the cathedral and the architect

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[PIRATE VOICE WARNING: We visited Spain’s only erotic museum yesterday, so thar be some labias later in this post. Arrrr.]

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In the interest of contrasts, we decided to spend yesterday visiting a cathedral and a sex museum. You know, for balance.

We started at one of my favorite places in the world, the Sagrada Família. The Sagrada Família is a cathedral designed by Gaudí, and it’s been under construction since 1882. Antoni Gaudí is one of the crown jewels of Spain’s history, a genius who carved a brilliant mark on the world with his creativity and passion.

I’ve been to the Sagrada Família three times now, and every time leaves me astounded by the sheer magnitude of his talent. The cathedral reminds me of what religion can be when the person practicing it has intentions motivated by the love of God, not the fear of Him.

Religion, as I see it, is motivated primarily by fear of the unknown. For as long as we’ve been a cognizant species, we’ve created religious explanations for the things we can’t explain. Death’s the biggest mystery out there, and we still haven’t figured that one out. As long as speculation continues, so will religion. What I’ve always been disappointed by is how religion is used as a manipulation tool to control people.

When we visited the national art museum a few days ago, we saw a lot of art inspired by Christianity. One, a depiction of the Final Judgment, drove the point home for me. “Obey the rules, or your intestines will get yanked out through your eye sockets,” the artwork said. (It totally spoke. It was creepy.)

That artwork wasn’t a painting. It was artwork that had been on the walls of a church. This is the stuff people raise their kids on to this day. “Don’t upset God, or he’ll drown you.”

It’s like the movie A Bronx Tale, where the kid Calogero asks Sonny, a gangster:

CALOGERO: Is it better to be loved or feared?
SONNY: Good question. It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. If I had a choice, I’d rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.

That’s the message I got about religion growing up in the United States. Rather than emphasizing the loving part of Christianity, many, many religious sources instead preach the fearful aspect. People boast about being “god-fearing,” but I see that as missing the point completely.

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Gaudi designed the Sagrada Família with a love for God as his motivation. He took cues from nature, his greatest inspiration, to create every facet of the cathedral. From the arching tree-shaped columns to the many allowances for natural light to the swirls and whorls found throughout nature, the Sagrada Família is a loving tribute to what Gaudí saw as gifts from his God.

I don’t know Gaudí’s personal beliefs on religion – I don’t know how he practiced his religion on a day-to-day basis, but what lasted for people to see and experience is his beautiful Sagrada Família. Walking through this deeply spiritual space, I feel a spirituality that I haven’t gotten from a Christian place in years. Instead of severe columns and dark wood and wrought iron and cold gray stone floors, the Sagrada Família is bright and joyous, painted windows that spill bright color across the floors and columns, golden accents on the walls, and endless details that even now workers are painstakingly carving into place.

This is what Christianity was for me when I was a child. Awe and wonder for a Creator who loved me unconditionally. Even though my beliefs have changed, and I find more peace and comfort from imagining endless possibilities for the meaning of life and who created all this, the Sagrada Família moves me. It connects with the part of me that wants to believe in the good in everyone, that everyone has a passion and that that passion can create magnificent things.

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One especially beautiful thing I saw inside the cathedral was a couple of boys in their early twenties. They were standing very close to each other, and one had his camera lifted to take a photo of the ceiling. As he lined up his shot, the other boy, watching him and smiling, lifted up onto his toes and kissed him. The boy holding the camera laughed but managed not to lose focus on the photo. When it was taken, he bopped the other boy on the head with the camera and kissed him back.

It was sweet to see in such a spiritual place.

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Also, I think Gaudí had a hidden sense of humor.

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It’s a pity that Gaudí didn’t get to see the Sagrada Família completed, but he did see the first spire finished. It left him in awe, and he commented with pleasure that it really did seem to unite Heaven and Earth. He truly put his heart and soul into the creation of this cathedral, and I admire him deeply for how he devoted his life and his craft to it.

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