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A weekend for better seeing what wasn’t there


Sometimes the singing in church, if my eyes tear-up, swabs my orbs better than the vials of Visine I carry. The tearing-up washes away the scales -- the barnacles of busyness and preoccupation -- that gradually accumulate throughout the week. The tearing-up doesn’t so much help the eyes to see better, as the soul.

It was a weekend for seeing better.

And seeing what wasn’t there.

It wasn’t because President Bush said Americans should get out and about and travel around that we went up to Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, Calif. Like many another, we needed a break from the almost constant 100-plus heat of the Santa Clarita Valley, the traffic of the L.A. freeways, and escape from the self-bombardment of post-Sept.11 questions.

On the pier at Morro Bay, a brown pelican walked up to my wife and me and inspected us, withheld judgment, and walked away. Down below, three seals barked at us and then, after a rapid conference, found us guilty of ignoring their requests for food and moved elsewhere. The sea otter, floating on his back, seemed to wink at us in happy collusion.

The green sea, the cool air, the changing vistas of the coastal highway, a good Italian restaurant in Ventura en route the night before, had broken either a fixation or spell. Hard to say which.

I half remembered something in Christopher Manes’ book, Other Creations: Rediscovering the Spirituality of Animals. (I looked it up when we returned home. It was “the existence of an ancient link between religion and animals begs the question of how our spiritual lives have been influenced by the urbanization of the world and the violent exclusion of nature from our culture.” Manes also has one of the better theme-setting opening lines I’ve ever read: “A Saint Bernard, despite its name, is unwelcome in church.”)

The pelican, the seals and the sea otters had reopened my eyes. I love animals, but have an aversion to household pets. I like to see the beastie in its world, or not see it at all. I won’t go to a zoo.

It was the reopening of the eyes that mattered on this trip. It applied to the surroundings. We pondered, did quite a bit of walking, a lot of talking and even more quiet looking. So, I was in a mood of some sort, hard to say what, when the second morning, we made a return visit to San Luis Obispo for 9 a.m. Mass at the old mission.

The previous afternoon in SLO, as the locals call it, on a bench opposite a religious goods display in a store window, a gray-haired homeless woman had sat staring at the images and saying her rosary. We exchanged greetings and enough to ensure she had dinner that night. The next morning she was outside the mission. She’s probably a local fixture.

The church that is the heart of the 1772-founded Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is like two churches with one altar. It is L-shaped with the altar in the crook. The celebrant looks and speaks alternately into each appendage but can be easily seen from both.

We sat on the sunny side of the aisle, and near a side altar that served as sanctuary. The altar and its rail were faux marble. What was nice was that the surface paint was chipped and rubbed with age and usage, and the light-colored undercoating showed through.

It’s what’s underneath that counts. That’s what provides the final luster.

And the main altar has a modest pillar and pediment, and three trompe l’oeil pillars and pediments with permanent shadowing that square off the altar.

It works and we see what isn’t there. Which is half of why we’re in church anyway.

Butted up against the more genuine pillar were the cantor, the pianist, the saxophonist/recorder player and his young daughter on tambourine. Through a high grilled window, the sun beat down on them. They were roasting. They were also very good.

The gospel was Lazarus. And the pastor, Fr. Jerry Maher, quickly took it down the road of “seeing with new eyes.”

This was one of those churches where, at Communion time, the people come up from the rear pews first. I was on the edge of the second pew. And to my right passed this parade of a hundred or more people, slowly enough that I was able to look at them and actually see them.

I saw some who resembled friends and a tiny woman a little like my late mother. I saw facsimiles of me at two stages of my life, an old school chum, a fellow I was in the Air Force with and a woman who sat near me at a newspaper I worked for. Others in the line didn’t bring to life people I knew. But not even these people were strangers. For there was something lustrous about them as they headed to the chalice.

It’s what underneath that counts.

Once in a while we have eyes to see. Quite a weekend.

Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large, resides in California. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001