollowed out by lightning, and legend has it that these trees are the homes of the seven dwarves.  Past the trees the path leads to a creek and a waterfall. To cross the creek you have to balance on the fallen trunk of a giant redwood. (I’m not and never have been an “outdoorsman.”) With Donald’s help I made it across the tree trunk and we continued on the path.  At path’s end we discovered a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. (I’ve made a pilgrimage to this point several times since and the ocean has never been the same color twice. It ranges from the olive green of Japanese scrolls, to the azure blue of the Mediterranean, to the gray-green of seascapes just before a storm. It is never ever the same color twice.)

As we rested at the end of the trail and enjoyed the glorious infinity of the Pacific, Donald took my hand, looked into my eyes, and said, “You know what I’d really like to do now?” “No,” I answered expectantly. “There’s a Trappist Monastery somewhere along the Big Sur coast and I would like to visit it.” That came out of left field, I thought. “Are you sure?” I asked, with an unmasked lack of enthusiasm.

“I’ve never even heard of it,” I protested. (I had been to Big Sur only once before and new nothing, really, about the place.) Donald insisted. I returned to our room, replenished the ice in the cooler and made this proposal:

“If we find the monastery before 4:00 PM we’ll check it out; otherwise we’ll head back to the lodge, sip champagne, watch the sunset, have a lovely dinner, and go from there.”

Donald agreed.

We headed south on Highway 1. At 3:50 PM, just south of Lucia CA, Donald spotted a small hand-carved sign on the east side of the highway that said, “New Camoldoli Hermitage.” “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “Yea, howdy,” I thought.

We drove up a barely paved switch-back road. Ten minutes later we arrived at the top of a mountain and parked in front of the hermitage’s bookstore and visitors’ center. Donald was enthralled by the bookstore. Normally, I would have been, too, but I had an agenda. In an effort to move things along, I asked the monk behind the bookstore counter if it was okay to visit the chapel. “What do you think it’s there for?” he replied. Great! A smart-assed monk!

Donald said he’d meet me at the chapel in a few minutes. When he got there, I remember him tapping me on the shoulder and asking me if I was okay. “I think so”, I said.

“Then, I’ll let you be,” he whispered.

When I entered the chapel, it was daylight; the sun had not begun to set; when I came out of the chapel, it was nighttime, the sky was clear and filled with stars. I had spent more than two hours in the chapel and had no sense of the passage of time. I didn’t know what had happened. I had not been asleep or unconscious. I was present. I thought I’d been in the chapel for maybe fifteen minutes. I was completely disoriented.

Donald was waiting for me on a bench a short way from the chapel door.

Well, hello there,” he smiled and embraced me—but not in the romantic way I had planned. He was trying to stop me from shaking. I tried to describe my experience but I couldn’t. Later I would say that I had felt bathed in grace, (the dust specks illuminated by the sun coming in from the windows in the roof shimmered like gold) but at that moment I was terrified. Later I would say that from that time on, I have known without doubt, as if it had been spoken aloud (although I don’t think it was) that everything is a gift.* That conviction has never left me.

My first thought, however, was that I was having a breakdown and needed to see a psychiatrist.

Donald, a highly educated Jesuit with more than ten years in the Society of Jesus, Donald with masters’ degrees in philosophy, and art, Donald, who had studied theology with a focus on the great Christian mystics, talked me down.

Finally, he said, “It sounds to me like you’ve had a mystical experience. You don’t need a psychiatrist; you need to find a good spiritual director.”

We drove down the switchback from the hermitage mostly in silence as I tried to digest my experience and Donald’s advice. We picked up a few groceries at the convenience market in Lucia, and returned to our cabin. We lit a fire in the stove and drank the champagne which was no longer exactly chilled. We talked late into the night about spirituality, vocation and calling. Donald was convinced that my experience symbolized some sort of calling:” a calling,” he said, “to be determined.”

As it turned out, Donald did not want romance, at least not with me, but he did want friendship. He confessed he had accepted my invitation to drive to Big Sur in large part because of his desire to visit the Camaldolese hermitage he had heard so much about from fellow Jesuits.

Donald and I remained close friends until his death in 1998, way too young, at the age of 48.

