I’ve always found something simultaneously appealing and off-putting about California missions. The architecture nestles with organic seamlessness into the surrounding environment (aesthetic intent as necessity, perhaps, since at the time local building materials were likely the only viable option, but still). On the other hand there’s the way they were built and maintained: typically with indigenous laborers who, even if they came willingly to baptism, perhaps didn’t realize just how tight a yoking to their adoptive culture the friendly friars had in mind.
Time and strife have shattered that bond, but a more contemporary sense of cultural discord still pervades the atmosphere of Mission San Miguel Arcángel. Functioning both as a parish and a tourist attraction is an unenviable balancing act. Although hermitages like New Camaldoli take in guests to keep running, there is a compact that both parties understand at the outset: you may pray, you may write, you may even be granted permission to take photos at Lauds or Vespers, but you will do it silently and with a patina of respect.
At the mission the slapping feet of shouting children echo loudly among the pews where locals have their heads bowed in prayer and contemplation. Tourists chatter with animation as they wander through the cemetery. I can’t blame the black-robed friar holding a trash bag for eyeing me with faint distaste as I kneel before old gravestones with my camera – am I going to be respectful, or take some kind of ghoulish selfie with Christ on the Cross?
But in the quiet moments there is no denying the austere beauty of the place, and the local creatures have no need to wrestle with a politically or spiritually troubled present or past. The lizards are shy, but fat and numerous. Bees swarm by the hundreds around the courtyard fountain. There is water, and there is shelter, and that’s enough.