Summer Pilgrimages & Preparation for Heaven

I woke one morning to rain gently falling and the sun hidden behind the clouds. Something in the night air took me all way to California and Mission San Juan Capistrano. I woke with a longing in my heart to walk the grounds again. It might be that spring is upon us in Wisconsin, and I’m thinking of roses blooming and birds swooping about the yard.

How I long for a drive through the California hills to the beautiful Mission. It’s a place where history is in every step you take, every breath of salty air you breathe. The past is whispering to you as you walk by the ruins of the original church (it was destroyed by an earthquake). The many years past and the story of the people who built that wonderful place and lived there, gently wrap ‘round you as you silently pray in the small chapel filled with candles and the prayers of thousands upon thousands of visitors.

The light rain that falls in Wisconsin is reminiscent of the California coast. The 21 Missions line the coast from the first in San Diego all the way up to San Francisco. The first 9 were founded by Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar from Spain, who was canonized in 2015.

Image by Jeff Tucker from Pixabay

Visiting the California Missions

Mission San Juan Capistrano is the most beautiful of the 21 California Missions founded by the Spanish beginning in 1769. It’s called the “Jewel of the Missions” because of its beauty. 

Lush gardens, sprawling roses, and benches to sit and soak up the California sun greet you when you visit. Every now and then, the birds in my yard remind me of the famous swallows of Capistrano.

When I lived in California, taking mini pilgrimages to the various Missions was something I enjoyed tremendously. I never did get to see all of them, but I visited most of them. Being Hispanic, Catholic, and a native Californian, the Missions gave me a sense of connection and belonging to a Catholic heritage in an otherwise not-so-friendly culture towards my Catholic faith.

I don’t know exactly what has me dreaming of San Juan right now, but it does seem to happen around this time of year. I used to be able to tell my husband on a Saturday morning, “C’ mon, forget the chores we had planned for today. I need to go to San Juan.” He never once told me no and would drive me down from the desert we lived in, about an hour and a half to the coast.

We live in Wisconsin now, so he just smiles with a look of sadness in his eyes and a sigh when I tell him I need to go to San Juan; He needs to go too.

A Day Pilgrimage

We would always make a day of going to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. We took the long way to get there so we could avoid the freeways as much as possible and drive past lakes, and farms, and through rural communities. This allowed for more conversation, more good music, and no stress with windows down and hands air-surfing out the windows.

Once we arrived in San Juan, we would park on one of the streets surrounding the extensive grounds and pay for admission to the historic site.

We did the entire tourist routine, even though we’d been there every year at least once, possibly twice, for many years. We would stop and look at the Native American hut, go in the rooms with old artifacts, slowly meander through the gardens, take in the courtyard, the famous mission bells and fountain, light a candle in the beautiful Serra chapel.

The chapel is a peaceful place. It’s small but beautiful. As described on the Mission’s website: “…while Mission San Juan Capistrano is renown as the ‘Jewel of the Missions,’ the Serra Chapel could be considered ‘the Jewel of the Jewel’ and stands as a proud monument to California’s early multi-cultural history, embracing a Native American, Spanish, Mexican, European and American heritage.”

The darkness when you step inside is a strong contrast from the brightness outside. An altar of gold stands 18.5 feet wide by 22.5 feet tall. The Baroque altarpiece is from Barcelona, Spain, it is hand-carved wood with gold leaf. The altar is around 330 years old. The air is thick like the air of many holy places. Visiting the Mission feels like an encounter with the people who came before and with God, the chapel is a step deeper into that mystery and encounter.

After the full tourist experience, we would go to the Basilica next door which serves as the parish for the community. The church has been patterned after the original mission church that was destroyed and designed by a historian who visited Fr. Serra’s home in Spain. It is a beautiful building inside and out.

Sometimes we would go window shopping or browse through the charming shops within walking distance of the Mission. What was guaranteed on every visit was after all the walking and sightseeing we did, we worked up an appetite. And yes, we had a favorite restaurant we visited every single time: El Maguey, a delicious, authentic Mexican restaurant across the street from the Mission and Basilica.

After enjoying more conversation over tasty food, we would drive a few miles down the road to San Clemente beach. I can smell the salty air now; hear the waves crashing on the shore and seagulls squawking. We’d enjoy the view for a little bit, maybe sink our feet in the sand and dip a toe in the water then head back home to the heat of the desert.

Serra Chapel Mission San Juan Capistrano

Life is a Pilgrimage to Heaven

Days like those were like stepping outside of time. There are no worries in such places. Your senses are captivated by the perfume of the pink roses, by running your hand along the old weathered stones and adobe walls, having the peaceful silence embrace you in the chapel. The sense of history and connection to the past is a boost for one’s faith. Knowing the Missions have had their own moments of beginning, struggle, turmoil, restoration, and joy brings perspective on our own times.

I wonder if it is San Juan Capistrano we truly miss or the sense of pilgrimage we received any time we visited. Those day trips did remind us that life is a pilgrimage to heaven and we need to slow down, encounter the beauty and grace, enjoy our time together, and feel God’s love shining on us from all around. Maybe it’s always been heaven I’m dreaming of when I dreamed of the Mission.

Featured image: Rose3663 /

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Jessica Archuleta blogs with friends at Engage the Culture where you might find a movie review, a piece of poetry, a work of art, or any other number of culture related topics being discussed or shared from a Catholic point of view. She also blogs at Every Home a Monastery where she shares her experience of being a Monastic Associate (oblate) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of her home. She and her family moved across the country to Wisconsin from California after the monks had to make the move themselves. Jessica is a Romanian Greek-Catholic (Byzantine), mother of ten, and has been married for 20 years to her most favorite person in the world.

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