I have been to the Mission San Luis Rey in Southern California many times as both a retreat participant and retreat leader. This mission was founded by the Spanish Franciscans in 1798 and housed the largest Native American Indian population in the chain of missions...well over two thousand. Life at the mission flourished until 1833 when it was taken over by the Mexican government and sold to private land owners.
The Mission could barely feed or clothe the remaining 400 Indians, and it quickly fell into decay. It would not be until California became the 31st state of the Union, that Mission San Luis Rey would begin to experience new life.
Picture courtesy of Mission San Luis Rey.
The Mission was transformed into a Franciscan missionary college, ruined buildings were restored and new buildings were added. In the 1970's, the Mission added a retreat center which provides a place of peace and beauty for those seeking rest from their harried lives. Following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi, the Mission grounds are alive with plants and animals. Squirrels, rabbits, butterflies, birds of all sorts and even lizards, both inside and out, find their home in this refuge.
But each time I come to the Mission, I am drawn to a large pepper tree in the center courtyard. It is the first pepper tree in California, brought by ship from Peru, probably by the Padres. It was planted at the Mission around 1830.
This tree reminds me of the wise Grandmother Tree in the Disney movie, Pocahontas. One can only imagine what this tree has seen and how she has grown from a young sapling, when the Mission was strong and vital, to the old tree that now stands with its gnarled and twisted trunk. She has experienced seasons of abundance and seasons of drought, both in the cycle of nature and the cycle of the community in which she lives. Some of her limbs need to be propped up with steel stilts, much like an old woman leaning on a cane.
As I walk around the trunk of the tree, images appear in the twisted areas and the deep, dark holes which never see the sunlight. I feel drawn to that tree as a place of safety and protection as the long, green branches, extending almost to the ground, surround me. Yet as I lay on the cool grass under Grandmother Tree, flickers of light filter through her leaves and dance among the shadows below.
I draw wisdom from this Grandmother Tree. I receive strength to continue in my own journey, even through the times of drought and decay. I am blessed with the gift of hope, that I, like this tree can experience seasons of great hardship and great joy, and yet continue to thrive and change. Each time I spend time with my Grandmother Tree, she shares a bit more of her wisdom, born of experience. And I leave the Mission carrying the spirit of that tree back to my daily life.