You rise each day before dawn, pray, celebrate the Holy Sacrifice, share breakfast in Community, labor in the fields until dusk, pray, share an evening meal in Community, and retire to your bed. Then, there are non-profit businesses to run, building and agricultural blueprints to draw, permits to seek, correspondences to keep, farm equipment to maintain and repair, buildings and infrastructure to build, and, not least, the life of ministry and the always-active conversation with God, which Saint Theresa of Avila called mental prayer. Very often these become the reflections that appear on Facebook and PuaLii.org.
Months and years pass. One day runs into another, and the world beyond the farm fades into a distance. Then, one morning God bids you leave. In August, there was a house I had built long ago that suddenly had sold and a 4WD delivery van for our organic fruits and vegetables that needed to be retrieved from Oklahoma. Yes, and God was calling me to refresh myself and to reflect once again on my first love, which is His.
Since I had to drive the van to a ferry in San Diego, I resolved to make a pilgrimage to the twenty-one Franciscan missions, which mark the beginnings of Christianity in Pacific North America. The Padres who offered themselves to this work are depicted in two paintings flanking the nave entrance in the mission church of San Luis Rey: sixteen Franciscan friars on their knees carrying crosses, walking and crawling along a Via Dolorosa from Spain to the wilderness of Alta California. Indeed, the Mission of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the eponymous city of San Francisco, is called Dolores expressing the friars' view of mission — an offering of sacrificial love.
My sabbatical occupied one month — to wander, to pray, to read, to learn, and to reflect. Upon my return to our Franciscan Hermitage, I read the Gospel for Sunday:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself
and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man,
if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return
for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father,
and then he will repay every man for what he has done.
The so-called Mission Trail of California from Sonoma in the north nearly to the Mexican border is much traveled. At nearly all of them, especially in nearby gardens, one sees statues of Saint Francis, always surrounded by animals, for the saint's gentle goodness calls to them. This same compassion and tenderness we also find in the Apostle of California, Fray Saint Junipera Serra, who followed St. Francis from an early age eventually becoming a friar. Fr. Serra's goodness attracted the indigenous natives of Alta California, beckoning to them, even inspiring them to build large churches and missions under no compulsion whatever but out of friendship. It was this same compassion which led him to give up his comfortable position in Majorca, Spain, where he was a gifted preacher, turning many hearts, and a skilled theology professor, who guided many souls. His place of honor in this world was secure holding an endowed chair at the university, yet his heart was always in Heaven with God's, for he grieved from the time he was a young boy that people the world over did not know about the God Who loved them, did not know that the invisible, inscrutable, and unknowable God had revealed Himself in the Person of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, Who desired friendship with all humans on earth. Friendship: that individual, intimate, knowledge and recognition between two souls. For this reason He had commanded His Apostles to bring the good news of this divine friendship to every corner of the earth. And Fr. Serra resigned his place of undoubted honor and departed for the New World. He would be 56-years-old in 1769, when he founded the first of the California missions in modern-day San Diego.
In order to reach the people, he began learning the three major languages spoken by the dozen or so tribes of mid-coast and southern California. We may be sure that the story of our God, Whose divine command is love, touched every heart, for this same God had fashioned every heart to receive this love and to be enlivened by it. What is more, Fr. Serra's own love was a living, breathing instrument of God's compassion.
No doubt, the Franciscan Padres would have been struck by the spiritual stories they heard from their new friends, traveling through the largest of the native languages spoken there, Ute-Aztecan. This language, spoken by the ancient Anasazi peoples and their descendants across the Southwest and Mexico, told spiritual stories uncannily like the ones we have received in our Sacred Scriptures:
In the beginning was a mighty wind like the Hebrew Ruah, which Christians associate with the Holy Spirit
• Next came light
• Before creation was an increate chaos of darkness
• The first man and woman spoiled the first creation through conflict and went away into the East, sealed of their first world
• A Great Flood destroyed the Creation
• God's several attempts at Creation were ruined because of the unworthy conduct of the created humans
• The present creation is the Fourth World, where humans might still demonstrate their worthiness
We can only imagine the powerful impact of Fr. Serra's stories, for he was bearing great tidings: that Father God, indeed, had attempted the creation multiple times; that the unworthiness of the people had grieved Him sorely; that He had planted a garden that had to be sealed off and then ordained a Great Flood, which swept away an entire lifeworld; that He began again in a wilderness giving laws to His unruly people .... all of this the native peoples would have understood. What is this evil inside of us that makes us strangers to God and to His ways?
But then, unbeknownst to the peoples of Alta California, God did something entirely unexpected: He came into the midst of His people as One Who loved them. He offered His friendship, healing them of incurable ills, even raising the dead. But the people showed Him their dog-pack nature: marginalizing Him, humiliating Him, and then murdering Him in His human nature. But His power was too great, too great for a dog pack, too great for death. And His love also was great: greater than vengefulness, bitterness, or war. And this is God's gift to us today. Yes, His human creatures have been unworthy, but the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth teaches us how to be worthy, encourages us to be all that we were made to be in our nobility, and offers us His friendship in a new place of goodness and right.
