Two days ago my little family arrived in Barcelona – the first stop in our last August holiday as European residents (sniff, sniff).
Even my first impressions of the city are too complicated to summarize here – much to love, a few things to dislike, and an overwhelming amount of bare, toned, tanned skin to derail the efforts of a thirty-something mama striving for contentment in her own skin (cellulite be damned!). Maybe I’ll get to those observations in another post. Maybe instead I’ll get lost in the simultaneous bliss and challenge of three-straight weeks of vacation with the love of my life and the two living products of that love, and forget you all exist. At the moment I’m not sure, because this post is not about Barcelona in general, but rather about two of its cathedrals.
Those familiar with Barcelona might be surprised that I am not including in this duo La Sagrada Familia church– that is on our agenda a bit later in the week and I do not know whether the ultimate Gaudi icon will tend to reinforce or to undermine the particular insight that the past two days have offered in regards to opulent places of worship.
The first of the two cathedrals in question, however, is not a surprise: the Cathedral of Barcelona. The guidebook introduces this site with an exhortation to “take in the mighty façade.” I cannot say that it outshines some of the imposing church exteriors I have seen on my European travels (Florence’s Duomo is much more colorful, Prague’s St. Vitus’s Cathedral dwarfs it in scale and grandeur, and the white marble Duomo of my current home city is far more stunningly beautiful), but Barcelona’s Cathedral certainly does inspire awe. The interior, with its distant, dimly-lit vaults, carved pillars, jewel-toned stained glass, and numerous ornate chapels, is an equally impressive follow-up to the initial introduction. It would be difficult to imagine a response of bored indifference to such a spectacle. If even the Gigglemonster, with his limited three-year-old attention span and exposure to many such church interiors, can gape at his surroundings before being distracted by the desire run along the pew kneeling rail, then it can fairly be concluded that this is an awe-inspiring space.
Despite the awe, as I sat to pray I found myself struggling. It is not a new struggle for me. Perhaps its is my prosaic, non-denominational, uber-casual California upbringing, but all the gilding and elaborate decoration of Europe’s great cathedrals tends to be more distracting than uplifting for me. I find such interiors beautiful, but also faintly troubling. My moral compass tugs me toward a silent critique. Is such opulence really about bringing glory to God, or rather is it designed to direct praise toward the famous architects and the wealthy patrons who bring it into being? The cost of such structures was extreme, not only in terms of money but also time and even the lives of workmen. How is it worshipful to waste so much on a mere building? Couldn’t the resources be better used in the kind of work actually commanded in the Bible? Don’t such spaces actually elevate worldly values (like wealth and fame and physical beauty) over heavenly ones?
This series of thoughts has become a pattern for me over the past 2 + years, and it began to play in my consciousness yet again as I gazed around at the architectural and ornamental beauty of La Seu Cathedral. Then the pattern was interrupted by a new thought inspired by the tourist activity we had engaged in the day before… a trip to the FC Barcelona sports complex.
Now, I naturally recognize that the football stadium is not technically a cathedral, but it left me with the strong impression of a space designed to inspire worship all the same. The Camp Nou Experience offers a tour of the stadium that not only provides entry to designated areas of the stadium (including such normally sacrosanct areas as the visitor’s locker room, the press box, the player’s tunnel, and the — carefully cordoned-off — section of the sidelines where the revered players and coaches actually sit during matches). It also prepares you for this privileged access with a trip through a large museum space displaying trophies, memorabilia, and interactive light screens that allow you to pull up a massive archive of video clips, player profiles, and exultant press clippings describing victorious matches.
I admit that I am not exactly the target audience for this display, so perhaps my reactions are not entirely fair, but I felt a strong twinge of discomfort as we walked through the dimly-lit hall, beckoned on by softly swelling choral music to worship at the altar of sporting fame. The wall dedicated to Lionel Messi provoked the strongest reaction in this regard. I don’t doubt that he is the greatest soccer player of all time — he certainly has the records and awards to prove it — but I couldn’t help feeling slightly idolatrous as I snapped the photo of my little family in front of his huge Technicolor photograph.
