Mission San Juan Capistrano by Brian Glaser

Mission San Juan Capistrano 
                                    —for Carolyn Porter 
Solstice light came at me like a memory 
As I walked out through the chapel doors 
Away from the darkness of its gold 
Into the midmorning rich and silent air. 
There were no schoolchildren touring there 
But the problem still lay heavy on me 
And I sat on the bench to observe the fountain 
Where the ghost of water played and splashed 
And I spoke like a man possessed 
My question for believers, those who love to know: 
How could your God have let these warrior-priests 
Bring their diseases to the children 
Who called out to their mothers here? 
I read this autumn the best answer of any yet: 
God doesn’t want us to know why, 
For then we would give up on justice forever. 
But the death and suffering here of these innocents 
Eats like frostbite at my mind. 
Like the fire of lighting from a strike so dark 
It goes unseen, the friar in a simple cassock 
Was seated next to me out of nowhere, and replied at once: 
Your idea of innocence is too easy to mistake 
For grace, pilgrim-child. 
We are all fallen—we all must be saved.  
Don’t trouble yourself with questions that suggest 
You know more than the Almighty. 
The chapel is the weapon against the wretchedness of man. 
I turned to test his eyes for wisdom, but he was gone, 
And then the memory came in earnest, 
Walking those grounds with my two young children 
Half a decade before, taking pictures, reading graves, 
Picking up books in the gift store and putting them away. 
And riding back home from the mission on the train— 
Traveling backwards in our seats, seeing where we’d been 
A second before, like the angel of history  
Traveling home, his maps ripped from him by the wind. 

I returned that evening in my dreams, 
To the graveyard—two thousand unmarked graves 
Celebrated by a crucifix, the talon-X: 
One by one, or in pairs, the other tourists left 
And I was standing in the shadow of the wall 
Where I heard him call me from the Father’s grave— 
Don’t be troubled, he said, Come here. 
You are like an old man who has forgotten 
The words of the hymn and yet begins to sing. 
I knew he knew me by some dark magic 
And I feared what he knew of me  
Was just the final truth, so thoroughly had he 
Been possessed by his God. My heart felt heavy 
But my conscience stirred me to speak: 
What did you save? Their bodies are all left here 
Who came as you bid them, fascinated or afraid. 
And their souls—who knows where the soul is 
Or where it goes—it is their bodies that you murdered 
In the name of an ever-loving God 
That you are left with. The will is nothing. 
There is nothing to save but the body, 
And there you failed like Milton’s Lucifer. 
He began to laugh and walked away. 
There was no tolling bell from the Mission church, 
And I woke at midmorning with the shadow 
Of the unsaved across my spirit, 
Wondering where he had gone to out of my dream. 
Then there was a gardener no one else could see 
Clipping at the roses in the courtyard 
And as he brushed the flowers bending to the ground 
The yellow petals fell upon his darkened shoes. 
He looked up at me after I had watched him for a while 
And I recognized again the ghost 
Of Father Serra. Still searching, he said, 
In the garden for what is found in time 
At the altar of the heart. 
I said: I know I am haunted. 
The death of the innocent happened first to me, 
I was taken from my mother 
Because I was deathly ill— 
They saved me in the hospital, 
But the part of the spirit that reposes 
In the knowledge God is good— 
I was too wounded by the loss of comfort 
In my torment to feel His presence anymore. 
He cut and handed me a yellow rose 
And placed his hand upon my shoulder, 
Reaching up slightly and squinting at the sun. 
So you have your poems. The temporality of God 
Is like the temporality of the poem. 
So much suffering and happiness and labor 
Goes into the series that you write, 
And they create one presence that is as if 
It happened in the daylight all at once. 
So it is with God. You are His poem. 
He is writing you. I thanked him and wandered 
In the courtyard and sat on a bench a while  
Before I took out my notebook and began to write, 
A poem to the innocents lost by the diseases 
Of the servants of my family’s God: 
I will never forget you, I wrote, 
And I ask that you do not give up on me. 
Our innocence could topple stones 
At the final wakefulness, 
When we will see the judgment on their coming here 
Cast down from history’s empty throne. 

Months later I was there again 
And there was no ghost of Serra but a class 
Of schoolchildren led from one room to the next 
By a serene guide and their teacher 
Who wore a necklace of a crucifix in gold. 
I wanted so to follow them,  
For in truth I had nothing better to do 
And there was one boy at the back of the group 
Who was taking pictures with his phone 
And I wished I could breach the walls of separateness 
And ask him what he was looking for 
In what he photographed, precocious spirit. 
And as the children walked away  
Following the voices of the teacher and the guide 
He turned and took a photograph of me, 
Or what was behind me, 
I cannot be sure— 
I only know that he and I were together there. 
Photo by Adrien Olichon on Pexels.com

About the Poet:

Brian Glaser has published three books of poems and many essays on poetry and poetics, including a well-received essay on fatherhood in confessional poetry. He teaches English at Chapman University in Orange, California.

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