God had called Junipera Serra to this apostolate, yet He did not call Him to go alone. We know from the sending of the Apostles, who were sent two-by-two, that the Lord does not call us to be solitary ministers. He called Fray Junipera Serra, a friar and priest, and spoke into his tender heart concerning the peoples of Alta California who awaited good news. And a partner He also called Gaspar de Portala, a Spanish soldier and administrator, who might ensure the safety and security of this ministry. These two were like-hearted men: kindly, skilled, self-sacrificing, and devout. It would not take long before they developed a mutual appreciation and respect, even a brotherly affection. Yes, the King of Spain wished to see these territories settled, which had been claimed for the Spanish crown two hundred years earlier. But the main thing would be the people and the good news that awaited them. Although the two friends suffered privations, sickness, and near starvation, together they would succeed. And the first two missions, one in San Diego and the other in the Monterey Peninsula, did succeed very well. But here at Monterey all the good that had been achieved and all the promise that still lay ahead was to be undone, undone by the refusal of God's call.
Gaspar de Portala was assured of his post as Governor of Alta California. Fr. Serra was confirmed as President of all missions in Alta California. They worked well together and shared the same values and goals. Indeed, both enjoyed the high esteem of no less a person than the King of Spain. God had done all of this. And the inherently tricky relationship between the Franciscan vision and secular vision of this great expedition had mostly been mastered by the two men. But as the histories would record, following the creation of the Mission at Monterey, Gaspar de Portala informed his friend of a decision. Portala, shared that he had had his fill of the rough wilderness life. He did not want to be Governor of Alta California but sought a comfortable assignment, where he might enjoy life. And here we find an intriguing symmetry: Fr. Serra who had been assigned to a comfortable life in Majorca but who accepted His called to a wilderness, and Portala, who had been called to a wilderness, but had engineered an assignment to a comfortable life in Mexico City.
What would happen next is too gruesome to tell. Portala would be replaced by a career-Army officer, Pedro Fages, nicknamed "the Bear," who was notorious as a sadist beating, extorting, and starving his men, while he enriched himself. His low regard for the humble Padres bordered on contempt. What sort of men are these who do not seize the sweetness of life?! In this new, dog-pack atmosphere, the enlisted men began behaving like the soldiers who followed Cortes, De Sota, and nearly everywhere else in the New World. It was their prerogative, as they saw it, to rape any native woman and kill any native man who stood in their way, even going out at night on woman-hunting parties. As his protests fell on deaf ears over a period of months, Fr. Serra, unable to look on in horror any longer, journeyed to Mexico City seeking an audience with the Spanish Viceroy, Antonio Bucareli. Fages would be removed, but his successor, Don Fernando de Rivera, proved to be little better than Fages. And the pervasive, if not official, policy of rape and murder continued, changing everything and forever as the first Christians held out the hand of God's friendship to the native peoples of California.
God's will can never be turned back, of course. But, as in Eden, the smooth way He envisions can always be undone. As the native peoples themselves relate, the worthiness of God's human creatures has everything to do with the unfolding of God's plans. For nothing has greater power over God's will on earth than the gift of sovereign freedom, which He has granted to each and every one of us. Indeed, God could not enter the world without the consent of a teenage girl, so great is the esteem that God has placed on our freedom to choose.
As God foresaw, Fr. Serra's gentle love would soon win over the indigenous natives he encountered in Alta California. And we can only imagine the grieving heart of our Lord Jesus Christ when Portala departed and the soldiers he left behind betrayed Him, betrayed Fr. Serra, and betrayed themselves. Like Portala, the soldiers perceived that they were choosing for pleasure over duty, for happiness over honor, for comfort over vocation.
The story before us today is a simple one and is retold countless times from the beginnings of the world. It begins with a question: "Exactly, what is love?" The heartbreaking truth is that everyone at some time in her or his life knows. Ask any mother or father of a newborn child. To them the answer is obvious. It is a sacrificial caring that will bear any burden, accept any cost, endure any hardship, and undertake any risk even to the point of laying down your life. What mother and father would not do this for their child?
A very great and powerful secret is revealed with the first words of the perfect prayer: "Our Father." The word tells us that we are together, family. The second assures us that He will always love us even to the point of laying down His life. And those who seek Heaven follow Him. Indeed, being with Him is the definition of Heaven. Read the lives of the saints: they cared and loved ... even unto death. And think of all those stories of people here who have experienced visitations from those in Heaven. They always seem to come on the occasion of our need here on earth: a warning is given, a consolation is offered, an encouragement is received. After all, don't we constantly petition that those who have gone before us might pray for us in Heaven? And, indeed, they do .... and watch over us, too. For this is Heaven: our loved ones who continue to care, the saints in light who intercede for us, and our God, Who laid down His life for His friends and Whose heart continues to love with a sacrificial caring that is instilled in our own hearts from the time of our birth. This truth touches the hearts of all people — born and yet-to-be born, discovered and undiscovered, parents or children. This is what it means to made in the Image of God.
the same grasping, animal nature that set upon the natives of California
also set upon our own God in a high priest's courtyard.
And the same question that confronted Portala and St. Peter
confronts us today.
Will we care?
Will we love?
Will we sacrifice our own comforts for the sake of that love?
We say that we seek Heaven.
To borrow the words of Heaven's King,
may I share:
"No greater love hath any man than this."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Ghost. Amen.