Some people say a place can’t be holy. A thing can’t be holy. A building can’t carry the presence of God. That a room in my house isn’t more holy than a church. And theologically I’d stand with them, but you know, experience sometimes causes us to question what our mind tells us is true.
This week I had one of those moments. Visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I wasn’t expecting a spiritual encounter. If you’ve been, you’ll know it is heaving with tourists every hour of the opening day, as well as the fact that it’s still a building site. Outside it was thronging with people and the ever present ‘1 euro’ street sellers; getting inside meant going through airport style security, and battling our way through the visiting groups, stuck together with their selfie sticks and back packs.
Hardly a place of worship, I thought.
And yet when we took that first step inside, it literally took my breath way. Every fibre of my being was in awe, completely overwhelmed, I struggled to hold myself together. I wanted to fall to my knees and praise God, abandon myself in worship.
Instead I tried to find a quiet corner to get a grip. But Gaudí designed it as an open space, no hidden chapels, and even the labelled ‘quiet zones’ were filled with selfie-stick-toting gawpers. I found myself frustrated as I tried to hold back the tears, wanting to scream at everyone:
can’t you feel it too?
don’t you get it?
this is not a place to gawp, to chat, to pose with
it’s about the overwhelming awesomeness of God
Gaudí designed every part of this famous basilica, every detail, every carving, every shape, every design, to reflect and bring glory to God, and to me it felt like every part of the building was breathing out God’s presence.
The breath of God falling upon those within.
How is that possible?
Is it because I have faith? Is it that the Holy Spirit in me, was simply joining in with the song of this place? Is it that the building itself reflects God’s glory? I don’t know.
All I know is that the moment I stepped inside it, I felt God.
Finally, I found a few quiet pews reserved only for prayer, in front of the altar. No one was sat there and the steward was quite officious about them being only for prayer, no photos or talking, seeming incredulous that I actually wanted to pray. Though I was glad of that as I sat there, finding a small moment of calm amidst the bustling around me.
And then the tears flowed. I just couldn’t stop them. Was it the glory? The awe and wonder? The Holy Spirit? All of this? I wasn’t even sure why I was crying and a part of me thought: what an idiot I must look like say in the middle of this massive tourist attraction, surrounded by hundreds of people sobbing my eyes out. But then as I looked up to the altar I found myself filled with a longing I’ve not felt before, a longing to preside at that altar, to stand there and share the truth of Jesus in word, and, in the bread and wine in this glory-filled place (something I know can never happen sadly).
I know that church buildings the world over are designed for worship and to bring glory to God and I’ve been in hundreds of them but this was, simply overwhelming. Gaudí literally designed even the tiniest of details with God in his heart.
We had audio guides, which I’d long since abandoned by this point, but at the start I was delighted to hear the commentary evangelising those listening, talking about the details of Christ’s life portrayed in the exterior architecture, linking to gospel stories and in a line that made my heart sing, suggesting that whoever you are and for whatever reason you are here today to open your heart ‘there is a Holy family for everybody’.
I don’t know how long I sat there, I would have stayed all day given the chance. In fact it was only at the point at being told off for putting my foot on the kneeling rest (‘this is only for prayer on the knees’ she whispered loudly) that pulled me firmly back to the present.
In fact, a few days later it was interesting to chat to an old friend who works in a hotel in Barcelona, who shared how visitors to the hotel often talk about how they find visiting the Sagrada Familia a moving and powerful experience. Probably not the only one sobbing then.
So why am I sharing all this? I guess because I want to remind anyone reading that the glory of God is all round us, can take our breath away at any moment, at any time, at any place. Perhaps if you reading this and don’t have a faith you might understand it as a spiritual moment, or having a sense of something greater, or just a sense of awe. Sometimes we feel things but we don’t really know what they are or how to explain them. Sometimes we laugh off experiences, thoughts or moments for fear of being judged or ridiculed. But in refusing to reflect on those moments, or locking them away, the only ones missing out are us.
I sit here now reflecting on my encounter at the Sagrada Familia and find myself weeping all over again at the memory of it, and a part of me wishing I’d stayed longer, wishing I’d embraced what I was feeling in a deeper way, wishing I’d not been put off by a zealous guard.
In Hamlet Shakespeare has Hamlet saying to Horatio in Act 5:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
There is debate about what is meant here but if nothing else I find it a helpful reminder that we need to look outside of our own knowledge, our own understanding and learning sometimes and reflect on what we find there.
Some words from Gaudí to finish up with…
Talking of the facade of the cathedral yet to be built, the Glory Facade:
Glory is light, light gives joy and joy is the happiness of the spirit.