I just kept hearing in the back of my mind a sentiment that has made an appearance in two or three sermons I have heard in recent months. “We worship the wrong things…money, success, sports stars.” It’s true, my mind assented, this is nothing if not worship. I don’t say this to cast a vote of against any of the people who walked those hallowed halls alongside me. My beloved husband loved the experience and I am certainly not about to threaten him with fire and brimstone for the sin of idolatry. But there was still this uneasy feeling. The slogan blazoned across the seats in the arena is Mes Que Un Club, More Than A Club. So if it’s more than just a club, what exactly is it? Perhaps… a new church? A focus of worship for a society the idolizes the ability to control a ball and win a game? A cathedral, as it were, for a generation that is happy to spend its money and time, and in some extreme cases even human life, on the pursuit of sporting perfection.
So there I sat, in my second “cathedral” in as many days, feeling an echo of discomfort not just from prior grand European churches but also from the prior day’s “experience.” And then it struck me. There was something these two spaces had in common besides the camera-clicking tourists and the gold-plated icons (be they saints or soccer balls). They were both spaces that invoked worship — perhaps not in me, but in someone — and that was important. It spoke to the deep need that humans have to worship — to glory in something that is outside themselves, bigger and more perfect and more wonderful than anything we do in our daily lives. In its touristy form such worship only inspires us to take a photo next to the idolized image in order to grasp the illusion of sharing some of that glory, but that doesn’t invalidate the longing. It only reveals how easily we can be distracted from the real fulfillment that our natures long for.
It was C. S. Lewis who famously said “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.” I have heard that quote a dozen times and have always felt it to be powerful, but it strikes me in a new way now. Two days ago I would have put these two cathedrals in the same category with drink and sex and ambition and left it at that. They are distractions from our deepest need for God, and thus are worthless. The fact that so many have been eager to devote themselves in this way would have passed me by unnoticed, or at least it would have left me feeling a bit morally or spiritually superior that I don’t fall into these traps.
But the fact is that my difficulty worshipping in the Cathedral is just as much evidence of the weakness of my own desire. When placed in a context that is powerfully and expensively designed to draw my thoughts to heaven, my thoughts are instead drawn to criticism. That is my “weak” desire that crowds out my access to infinite joy. I would rather engage in a fruitless internal dialogue about the moral questions raised by an edifice built hundreds of years ago than to let the building raise my spirit to contemplation of the Divine. Judged from that perspective, my reflections in the church come off as more than a little ironically self-righteous.
Does every tourist snapping photos of a golden chapel feel their heart lifted to reflect on the glory of God? Probably not. But someone’s does. My daughter’s does. And for that I should be profoundly grateful. Does every soccer fan praise the Creator for making human bodies capable of amazing speed and coordination? Of course not. But many players offer public praise after a goal. And in our post-Christian culture that is something of a miracle.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that it does no good for me to get uptight about cathedrals that I see as a waste of resources. My disapproval is not going to do anything about money that was spent hundreds of years ago, or the names that garner praise for talents that I don’t personally esteem that highly. This blog isn’t going to be read by all the many people and my opinion is not going to change anything on a grand scale. Except, it can change things on a personal scale, and that’s grand enough for me. It can change my perspective on worship to one that is more open to seeing all that there is to inspire worship in everything around me. I might not need multiple spires intended to “evoke a church engulfed in the Spirit’s fire,” but when I am lucky enough to get to see them, I can at least be grateful for the chance and rise on their reaching heights to offer my worship as well.
August 14, 2013 at 5:22 pm
Sort of a tangential reaction to this over on my blog.
August 14, 2013 at 6:01 pm
Thanks for letting me know about the reflection this inspired. I enjoyed reading it. I think you have a good point about the intrinsic value of things regardless of how they are habitually misused. Of course, I do think there is still a danger of seeing this value as being generated within the thing itself (ie – a thing’s beauty is what makes it worth our attention). At least for myself I am trying to continually remember that what is most ultimately worth my attention is the Source of that beauty, and to be open to that beauty as a reminder of the Source.