It might have been an ordinary morning on the Gold Coast at the end of March in 1782, but for the pomp and ceremony enacted by a group of friars, Spanish soldiers and native participants and onlookers. Leading the auspicious event was a seemingly frail monk of incipient old age whose indomitable will gave the lie to both conditions, a man of stern will who bore the unequivocal mandate of both King and Cross.
Father Junipero Serra had negotiated a long and dusty path, the culmination of countless thousands of miles, mostly on foot — not only to celebrate the Easter sacrament on these shores, but to found the Mission San Buenaventura, the last such institution he would personally establish along California’s celebrated El Camino Real, then little more than a trail that connected his fledgling missions. It was around those missions that California was established, and around the Mission San Buenaventura that Ventura County took root and thrived, driven by more than the point of the fine Spanish steel ruthlessly wielded by the conquistadors.
The conviction that drove Serra across a vast sea from his native Mallorca and over those thousands of footsore miles, drove him to take indigenous people under his dominion all across the Californias, to scourge himself in the course of his celebration of the Mass, and to convert thousands of California natives to the “true faith.” His was the zeal of the true believer — a zeal that well predates the passion of a legendary carpenter, whose relatively short ministry two millennia ago would change the world — its true origin lost in prehistory at a time when the dawning intelligence of some unnamed proto-human first reckoned the stars with wonder and devotion.
While the Mission still stands on the spot favored by Father Serra over two centuries ago, today it comprises the unequivocal fulcrum of neither the society nor its soul. It has, over the course of time, been steamrolled by the advance of culture and society, by the splintering of the faiths of the cross, and by successive generations keen to throw off the ways and mores of their progenitors, now at least as prone to celebrate their own oeuvre as their spiritual fathers’ ecumenical groove. Where the Mission was once the singular “Mother Church” of what would become the county, today a browse in the yellow pages reveals no less than 107 houses of worship, offering services across a broad spectrum of theology, philosophy, doctrine and dogma.
In an online quiz called the “Belief-O-Matic” (www.beliefnet.com), one can find a surprisingly cogent series of questions that leads to a ranking of one’s spiritual proclivities across a scale of world faiths. What’s striking about the quiz is not so much its apparent prescience, but the breadth of that scale: a visitor to the site will be ranked along such lines as (shuffled to better obscure the author’s own proclivities) Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Latter-Day Saints, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, Islam, Scientology, Christian Scientist, Buddhism, Quakerism, Taoism, Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism, secular humanism, neo-paganism, Protestantism, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, nontheism, New Age, New Thought and more.
That proliferation is a process seen as inherently evolutionary by the Reverend Bonnie Rose of the Ventura Center for Spiritual Living. “It should come as no surprise that as our limited view of God expands, so the vessels meant to ‘contain’ our idea of God must also expand,” she said. No matter what faith a given person embraces, she continues, it’s the nature of God, or the concept of divinity in general, to confound such limitations. “Maybe at the heart of the mystery is simply the idea that God is bigger than our institutions — bigger than the Bible or our other spiritual texts, bigger in fact than religion itself. Perhaps instead of attempting to cram God into the undersized vessels of our limited understanding, a more constructive approach would be to open ourselves to that larger mystery of what’s beyond our ability to readily understand.”
It’s in that manner, despite the advancing appeal of a seemingly ever more secular age, that the spirit — whether recognizably Catholic or otherwise — endures. The spirit prevails despite the countless shallow fascinations and distractions of the age; despite the splashy tabloid indiscretions of pedophile priests and their protective bishops; despite the jihadists, new crusaders and the example of tacky and too-often-shady televangelists; despite the work, for better or worse, of millions of disparate would-be missionaries questing on behalf of their very personal opinions on the nature of truth and God’s will. The spirit is focused and energized by the mystery at the core of all our lives, the mystery of the human condition that each of us at one point or another must contemplate, as temporal beings faced with the challenge of the infinite.
Ministerial candidate Susan Burrell, who anchors a weekly spiritual segment for Coach Ron Tunick each Tuesday afternoon on KVTA AM 1520, finds in that mystery the foundation of her own faith. “All religions have a mystical side,” Burrell said. “It’s the very foundation of religion in the first place. We have to move past the human experience, the ‘knowing’ relationship with religion or God, to a place of deeper contemplation — to a place of pure feeling that transcends the limitations of language and thought.”
It’s the nature of that mystical journey itself — whether accomplished through contemplation, meditation, prayer, peyote, mortification of the flesh, deprivation of the senses or countless other ancient disciplines — to render questions about the divine in a new light, coloring them with the understanding that only comes from the undertaking of the journey in the first place.
Burrell continues, “Ironically, our questions about God aren’t truly answered until we move beyond them, leave them behind and touch that deeper place of mystery, that numinous connection with the divine.” A sense of irony is fundamental to one’s quest to walk a mystical, spiritual or religious path. The experience is elusive at best, no matter one’s station in life, and the more desperately we cling to a wish for a relationship with divinity, for answered prayer or spiritual peace, the more elusive such can become. In fact, history is rife with examples where religion has brought not peace at all, but rather its exact opposite, from so-called holy wars to the crusades to the Inquisition to the quite contemporary and altogether faith-based conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, all perpetrated in single-minded devotion to too-often misguided convictions about God’s will.
