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The Lesser Path

UDAIPUR, INDIA — It's not every day that you get to meet a real blood and dust tribal missionary — a man who's heard Mother Theresa's confession, been knighted by the Queen for "services to the poor in India," written dozens of books, and marched alone with a crucifix into the hinterlands. I thought this as I peered down at the hills of Rajasthan from the window of a plane.

I can't say I was enthusiastic. In truth, the presence of such unimpeachable virtue makes me feel like breaking bottles. And I don't like missionaries. I like savages — if there must be such a choice.

The excursion was at my father's fervent request. The father who'd pestered me about religion since I can remember, who'd zoned into mystic blankness in the face of my own views or protestations, like he was glancing up for a second to watch Joan of Arc burn in the sky. Unbearable.

He had me this time, though, and my whole family to boot. The trip was an add-on to a family trek in Bhutan, one we couldn't have done without him.

I'd heard about the object of my father's religious interest — 82-year-old Father Roger Lesser — for years, as had most of our extended family. As to how he met Father Lesser? I could never get a straight answer on that.

I encountered Father Lesser at the hotel buffet, where my dad had assembled his mutinous table, including his fiancé, her 20-something son, my agnostic wife and our three glowingly pagan children.

Thick-boned and imposing, the old priest abided in a stained cassock. He special-ordered a pork chop.

Dad led the small talk. Father Lesser bantered gamely — but he stayed focused on the pork chop. Lunch went tolerably well.

When we got up to leave, a young Indian man popped out of the kitchen. "Father I cooked your pork chop today," he said, clasping his hands. "And several years ago I cooked you Christmas dinner — I am greatly honored."

In the hotel lobby, a tall security man with a fierce mustache swept down and tugged at the hem of his cassock. Father Lesser blessed him in the local dialect and moved on, entirely unfazed.

Abandoned at a young age by his father, Father Lesser grew up in India, raised by his schoolteacher mother. He's "English by birth, Indian by adoption, and Rajasthani by preference," as he likes to say.

He was called to the priesthood at nine years old, while watching a field hockey game (a moment he leaves appealingly unexplained). He embarked on the priestly life of a schoolteacher and missionary. He's written 84 books, worked alone in districts with no roads, electricity or running water for years, ministered to Mother Theresa, been hassled by suspicious Hindu nationalists and struck low by disease.

Father Lesser has become a genuine Indian holy man. He's paid his dues. Everyone in Udaipur knows this, Christian or not. But I asked him what he thought a missionary could bring to India, with all its riotous, ancient religions.

"It's a valid question," he said, as we sat in his small, cluttered room at a Catholic high school. "But if I believe in Christ, he tells me to go and preach. He doesn't tell me go and convert."

As we spoke, the noxious traffic of urban India clamored outside. "For instance," he continued. "You came here, and I must try and give you something of Christ. But there's no compulsion. How can there be?"

Oh, there can be, I thought.

I tried to imagine the firebrand Father Lesser might have been earlier in his career, to see something of the pushy, unctuous certainty I'd always associated with church in his demeanor. But it wasn't there.

He'd come to love Indian spirituality, he said, especially the poetry of Indian saints. They made him a better communicator, and a better priest, and so he wrote books about them.

The man had a calming effect on me, I have to admit. He seemed like he could absorb just about anything — a subcontinent's worth of my flaws, addictions and angst. What a nuisance that guys like this have to keep striving and existing and complicating my hard-bitten worldview.

I asked Father Lesser what he thought were the greatest virtues in life.

"If you really want to live — you've got to relate to God, and you've got to relate to people," he said. "You cannot live a proper life without these." The worst sins were selfishness and pride.

Well, I wouldn't know anything about that. But I guess when it comes to missionaries — what with all the sordid news coming out of Haiti these days — there's nothing like the real thing.

And Father Lesser gave me something, whether I thought I wanted it or not, just as he said he would.

Lewis S. Rutherfurd, a freelance writer, is working on a book about growing up in colonial Hong Kong.