On a recent visit to the Mission in San Juan Bautista, I found myself feeling envy. Believe it or not, I envied the die-hard Catholics visiting the site alongside me.
This is a fairly unusual sentiment for me to experience, given my powerful aversion to organized religion. But as I watched other people wander through the church and its grounds, I saw a reverence in their looks and movements that I did not share.
Mission San Juan Bautista was the fifteenth Catholic mission established in California. Founded in 1797, it was first comprised of a small adobe church, a granary, a monastery, and an assortment of barracks and adobe houses – all constructed by local Native Americans. The church that still stands today was built in 1803, and it is the largest of all the California mission churches. At the height of the mission’s operations, the kitchen served meals to 1200 people per day. It was a significant center of social, economic, and religious activity for the area, fittingly located a mere one hundred feet from the San Andreas fault. Over 4300 people are buried in the cemetery that lies on the property – most of them Native Americans.
Needless to say, I was not envious of the blood the church has on its hands for its treatment of the local indigenous populations. As I have discussed in another post, the deception, mistreatment, and cultural robbery that was delivered upon the Native Californian tribes by this system is a tragedy from which California culture will never recover. No, I am not envious of that guilt; thank you very much.
What I envied was the look of wonder adorning the faces of the believers as they walked across the threshold into the house of their divine spirits. They looked so awe-struck, so reverent, and so humbled. As mothers, fathers, children, nuns, and groups of seniors walked around the church, they continually crossed themselves, genuflected, lit candles, and closed their eyes as if they were tapping into the energy of a greater spirit. How nice it must be to have a place where you feel like that, I thought. A place you can visit and reliably expect to feel connection and grace.
Meanwhile, I was taking pictures – lot of them. The interior of the church is especially photo-worthy. With its small windows and moody lighting, the shadows are strong and well-defined. The ubiquitous votive candles add to the moodiness of the light, and the Mexican color palette lends a festive-yet-muted feel to the wall decorations and paintings. The roof has fabulous locally harvested wooden beams, and the floor is made from tile that was formed and fired on church grounds. There’s a lot to take in, and the tranquil, spacious feel of the place makes it easy to stand there and do just that.
Before I knew it, I was kneeling also – in order to get the right angle for my shots. I was closing one eye to figure out how best to capture the play of light and shadow, and I stopped, dumbstruck, more than once when I noticed how a ray of sun textured one of the adobe walls. I moved around the building like a possessed person, completely unaware of time and oblivious to other visitors, hunting down the perfect image.
I was lying on the tile floor pointing my camera up towards the Virgin of Guadalupe when I realized that I was, in fact, having the same experience of wonder and awe in the church as all of the dutiful Catholics around me. The difference was only that mine was directed towards the play of light, shadow, texture, and color. I was worshiping my divinities – beauty and light – in the very same house where everyone else was worshiping their anthropomorphic ones.
A few days later, I learned that this church has a special Winter Solstice ceremony on December 21st. The shortest day’s light hits the altar at just the right angle to illuminate it in a particularly beautiful way. That sounded to me a lot like my version of religion.
Huh, I thought. I guess I don’t need to feel envious after all.