As we walked down the streets of Barcelona on an early Saturday night, my wife and I had to swerve to avoid a drunken man. He was stumbling, couldn’t fully open his eyes, and held his arms out. His limbs were covered in lacerations and blood. It was around 7 o’clock. Other people parading down the block didn’t seem to care. This absurd scene was violently different than the experiences we had in Assisi, Italy.
In Italy, the cathedrals are quiet and ancient. Often, you are required to cover your shoulders. There’s a sense of modesty and solemnity accompanying many of the holy sites. This wasn’t so with la Sagrada Familia of Barcelona. The line is long outside the front entrance. Video monitors display information in various languages. There’s a grand sense of tourism that makes you feel like you’re at a trendy shark museum.
We had come to la Sagrada Família to admire the famed art and architecture. The structure is astonishing. Rectangular Picasso-esque statues of Christ dot the gargantuan cathedral. The towering steeples are reminiscent of termite nests. I don’t know much about architecture, but any formal knowledge isn’t necessary to admire this Gothic glory:
I looked at la Sagrada Família as a work of art that had a secondary functioning of being a place of worship. Even as you go inside, the interior is something like a fantastical ice palace. People crowd around selfie sticks, speak at robust volumes, and talk about their lunch plans. As we sat, my wife and I overheard one conversation:
“The bible just doesn’t make sense. It claims to go back many millennia in time, yet says nothing about the dinosaurs.”
“They teach the kids that Noah brought animals in sets of two. Giraffes, donkeys, lions, and all that kinda stuff. But no dinosaurs on that ark?”
“It’s just a timeless brainwashin’ of schoolchildren. The book isn’t based in fact at all. We just learn it and accept it without questionin.’ ”
We said nothing and just smiled at each other. I’m not a particularly religious man, nor am I an atheist. I can find humor in biblical fallacies. I also believe in sanctity very much. But this was a demonstration of the absence of sanctity, an outwash by tourism, skepticism, and commerce. The cathedral seemed figuratively plastic.
Then, all thought and contemplation was disrupted.
The sounds of a choral Ave Maria enveloped the cathedral interior. The pitches, balance, and timbre were perfect. I felt a power like my mother’s vast endless adoration, fortuitous rainbows, galactic mystery. My throat swelled and my tear ducts tingled.
This was one of the moments in life that you remember forever. A transcendent experience that stays with you until your last living minute. This was spiritual.
My ideas about la Sagrada Família were transformed. I didn’t know much about Gaudí, but I knew right there and then that he was a holy man. The perfection of that Ave Maria rendition wasn’t a happy accident. I later learned that much thought and planning went into the cathedral’s acoustics. According to MUSMon, a visitor’s guide, the church was constructed in a directly musical way:
I quietly sob as I write this article, thinking of that moment. Underneath all the marketing and management, La Sagrada Família is a deeply spiritual place. It was made and designed with worship in mind.
Later on in the weekend, my wife and I went to the most unbelievable flamenco show we had ever seen. I sipped whisky and studied the guitarist’s fingers. The dancers displayed a synchronicity that must have taken decades to master. As mind-blowing as this show was, a thought fluttered about the Ave Maria moment. The world is full of marvel and wonder, and I believe that this kind of greatness can be found anywhere on the planet. Despite the magic of ordinary experiences, however, la Sagrada Família will emanate a particularly special harmony for a long, long time.