on the mission trail

The smell of the cleaning oil–cloying, heavy citrus–works its way through my nose, and I’m driven out the chapel door only a few minutes after I entered. I sit outside in the San Buenaventura mission’s remnants of a garden, sad for its diminished size, annoyed by the plastic quality of the refurbished buildings, and slightly uncomfortable from the wind that carries the coldness of the nearby ocean without any of its refreshing saltiness. Disappointed, I wander back into the chapel, and this time sit long enough that the citrus abandons its assault, fading to a complexity of subtler scents–the heavy oil layered on the old wood beams and the deep cool musk of the adobe walls. Last to reach my noise is a small whiff of sweetness from the hothouse flowers being lined up in front of the altar by a man who pauses to cross himself each time he passes the central painting. Beneath one statue, lights flicker in a tricolor set of candles, a glowing, misshapen French flag inside this Spanish house of worship. Through one door comes the sound of water flowing, from the other, a more monotone hum of flowing traffic.

This place feels heavier to me than San Juan Capistrano’s chapel. Perhaps it’s the lemon smell–no longer consciously noticed, but still hanging in the air. Or maybe it’s the graphic nature of the paintings, scenes from Jesus’s death lining the walls, and the large statue of a bloodied Christ. Even the colors–somber pink between brown beams painted to look like wood–feel too heavy on my spirit. I miss the soaring open stones of Capistrano, where I truly felt like a bird return to a splendorous home.

A black and white map, laminated so it can be written on fresh each week, that used to be full of brightly colored table numbers marking the locations of the different summer camps. As she shows it to us, she notes that the system has become obsolete: this year, with only one or two camps per week, we can choose our own sites. The black outline of trees and benches folds up and slides into the back of the filing folder.