Friday, June 22, 2012

A Pilgrim's Progress in Catalonia: Monserrat & La Sagrada Familia

While relatively few diehards are willing to trek the entire length of Spain’s “camino” towards Santiago Compostella, thousands others don’t mind at all braving the searing summer heat to queue up for a chance to see the Monserrat abbey’s Black Madonna, or to enter Antonio Gaudi’s celebrated basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I know because I was one of those thousands. For two days in succession, water bottle in hand, I braved the elements in order to access each of these shrines. I did not leave either venue disappointed. “There are about 80 Benedictine monks living in the abbey, “ Yolanda, our tour guide informed us as we zigzagged up Monserrat’s precarious approach: “And about 37 nuns in the convent nearby. Mostly old, a few young ones, but hardly any one in between those ages. That’s the way it goes…. I would tell you more, but you are tired and besides you won’t remember what I say.” No! Tell us more! Lots more! After our brief introduction to what must be one of Catholicism’s most beautiful—and most commercialized—pilgrimage sites, our group disbursed for the generous ninety minutes allotted to us to look around. Most folks headed towards the diverse attractions: the funicular railroad, the museum, galleries, shops and restaurants that litter the grounds. Some of us, though, entered through the doorways of what was originally a 16th century church (looted and destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1811 and reclaimed after 1858) to pay a visit to Catalonia’s patron saint and image, the Black Madonna (circa XIIc). In contrast to all of the enterprising hucksterism going on outside its doors, the darkened sanctuary, partially lit by suspended votive candles donated by parishes throughout the region, truly inspires prayer, peace, and awe. While all the flash photography focused on the Madonna, perched in an alcove high above the main altar, the exquisite, contemporary Eucharistic chapel draws one easily into a more contemplative spirit. The face, hands, and feet of Christ are etched into the limestone armature—as if pressed into wet sand-- while scratched slits indicate His wounds. This is completely contemporary image of the Lord— benignant, knowing, and simply loving—in the midst of His suffering. I decided to take a chance and stand in line to see the Black Madonna myself. Several hundred people queued up quietly and patiently as we inched along through a series of side chapels leading to the interior staircase towards the Virgin. St. Peter, St. Ignatius of Loyola (he paid a visit here which left him deeply affected in his own spiritual journey), St. Martin of Tours, St. Benedict (a very young Benedict) and so on. And at each chapel, a pilgrim’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ. What have I done for You? What am I doing now for You? What do You want me to do for You?” I looked around me. There were no guards or attendants; just signs requesting silence (oh, and some surveillance cameras, too. Welcome to our century). And the pilgrims--t-shirts, shorts, sandals, water bottles and digital cameras in hand—were amazingly quiet, respectful, and expectant. I thought to myself: this cannot be just about tourism. There is here real and honest seeking. People have come to this place—people who would seldom, if ever, darken the door of a church, any church—who are looking for something. God, I really hope they find it. I really do. I went to the statue, too, to offer a prayer, touch the extended hand and orb, and then pass on. She sat— solemnly stoic and silent—her Son in her lap just as she as done for more than a millennium. It takes centuries of prayers, tears, and longing that render a place holy. The next day, I ventured forth into Barcelona—bustling, thriving, energetic, daring—and even a bit eccentric. A true world city, no doubt about it. But I had one destination in mind— the towering basilica of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) inspired by Antonio Gaudi (1858-1926) and due to be completed—possibly—by 2020. This is a creation of the inventive and mystic of the art history courses, to be sure. But “in person” it is sooo much more. So very much more. One encounters in Gaudi’s vision—inside and out—a soaring, majestic, and above all, sincere benediction. A blessing that, amazingly enough, has very much to do with us, with our own time. In the midst of everything, in spite of everything else we seem to be encountering in our fast and frenetic world, it offers respite, hope, and a mostly unconsidered option—the expression of genuine faith in God. The lines snaked around the block—like people waiting for tickets to a rock concert. No one was in a hurry; this would take—what, a half-hour, forty-five minutes? Big deal. The church was a really big deal. Really worth waiting for. Upon entering, one has absolutely no choice. One must look up. And up and up and up. Into and through an organically spiraling universe fashioned of stone, concrete, and glass— that, without asking permission—takes one into a realm of life and light and beauty and awe. Quite literally, per omnia saecula saeculorum (in the world of worlds). Wow. The nave is huge—it is estimated to be able to hold up to 13, 000 people—and a humming honeycomb of activity that appears entirely appropriate to this truly sacred space. Tourists mill, stroll, preen in front of their own and each other’s digital cameras. Workers in their while helmets descent the narrow, partially exposed staircases for their lunch hour. Taped choir and organ music flows. The open doors bring surprising and delightful breezes into this surprisingly light and even breezy cavern. It was worth the wait for me. It would have been worth waiting several hours to enter into this space. One man’s vision, dream—and prayer—present such hope, beauty, and possibility for his beloved Barcelona—and his beloved world. And each viewer becomes an unwitting participant: I want this! I want to be part of this real and true creation. In both these sacred (but not necessarily or totally sane) places, pilgrimage offers the genuine satisfaction of authentic destination. One leaves each environment somehow changed and charged. Charged with the flash of true light and possibility. That somehow—God knows how—the heavy cynicism and ennui—the satiated slumber of a drugged culture—can be pierced and overcome. For something, Someone, so much better, so much more. Just one small afterthought to all of this: In neither place was there any real, live, living representation by church people. At Montserrat, I heard folks asking: Where are the monks? Can we meet them? Where do they live? What are they like?..... At the Sagrada Familia, young attendants and guides in red and black were available to help the public. But not a single priest, brother, or sister…. Where were they? Did they go away for the day? Couldn’t, wouldn’t they consider just being present somehow to meet and greet so many expectant people? After all, people don’t welcome and evangelize themselves, do they? Hello there! Anybody home?//

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