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SANTA FE — Around the corner from the oldest house in Santa Fe, on the oldest street, sits the oldest Christian church in America — the San Miguel Mission. Soft, brown and round, it crouches like an old adobe oven patiently baking the daily bread of life.

My son Ian and I visited the church earlier this week.

Built in 1610 —10 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock — the San Miguel church feels more than simply "lived in." It has been a spiritual refuge for millions of believers for centuries.

Inside, every edge and corner has been rounded by use.

Every nook and cranny seems to have been washed by the gaze of 15 generations of pilgrims.

But not for Ian.

Ian looked at the church with fresh eyes — as if it had been built that very morning. And as he examined the altar, the fancy beams and buffalo hide paintings, I thought of the day I taught him to play baseball.

Then, too, he seemed to feel he was the first kid to ever learn the game. He giggled as he ran to first base. He plotted serious strategy ("If I hit it harder, Dad, I can run to more bases!"). For him, the game was freshly minted. For all he knew, Abner Doubleday had concocted it that day over breakfast.

And as I watched him examine the San Miguel Mission that same way, I thought of an old Protestant hymn — a hymn the early Pilgrims may have even sung at Plymouth:

"Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken like the first bird . . . God's re-creation of a new day."

And I thought how seldom I let myself feel that way.

Religion is a world of rite and ritual. We do things over and over in order to engrave them on our hearts. We sing the same hymns, read the same scriptures and practice the same ordinances thousands of times during our lives. And that repetition gives us a sense of stability and comfort.

But how much more meaningful could such things be if we took the "San Miguel" approach, if we spoke the words and sang the melodies as if we were doing it for the very first time.

As a reader, I didn't get around to reading Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" until I was in my 20s. By then I'd heard a hundred opinions about it and knew many of the stories by heart. But there was something electric about reading it for the first time. I've gone back to Twain's novel many times since, but I now read it with "appreciation," not with the power and wonder I felt the first time.

For me, "Huckleberry Finn" is an amazing book, but it's not Holy Writ.

For we believers, however, other books are.

For believers, some writings, structures, songs and sermons have been injected with spiritual preservatives. They never lose their freshness. They renew themselves — the way nature does. And in the process, they renew us as well.

When we perform a religious ritual, it is, I think, possible to feel like a child learning the game of baseball for the first time.

All hymns can be re-composed on the spot.

All scripture can be revealed in the moment.

All sacramental bread can be Wonder Bread fresh from the oven.

And when we step inside a church, we can do it like the first-time visitors at San Miguel. We can see everything with the curiosity and focus of an explorer — like the first person to find it — no matter how many million other souls "discovered" the place long before we got there.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com