It was in the hubris of those convictions that the ancient rites of Paganism were nearly stamped out, driven underground by a literal ‘witch hunt’ mentality in Christendom. Reduced for tens of centuries to a rank pejorative, use of the word Pagan is returning with a new emphasis, as a sensibility that reveres a ‘mother in the earth’ in place of a ‘father in the sky’ resonates with a new generation, for whom conservation and stewardship of that earth become devotional imperatives. It’s in that earthly devotion that a fundamental aspect of mysticism is supported, the fundamental notion of the interconnectedness of all life; indeed that common thread weaves a tapestry between widely diverse ideologies, be they religious, atheist or otherwise — from Christians to Pagans to evolutionary biologists.
The faith of Pastor Seth Polley, whose border ministry in Bisbee, Ariz., isn’t so unlike the outreach of Junipero Serras, echoes the emphasis on that connection, but in ecclesiastical terms, “I see Jesus as being utterly in tune with the moment — with the ability to look at the reality around him, the reality that others saw, and to see so much more. Not simply because He was divine — even though I’m into that incarnation — but because he had a deep connection with everything around him.”
That connection likewise illuminates the pastor’s notions on the concept of sin, frequently a slippery slope for the contemporary Christian, but which is illuminated for him within relational terms. “I quit drinking in college because I began to discern that alcohol, for me, is a violation of the relationship I have with myself. The implications are pretty immense, not based on some archaic Scriptural reference or societal norm, but on my sense of who and what I am connected to — so, for example, to shop at Walmart or use the damn plastic bottles, we can understand those ‘sins’ in their relational context.”
Thus we can learn from our missteps, he concludes, and strive to do better.
It’s that very lesson that can provide a path to deeper realization, even the sort of transcendence that has inspired religion from the start. It’s to that end that Aldous Huxley writes, in his The Devils of Loudun: “Insofar as it helps the individual to forget himself and his ready-made opinions about the universe, religion will prepare the way for realization. Insofar as it arouses and justifies such passions as fear, scrupulosity, righteous indignation and crusading hate; as it harps on the saving virtues of certain theological notions or certain hallowed arrangements of words, religion is an obstacle in the way of realization.”
Clearly, despite questions of faith, of religious practice or the lack thereof, the issues behind these notions won’t be denied. Even without logical underpinnings or easy answers, the issues remain steadfastly at the forefront of the national consciousness, as seen in our most recent presidential campaigns — when, despite impending cataclysms in foreign policy, environmental science, economics and more, debates were frequently reduced to such seemingly irrelevant issues as a given candidate’s religious observance, or a stance on such Biblically inspired moral questions as gay marriage or abortion rights.
Asked why he devotes a few hours every week to explore religion and spirit on his radio program, Tunick laughs and replies, “The world’s only secular until it’s in trouble,” echoing the time-honored adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. “Life is challenging in so many ways,” he notes, “and faith is challenging, too. Hearing that voice at least once a week is essential, I believe.” Whether it’s heard in church or on the radio becomes, for many, a moot point.
That’s a simple notion that might have been unthinkable in another age, to return to that time when the Mission and its time-honored members sway. Monsignor Donal Mulcahy, who was born and raised a Catholic in his native Ireland, attended seminary in Camarillo in 1947, was ordained in 1951 and presided over half a century of Ventura County spiritual life.
“I said the Mass in Latin for 20 years, but after the changes of Vatican II, switched to English. Some didn’t like it, but in truth it was only the manner of worship that changed — the message was exactly the same,” Mulcahy said, the same, he continues as Junipero Serra himself offered centuries ago, observing that the message endures as the ability to reach people with it evolves. The language or medium, he notes, is less important than the idea that “the message comes from that original seed. Our evolving ministry is like a branching out of that same great tree.”
For Ventura County, at least, it’s a seed that was planted over two centuries ago, and thrives to this day. In the recent celebration of the Mission’s 225th anniversary, event co-chair Rick Cole observed: “Our mission is more than a building and more than a church. As it was for Father Serra, so it is for us. Our mission remains a spiritual home at the heart of our community, more than a place. It is something inside each of us. As it was for Father Serra, so it is for us, and we remain committed to his mission and his motto: ‘Siempre adelante, forever forward!’”
Thus, in the manner of all great spiritual traditions, the wisdom of Junipero Serra endures — speaking not merely in Catholic or even Christian tradition, but in the manner of all great philosophers. For it’s only in thinking and moving “forever forward” that the spiritual quest — and the zeal for such — lives and thrives, emboldening us to strive for just a bit more understanding of that which can never — on this plane — truly be known. Regardless of one’s own deeply personal conclusions on that score, it’s a quest that renders our world in richer hues than we might otherwise be privileged to know.