Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo – June 26, 1803
Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, El Presidente de las Misiones Españolas de Alta California, lay sick on the small cot in his cell. At his side was Father José Viader.
Father Fermín looked at Father José and said, “I want to die. But I can’t.”
He then motioned for Father José to move close. As Father José bent low, Father Fermín whispered, “I have heard of your saint in Santa Clara. Father Magín. I have something you must give him. Something only a saint will know how to destroy.”
Father José, convinced that Father Fermín was in a delirium due to his fever, obligingly nodded.
“LISTEN!” said Father Fermín, who then reached beneath his cot and pulled out a bundle of cloth and handed it to Father José.
“Take this to Father Magín. There is a note that explains everything.”
“Yes, Father,” said Father José. “I will take it. Now you must rest. Please, Father.”
Father Fermín began to gasp for breath. “Evil,” said Father Fermín as his eyes searched the ceiling above. “This was all bought with evil.” His eyes then froze over with the cold gaze of death.
Before calling in the other priests, Father José knelt down, placed the bundle on the floor, and unrolled it. Inside were two things: A coiled piece of blackened old rope and a folded parchment.
Father José picked up the rope and immediately let it go.
“Frio!” he gasped.
He then picked up the parchment, unfolded it, and read aloud…
You are now the possessor of the rope of Judas. The rope our Lord’s betrayer used to kill himself.
The rope came to me from my predecessor, father Junípero Serra, who received from Father Joaquín Hernandez, Maestro de la Inquisición, before he left Spain for the new world. It is an object of evil. It brings power to its owner, but only for evil.
Before coming to us, it belonged to the pagan emperors of Rome. Throughout its history, it has been in the possession of the worst tyrants, murderers, and infidels. No good can come from it.
We used it to subdue the natives of this land … to enslave them; to murder them and rape their women. We came to bring them the knowledge of God, but all we have done is strip their souls of joy and bring their bodies disease and death. We have done nothing good and God will punish us accordingly.
The only way it can be destroyed is by the hands of a saint. Neither Junípero nor I were such saints.
And until is it destroyed, its possessors will be its slaves.
May God protect you.
Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén +
Mission Santa Clara de Asís, June 28, 1803
Father José stared down into the waters of the Río de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe as he rode toward the mission. Ever since he first touched the rope his heart had been heavy. The supernatural scared him. He didn’t join the church, or the order, to be an exorcist, a miracle worker, or even a preacher. He was an administrator. His talent was running the mission, keeping books, and dealing with the hierarchy. It was Father Magín who was the mystic. The sooner he was able to give him the rope, the better.
As he passed the fields outside the mission walls, he watched the Indios at work. This too was something he detested. He remembered Father Fermín’s dying words … This was all bought with evil. He longed to return to Spain.
Entering the mission grounds, he asked one of the Jardineros where Father Magín was.
“Where else?” the Jardinero answered.
Father José turned his gaze towards the church.
The scent was what always struck Father José when he entered the church. Not the earthly smells … the mold, the wood, or the adobe. It was the smoke from the candles and incense, whether they were burning or not. And the coolness of the air. Other than anything else, this is what he loved. This is what made him remember Spain. Even during Mass, when he should be focusing on the sacrifice, he breathed in the smells and thought of Spain.
It was late afternoon. The Indios and townspeople would soon be arriving for Vespers. The sanctuary was empty. Father José, dipped his fingers in the font, crossed himself, walked down the center aisle, took a seat halfway down, and waited.
To the right of the altar stood Father Magín. Above him was a life-size figure of Christ on the cross … a pale wooden figure with trails of dark red paint running from its pierced hands and feet, and from the crown of thorns embedded into its scalp.
Father Magín held his hands out, palms upward, his head bowed towards his chest – the stance for prayer. His back was to the sanctuary and to Father José.
Father José knew not to interrupt him. He would end his prayers soon. As he stared at the back of Father Magín, he watched him raise his hands higher in the air. As his arms rose, so did he. His feet left the ground and he floated to the same height as the figure on the cross.
It was not the first time Father José had seen this. His miracles were known throughout the mission … levitation, divine healings, prophecies, commanding wild animals, and even driving locusts into the sea. Every time Father José witnessed such a thing, he was newly astounded and reminded of the character of the man he served.
Moments later, using a crutch, the gaunt figure of Father Magín limped down the aisle from the front of the church. There was a calmness about him … a peace. With his large brown eyes, Father Magín looked down upon the younger priest sitting before him.
“Father Fermín is dead,” said Father José.
“I know,” said Father Magín. “We shall pray for him at Vespers. We shall pray for his soul.”
“That is not all,” said Father José.
Father Magín waited.
“Please, Father … Come with me.”
The two left the church and went to the stables. There on the ground, next to the horse Father José had ridden from Carmel, was a leather satchel. Father José picked it up, opened it and took out the letter Father Fermín had written. He read it. Then he took out the rope.
On seeing the rope, Father Magín stepped back. His eyes narrowed and he peered at the rope with a look of disgust.
Father José’s hand began to tremble.
“I will not touch this, Father,” said Father Magín. “It is you who must destroy it.”
“I’m not a saint. I haven’t the power. Father Fermín said it was for you.”
“No,” said Father Magín. “Father Fermín was mistaken, just as he was mistaken about many things. I will not allow it to do to me what it did to him and to Father Junípero before him. And what it will do to you if you do not destroy it.”
“But Father Fermín said that a saint must destroy it.”
“He did? Well, then you must become a saint, Father José.”
“What is a Saint?” asked Father Magín. “Sanctus. It means holy. Are not we all called to be holy, Father?”
“I’m an administrator. I keep books and manage our inventories. You are a spiritual leader. You are the one who prophesies and floats in the air,” said Father José waving his hands.
“No,” said Father Magín. “My gifts are different than yours, true, but they are no more spiritual … and they are no excuse for me to take this burden from your hands.”
“Now, I must go and prepare for Vespers. I will pray for the repose of Father Fermín,” said Father Magín. He again stared at the rope. “And I will also pray for you and your new mission.”
The following day was overcast. The gray sky only added to the growing feelings of dread and anger that Father José had had since receiving the noose and the learning of its dark power.
The night before, after Vespers, he threw the rope into the fire that burned the mission plaza — the one they lit on cold nights so the Spaniards and Mestizos could warm themselves before returning to their homes.
Early that morning, he went to check the fire pit to make sure of its destruction. But to his dismay, the rope was there. Covered with ash, but still wholly in-tact.
Determined to be rid of it, Father José saddled one of the horses and headed out for the marsh. There were skiffs tied there that the Mestizos used for fishing. He would borrow one and row out into the bay. He would tie it to a rock and be done with it.
He rowed far out to a place where the water was deep, to where he could look north and see the outline of Punto Avisadero in the distance. There, he tied the rope to a large rock and threw it into the bay. Immediately, a weight lifted from him. He felt the energy he had lost over the last few days suddenly return.
Then Father José’s mind cleared and then he realized what he had failed to do.
I have something you must give him. Something only a saint will know how to destroy.
And until is it destroyed, its possessors will be its slaves.
He was no saint. Father Magín told him blankly that he must first become one. He hadn’t destroyed the rope, he had only sent it to a murky holding place. What would become of him now?