It was October 1997 and my friend Kurt and I were in Oceanside, CA to visit the old mission San Luis Rey. The temperature outside was a dry, sunny 100◦ or so, but inside the ancient building it was cool and dark. There were few people around. Ghostly Gregorian chants echoed throughout the halls from a PA system somewhere. Artifacts on display wove the story of Spain and Mexico’s long chain of coastal monasteries, many now gone from earthquakes or neglect.
Walking through, we were solemn and fascinated. We opened a door and found ourselves in the courtyard, amidst stone benches and beautifully flowered trees. Here, we were entirely enclosed but there were doorways to other buildings connected to the main structure. We poked around, imagining ourselves back in the 1700s when the mission was active with friars, servants and soldiers. The sun was almost hot enough to melt our shadows. Turning to go back through the door we had come out of, we found that it was closed – and locked. Taken aback, we scouted for another exit. Even in the connected buildings there seemed to be no other doors that led out. No one else was anywhere around.
I tried the first door again – this time I knocked, then pounded on it. No response. I shouted – “Hey, let us in!” Silence. We looked down an outside corridor with brick walkway and arched overhang – the cloisters. We should go down this way, I said – there must be another exit somewhere. We walked for awhile, but saw no doors. Back to the courtyard; an hour, at least, had gone by. It seemed silly, but we were getting anxious. (This was slightly before cell phones!) Suddenly we caught sight of a man hurrying up the passageway toward us – he seemed to appear out of nowhere. “We’ll ask this guy,” I said. As he got closer, we saw that the man wore a monk’s outfit from another century – brown robes of a rough homespun cloth.
“Hello! Excuse us,” we said, “But we can’t seem to find our way out of here, can you help?” The man, who was short and dark haired, looked up at us with what appeared to be impatience mixed with amusement. “I told you before,” he said, “But you weren’t listening.” Hmm? He pointed – “Go through the Madonna Chapel, there’s an exit to the outside.” We turned to look in the direction he had pointed; we had already been in that building, but had not gone past an altar ledged with lighted votives, so many that the smoke had made us cough. “Oh – we were in there,” we said, “But I guess we didn’t go far enough.” And then we turned back to thank the man. He was gone.
He had disappeared. There, right before our eyes, he had vanished – and there was nowhere for him to walk off to so quickly without us seeing him go! Speechless, we looked at each other. “Where’d he go?” we asked incredulously. Kurt grabbed my hand. “Come on,” he said, shaking his head, “Let’s get out of here while we can, before you get me into anything else.” We ducked into the Chapel and found that beyond the altar with its ledge of candles was another door. We opened it hastily and found ourselves in the parking lot.
We found our car – one of only a few cars left there – and turned to look back at the mission. It seemed to be deserted. “Let’s get out before anything else weird happens,” Kurt told me, and I started the ignition. Driving back to Escondido, we were by turns speechless and astonished. “Did that really happen?” Kurt said. “Where did that guy go?” “Where did he come from?” I wondered. “And why did he say that he had already told us but we weren’t listening?”
The mystery at the mission…we talk about it still, and it has bound us together, in a way. All of the experience, the sights, sounds, and smells, have stayed with us through the years as few experiences might. Was he real? Or was he surreal? Did he materialize from another time to help a couple of deserted visitors get back home again? Either way, it was marvelous – to share it, to see it -- in the truest sense of the word.