Cora Evans, Santa Cruz’s Mountain Mystic

Ever since the 60s, the Santa Cruz mountains have been full of would-be mystics, chasing enlightenment through crystals, yoga, and herbal medicine. But Cora Evans was the real deal.

If you’ve ever been to the Santa Cruz mountains, you’ll agree: it is the perfect place for a hidden mystic. Giant redwoods tower over every home and hillside. A mysterious fog rolls in off the bay many evenings, and clings to the woods well into the morning. By day, the forest teems with birdsong; at night, it is haunted by the voices of owls.

I can picture her perfectly, falling into ecstasy on a perfect summer morning, then again amid a thunderous downpour one winter’s night. I can imagine easily the scent of heaven’s roses mingling with the bay laurel on a warm autumn evening. I can hear the low tinkling of her washing the dishes, or the clack of her typewriter as she records her latest vision.

Cora Evans was born into a Mormon family in Utah, in 1904. She had her first mystical experience at only three years old, when a beautiful woman appeared to her in a vision. At the time she did not recognize her, but the experience stayed with her throughout her life, and she later realized that she was none other than Mother Mary.

A major turning point came when she and her husband were married in 1924 in the famous Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. Mormon weddings, like all their temple rites, are shrouded in secrecy. The couple was deeply unsettled by the experience and became disillusioned with Mormonism generally. They began a ten-year journey of soul-searching, which must have been quite difficult in the heart of Mormon country, and Cora’s search for truth remained unfulfilled for a long time.

Relief came in 1934, when Cora was sick in bed listening to the radio. A Catholic radio program started up. She had already dismissed Catholicism for all the usual reasons but, feeling too sick to get up and turn the dial, she ended up listening to the program all the way through. What she heard contradicted all of the stereotypes she had heard about Catholicism, and soon afterward she found herself at her local Catholic parish, wanting to learn more. Four months later, on March 30th, 1945, she was baptized into the Catholic Church.

In July of 1938, she had an intense mystical experience, an event she later called her “vow day”, in which she completely committed her life to God and felt herself to be intimately united with him.

After their conversion to Catholicism (her husband and children entered the Church not long after her), Cora’s husband soon found it difficult to find and hold down a job in a predominantly Mormon community. So they made the difficult decision to move to Los Angeles, far from friends and family. It was here that Cora’s mystical experiences began to grow in frequency and intensity. She spoke directly with various saints and with Mary. She spoke with God in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. She also received the stigmata, a mystical sign of her suffering with Christ.

As her visions intensified, she eventually sought the counsel of the local Jesuits, who assigned her a spiritual director to help guide her journey.

Outside of these visions and the work of recording what she had seen, Cora lived a humble, ordinary life. While certain friends and clergy knew of her visions, they were not widely publicized before her death. She lived at home while her husband supported the family through various odd jobs. One of her friends, in a recent interview, reported noticing the wound in her hand while she was washing the dishes. When he asked her if it hurt, she merely shrugged and answered, “I have to wash the dishes.”

Cora died in 1957, in Boulder Creek, after suffering a long time from stomach cancer. She offered her sufferings to God for the conversion of Mormons, whom she always considered to be her people. Her writings were extensive and are still undergoing review and publication, but are known for their deep theological insight and complexity—astonishing, given that she only had a middle school education.

Her cause for canonization was approved by the Vatican in 2013. If canonized, she would become California’s second saint.

It was easy to keep the mystics at a distance before I shared a forest with one. There’s something weird and, in a way, horrifying about them. In all of the signs which mark their holiness—the stigmata, the foreign tongues, the scent of roses—our everyday reality is torn open to reveal the divine mystery. I’ve read about other mystics like Cora, but they were safely in the distant past, or oceans away. Cora lived only 7 miles up the road from where I lived, and only 50 years prior. The trees in Santa Cruz live a long time; their presence there with Cora turns them into a kind of relic.

The same redwoods that watched over me, only a year ago, once saw the stigmata of Cora Evans in ecstasy.

I wonder if she was praying for me while I lived among her trees.

I wonder if she haunts the redwoods, like the morning mist.

‘X’ Marks the Spot

I always find myself in a Catholic church on Good Friday, and here in Santa Cruz I made no exception.

At the very center of town is a Catholic parish called Holy Cross, and it’s hard to miss. Whenever I’m nearby, I keep an eye out for the cross atop its steeple, which needles the heavens like the point of a compass. A white cross against a bright blue sky. I can see it headed west on the main highway through town as we head out toward the beach, or headed back east on Mission Street, rising above the street signs and advertisements that line Highway 1. Santa Cruz gets its name from this parish, which began nearby as the original mission: La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz. “The Adoration of the Holy Cross.”

