My little trailer was tucked into a campsite beside the two-track that led to Culp Valley Campground, a beautiful spot in the mountains of the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California.
As the days passed, I noticed a small, gray car hidden in the brush. Was it abandoned? Was someone there? It kind of bothered me that I didn’t know if I was alone in the campground.
Then, one morning, I met Brother Casey out for his morning hike, worry beads in hand. He was fit and trim, swinging along the road with a springy step. I pegged him at about 60. We fell into conversation that quickly turned to spiritual matters.
For the next couple of days, Brother Casey stopped by my campsite at exactly 4 p.m., and we would hike to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sun set over Borrego Springs far below.
We talked about his spiritual practice and mine, and I found out why this 68-year-old, who is in much better shape than I (at 10 years younger), lives in his car.
This child of atheist parents, after sampling drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll (this was the 60s, after all), soon began to seek the Infinite. For several years, he was a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and ended up as a teacher of the yogi’s teachers. In time, Brother Casey became disaffected with the Maharishi when the yogi began training his disciples how to fly. The sotto voce conversation among a few followers went like this:
“Did you see anyone fly?”
“Neither did I.”
Brother Casey continued his spiritual search, meandering among a few Eastern practices before having what he called a “mystical experience” of a personal God, which led to his becoming what he calls “a mystical Christian,” although he doesn’t belong to any organized religion.
Each step of his journey, he says, was a layer, each building on the other, none of which was lost. He still practices hatha yoga, for example, which is probably why he can leap onto rocks and sit on his haunches for so long it made my knees hurt just to watch.
Almost two decades ago, an increasingly persistent inner “voice” (the Holy Spirit, he says), urged him to “stop paying rent.”
Stop paying rent, he thought, then I’d be homeless!
Nonetheless, when he handed over his last rent check, a friend asked him to housesit while the friend left town. That request was followed by another. Then another. For the next 18 years he lived in other people’s houses as a temporary caretaker. Some of these houses were so exclusive few of us Great Unwashed would get beyond the gate.
Then the voice began again: “Stop…”
Now, truly preparing to be homeless, Brother Casey began trying on the lifestyle. He began spending time with the homeless and with those who minister to them. But he also camped in the desert a few times and liked it. Eventually, drawn to solitary places and an increasingly intense spiritual practice, he became “a hermit who lives in the desert.” That was six years ago. Now his home is a gray Hyundai; his $458 Social Security check more than covers his simple needs.
* * *
It is January in this high desert campground, and nights are long and cold. As I huddle in my trailer, trying to keep warm, Brother Casey goes to bed early. “What else can I do?” he says cheerily. He rises at 4:30, makes tea, wraps up in a blanket on the front seat of his car, and prays until the sun comes up. Then he eats breakfast. (He is vegan and has no way to keep food cold, so his meals are simple.) Then, he goes for a hike. While he walks, he says an abbreviated version of the Jesus Prayer* on his worry beads.
He returns for lunch and then settles onto his prayer mat where he stares at a black dot on a white background (a traditional technique for clearing the mind, he says) until “the world stops,” and everything beyond the dot is one-dimensional and unfocused. “Then, I start to pray,” he says. His prayer?
God is love.
I love God.
I radiate love.
That’s it. And he stays on that mat, praying that prayer, for three hours every day, getting up every hour or so to move around.
I don’t know what to make of Brother Casey’s story. I do know that I still think about our conversation and about the childlike joy that he really did radiate and about the humble way he shared his doubts and foibles, not placing himself above me as a spiritual master. And at times, he almost seemed wistful for the warmth of human companionship and conversation. But more powerful than any human desire was that irresistable pull of the love of God that had sent him to the desert.
“I’m being dissolved,” he said. “I can feel myself dissolving. That’s okay. I can still function. I guess I could write my name on my arm, so I don’t forget it.”
“This isn’t a human life; it’s an angelic life, really.”
*Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.