A couple of years ago I went to my garage and hauled out my 1963 J.C. Higgins bicycle, which had been languishing, neglected, for more than 30 years. As soon as it was resurrected, I took it for a cruise through the neighborhood I used to explore as a teenager. After a rejuvenating flight up and down the streets of the Encinitas Highlands, I found myself coasting through the deserted breezeway (“cloister,” Rev. Brick had called it) of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.
I had read recently that the place was condemned, and it had been years since I attended any services there, so I felt a bittersweet satisfaction to be revisiting, the way one might feel when seeing a favorite aunt in her last days.
I stopped my bike in front of a wall covered with painted tiles. As a kid I had been indifferent to that ceramic mural of Jesus and a group of children. But now, I admired the sensitive portraiture, the deft, graceful flow of the drapery, the evocative flavor of the Middle Eastern townscape. I suppose it would be difficult to remove and relocate this kind of tile work, but having read that some parts of the structure were to be salvaged, I wondered if the mural was on the list. How often we come to appreciation only at a time of loss — for the art and the artist, for the message, for the esoteric and ineffable sublimity.
The old St. Mark’s used to be located downtown, on Third Street. I was a little kid then, earning colored ribbons for memorizing Bible verses, and suffering through my first puppy-love infatuation with Linda Pate, who played flute with the choir. When the congregation moved up the hill to the new church on Devonshire, I attended for a while, but only to hang out with Danny and Dougie and my other junior high school pals, and to ogle Linda. But I spent too many Sundays fishing in Ensenada to ever get confirmed in the church; nevertheless, over the years, I have visited on occasion because I loved the building and its stained-glass walls, and I figured that God probably did, too. I always felt assured that if I showed up, He would be there. At Canterbury and Salisbury and St. Paul’s I felt the same way, gazing thunderstruck at the light pouring through rose and lancet — could it be other than God’s light? I didn’t think so.
So at 56 years old I leaned my new old bike against the cloister pillar (OK, so it was a rusty breezeway post) and looked in through the glass entry doors of the deserted church. I saw once more the stunningly spectacular display of southern sunlight flooding the interior with intense kaleidoscopic warmth. It reminded me of how it looked during construction when the glass was being installed. I was about 14; I had parked my bike right in the middle of the floor even though it was littered with remnant pieces of cut and broken glass. Never had I seen whole walls made of colored glass; I was astonished, stupefied. The heat of the morning sun released a vapor from the fresh glazing compound; when I left that day, bits of it clung to my bicycle tires and to my fingers. My pockets were full of handsome little triangles of cut glass, red, orange, mostly blue. I had no plans for them, but I kept them for years, and I don’t think I ever picked them up without walking outside to hold them up to the sun.
It didn’t seem right that those lights should be extinguished. Oh, I read that some portion of them was to be saved, but that wasn’t much comfort for me. The thoughtful traveler must marvel at the contrast between churches built with primitive tools that still stand after 700 years, and this one, built with the advantages of modern tools, materials, engineering, and design, that is considered to be expendable junk after only 50. I cruised back up there after they knocked God’s house down to fill my pockets again with some things that are worth keeping.
Scott Hicks, a longtime resident, is a freelance writer and woodcarver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.