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?//

No Hassle in Hessle

All Saints (Anglican) Church not only stands in the center of this pleasant East Yorkshire village, a short drive from the port city of Hull,-- it quite literally defines the town. Listed in the Doomsday Book, All Saints has served the faithful for more than a millennium—and continues to do so to this day. Its impressive stone spire notwithstanding, it is a rather simple structure, outside and in. In the course of its long reign, it has retained its integrity in spite of a number of major renovations over the ages, including a significant enlargement of the worship space in the nineteenth century as well as liturgically-motivated alterations in the twentieth. Simply, austere, yet also welcoming (embroidered cushion/ kneelers add a touch of warmth to the nave)—it serves contemporary worshipers as well as it did their ancestors. A contemporary, handpainted San Damiano cross hangs over the sanctuary, so friends of St. Francis should felt quite at home. The day I was visiting, the vicar, Father Tim Boynes and his wife, Georginai, showed my friend Tom and me around the place. I noticed there was a small group of about a dozen people arranging chairs in a wide circle in the area before the main altar and asked if we might join them. “Oh, that’s our Wednesday morning Open Door prayer group,” he told me. “They’re doing Celtic prayer.” Great. We walked around, introduced ourselves to the folks present— a nice mixture of young and older people alike, and even a little girl dancing about quite happy and content, her dad nearby. And so we prayed. The entire session was organized and led by lay members of the parish. The leader, Anne Robinson, gave an excellent Scripture reflection, and the rest of the group entered enthusiastically into the spirit of song and intercession— voicing candidly and easily the needs of their families and friends and of the world. By the end of a half-hour, the service concluded—short and sweet—and we all moved next door to the parish hall for fellowship-- steamy cups of coffee and tea and slices of cake. There we were joined by still more folks from the parish and town who happened to drop in. It was all very quite, simple, down to earth and solid. Normal. No big deal. Very low key. But in another way, it seemed to me a very big deal indeed. There was a sense here of a solid, engaged, and vibrant faith community, united in worship, fellowship, and service without making a big deal out of it. Parishioners, I was told, were involved in a great many service projects throughout the community at large. Sunday liturgies can bring up to 150 people; Wednesday mornings were a way for several of them to reconnect during the week. A great deal of recent media attention has been focused on the struggles within the Anglican Communion internationally. But in this totally ordinary and quite unpretentious village parish at least, the Spirit appears to be quite alive and well. After more than a thousand years (!) , All Saints continues to serve its people as an active, faith-filled community in witness to the Gospel in very simple and down to earth ways. There’s no big hassle in Hessle.