The Good Friday liturgy is the same in every parish, brutal, gutting: the crucifixion story from the Gospel of John is sung in choir, the priest offers a brief homily, the cross is unveiled before the altar. Then we line up in the aisle to kneel and adore it, one by one. This particular year, however, nestled between the reading and the kneeling, it was the homily that arrested me.

The priest came down from his chair behind the altar and stood in the center aisle, preaching from memory. He is a young priest, unassuming and robed in purple for the season. His free cadence arrives as a welcome counterpoint to the exalted language of the Gospel reading. He opens his arms to deliver his homily.

“Scholars, whose Greek is certainly much better than mine, say that St. John’s telling of the crucifixion has a chiastic structure. The word comes from the shape of the Greek letter chi, which on the page looks like an ‘x‘. Like the letter, the structure of the story is symmetrical, expanding outward on each side of a central scene.”

He had my attention. I still miss studying Greek.

“St. John, using this structure, is pointing us to the story’s focal point, which is the famous words of Pilate: ecce homo, which in English means, ‘behold the man’.”

Then he spoke the following phrase with a sort of happy confidence, a phrase on which everything in my own story would now center:

“The cross,” he said, “reveals that the nature of God is suffering love.”

“My God,” I thought. “That’s the most beautiful and true thing I’ve ever heard. Why don’t I become a Catholic?

It was as if someone had opened a hidden door before me, and I who had been groping about in the dark for years finally stood in the light.

My next thought was bit more crass—“Oh, shit!”—because I knew right away: this was one of life’s central moments, the center of that ‘x‘, around which the rest of my story as a Christian would now find its place.

Driving home through the redwoods that night, I felt so many of my heart’s core experiences begin to align around something essential which had previously eluded me. My life story, my family history, my favorite prayers and practices and theologies. Radiating outward from that center—I could almost hear the clicking sound inside me—everything began to reorganize itself. Questions I had never asked now had a glaring, obvious answer.

Why was it, for example, that for nine years running, I had insisted on spending every Friday night in Lent attending the Stations of the Cross service at the nearest Catholic parish?

Why was it that late every night in Advent I found myself on Google searching for lost and forgotten Christian traditions and holidays?

Why was it that after college the first thing I did was take an “educational trip”—it had always been a pilgrimage, I realized now—to Jerusalem?

Why was it that, after I lost my job at the mission and needed a place to heal, I had found myself at daily Mass for six weeks at St. Anne’s?

Why was it that I insisted on dragging Rebekah through the underbelly of Mexico City to visit Tepeyac, and, upon seeing with my own eyes Our Lady of Guadalupe, had knelt down and begged her to be my mother?

I had to laugh at my own blindness. Wasn’t it obvious? This was what I wanted.

The truth was, I had never really felt at home in any branch of Protestantism. Not really. A couple months prior to all this, I sat down to apply to seminary, and I realized something disorienting: that, even after all of my varied experiences, I still didn’t know which church I even wanted to belong to, let alone which one I thought was, well, true. Each of them had pieces of something I recognized, in an almost primordial or ancestral way, but also something that kept me from committing.

I valued the evangelicals’ social conservatism, how they gave primacy to faith and family, but I couldn’t abide their politics.

I was nourished by silence among the Quakers, but I couldn’t understand why they rejected the sacraments.

I studied Scripture under mainline professors in college, digging deeply into every chapter and book, but I grew exhausted when I realized that we would never reach the bottom, and that everything was always up for debate.

I felt secured by the Presbyterian commitment to order, but I loathed Reformed theology.

I was overawed by the power of Episcopal liturgy, but I found their communion too wealthy, too white, and too permissive.

I loved to pray for miracles with the charismatics, but found their spirituality to be, at bottom, terrifyingly chaotic.

I had thought I was running out of options; I was really being pointed in a new direction.

The reason I couldn’t choose among them was that I wanted a place of worship that held together all of these good things, which, until that Good Friday, I had failed to recognize for what they were: scattered pieces of what, in Catholicism, formed part of a larger, coherent whole. In Catholicism I could sit in silence as I did with the Quakers, I could celebrate a liturgy just as high as the Anglicans’, I could even count on a commitment to process longer than the Presbyterians’. But I could also be held, bounded, disciplined by a structure and an authority which was better than my own clever arguments. I could live in a communion that includes and celebrates the dead, our ancestors who walked on this earth before us and who live on, just beyond the veil. And I could take joy in a sensate spirituality, one which does not look away from the stuff of everyday life—the turning of the seasons, food and drink, birthing and breathing and dying—but rather raises it all to the altar, incorporating it into the Divine.

Which is why, on that night of adoration, I knew that the time had come to stop wandering on the peripheries and head home for good.

Which leads me to today, friend, where I confess to you my secret, which is that I have committed myself to something called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where after a time of prayer and discernment it is my intention to enter full communion with the Catholic Church.