Before his death, Donald participated at least once in every AIDs cycle ride in North America. He was also a brilliant artist. I’m delighted to pass by, on a daily basis, one of his paintings. It graces my hallway. It’s a treasured gift.

*************************

Let’s pause for a moment and talk about God the Trickster; God, the Master of Bait and Switch.

God used my infatuation with Donald and Donald’s desire to visit the hermitage to choreograph for me a life-changing encounter with God, not with Donald.

And God wasn’t by any means through having fun with me.

Here’s a preview.

I followed Donald’s counsel and was referred to a Jesuit spiritual director, Father Larry Herrera, who was on the staff of The Church of the Blessed Sacrament in the heart of Hollywood, CA. I lived barely a mile away and, in fact, lived within the parish boundaries although I hadn’t been aware of it. I had not attended Mass with any regularity for several years except when I visited my parents in Colorado.

The Church of the Blessed Sacrament

How convenient, a Jesuit parish barely a mile away.

Within a year or so of my meeting with Father Herrera I was a volunteering as a parish youth minister.

In my second year, I was elected president of the parish council and served two terms. (I didn’t find out until much, much later that members of the youth group had, as a joke, stuffed the ballot box. Who in their right mind would rig a parish council election????)  The pastor, Bill Thom, S. J. was thrilled with my election because it broke up the conservative old guard in the parish; they never figured out how I got elected. “God’s will,” Father Thom said when I told him about the stuffed ballot box.

In my third year, I was appointed a delegate from the parish to the Archdiocesan Convocation. I chose Social Justice Issues as my topic of interest—every other topic on the agenda was about family, finances or evangelization. I was chosen by the committee to speak as the Advocate for Social Justice Issues and ended-up addressing a full house at the Loyola-Marymount University Fieldhouse.

After the Convocation, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Roger Mahony, invited me to be a member of the archdiocesan peace and justice committee.

Father Herrera had long since left the parish but before he did he referred me to another spiritual director, Father Leo Rock, S.J. who was housed at the Jesuit novitiate just south of Santa Barbara.

All the time I was getting more and more involved at Blessed Sacrament, thee AIDS pandemic was getting worse and I felt a strong responsibility to do something to support the community. As it happened, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center (as it was called at the time) was also located within the boundaries of Blessed Sacrament parish—closer to the church even than my apartment.

When I consulted with Leo Rock, he handed me an article about Most Holy Redeemer Parish which is located in the gay section of San Francisco. They had adapted a traditional Roman Catholic ceremony called “the 40 Hours”, which had originated in Milan and became especially popular during the plague years and dedicated the ritual to people with AIDS. I spoke with my pastor, Bill Thom, who thought it was a great idea for our parish. He suggested I write a letter to (now) Cardinal Roger Mahony, inviting him to preside over the opening rituals. Cardinal Mahony, who remembered me from the Convocation (social justice issues were high on his list of priorities). He presided over the rituals of two of the three 40 Hours Devotions that occurred while I was president of the council.

There are dozens of wonderful things that occur when the parish’s volunteer youth minister aka parish council president works for major players in Hollywood (not the city, the “industry”) and is a gay activist.

God works in mysterious ways.

I intend to write about my adventures at Blessed Sacrament in future essays.

All I had in mind was to live happily ever with Donald!

Donald playing bingo at Blessed Sacrament parish carnival.

*My confidence in the truth of the words “Everything is a Gift,” has never left me. When I was diagnosed with cancer 15 years after my experience at the monastery, I knew that if I could not embrace cancer as a gift then the revelation was false and my experience was inauthentic.

Here’s the thing about gifts: Christmas morning you get a red, green and white sweater festooned with reindeer when you had your heart set on a pony; that doesn’t make the sweater any less a gift. I know.

Cancer is like a piñata, you have to hit it with a stick patiently and repeatedly before it cracks open and releases its gifts; over the past two decades I continue to discover new gifts that are the direct result of following guidance I have received and continue to receive since the diagnosis.

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”  -(Carl) Frederick Buechner

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3 thoughts on “Everything is a Gift

  1. Hello Jim,
    I’ve been to New Camoldoli Hermitge years ago for a 3 day silent retreat..a magical place.
    Hope you’re doing well.

    Namaste,
    Betty Molloy

  2. Your life and authenticity continue to touch mine deeply. Thank you for all of your seemingly effortless, beautiful writing.

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