The cement was dirty, but so were my pants after three weeks of traveling. I lay down on the sidewalk in front of the Sagrada Família, stretching back to look up at the Nativity Façade, trying to capture most of my older sister and all of the spires in my camera’s viewfinder.
Sagrada Família is one of the most beautiful churches that I have ever seen; it is also one of the few that I have seen under construction. Not renovation or restoration, but construction. Since 1882, except for a brief interruption caused by the Spanish Civil War, this church has been the constant, but hurried home of masons and stonecutters, carpenters and sculptors, architects and electricians. On any day, a few hundred might be working inside and outside its walls; every month, church authorities spend over a million euros on construction.
The church, like the tourists who scuttle about its lower crypt and the worshippers who bow their heads and fold their hands in its central nave, is in a state of becoming, not being. The most famous hands to touch the church were those of Antoni Gaudí, who took over its design in 1883. When he died forty years later, less than a quarter of the church was finished.
Originally the idea of a bookseller who was inspired by his pilgrimage to Rome, Sagrada Família has always been an expiatory church, funded by donations. It is hard to estimate the total number of persons who have donated to the cause over the last one hundred and thirty-one years. Millions visit the church every year, their admission fees funding the costly construction that will continue for at least another decade.
While it is only a minor basilica, lacking the seat of a bishop, Sagrada Família calls to mind the great gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. When I lay down on the cement in front of one of its oldest facades, looking up at my sister, I thought of the many generations that had already witnessed its construction.
I thought of the mothers who brought their sons, only to have those boys take their own children to see the magnificent basilica in the making. I thought of all the fathers who came with their grandfathers only to return with their granddaughters to see light pouring through newly installed stained glass windows. I thought of all the generations who had seen and would see this church the way generations before had witnessed the building of the great cathedrals of the world.
Gaudí wanted the interior of Sagrada Família to look like a forest. The columns of the nave stretch like tree trunks from the floor to the ceiling, branching to support the heavy weight of the ceiling, but also sprawling, reaching like tendrils for the sky. The church is beautiful because of its continual incompletion, its revelation that human construction is not so unlike natural construction: you plant a sapling as a child, then years later it is still growing into something taller, something more; your grandparents planted daffodils that decades later you see still returning every spring; you sit reading the newspaper on a bench in a park that your father tells you was once under water, the river having receded miles from its ancient reaches.
Cathedrals reveal human construction for what it is. In “The Cathedral,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Their birth and rise, / as our own life’s too great proximity / will mount beyond our vision and our sense / of other happenings.” The poet disdains the possibility that cathedrals eclipse their makers: “as though that were history, / piled up in their immeasurable masses / in petrifaction safe from circumstance.” Life, Rilke argued, was on the streets beneath the cathedral’s spires, while death was “in those towers that, full of resignation, / ceased all at once from climbing.”
That cathedrals rise across human lifetimes, taking more years than any one of us might have is the central tension in Ken Follett’s sprawling historical novel The Pillars of the Earth. The son of Plymouth Brethren, Follett became obsessed with cathedrals after a childhood of worshiping in austere, simple sanctuaries. He visited them and researched their construction for years before beginning to write his novel.
The result is hundreds and hundreds of pages chronicling five decades of life in a medieval village as its residents work to replace a burned church with a cathedral. Set during the reign of King Stephen, The Pillars of the Earth documents the architectural and aesthetic features of cathedrals, but also the political and theological tensions of their construction. The village of Kingsbridge is home to an earnest prior who yearns for a more magnificent church, ambitious knights, cuckolded husbands, nobles jockeying for earldoms and the attention of the King, warring masons and sculptors, and scheming bishops.
Like Rilke, Follett sincerely wonders about history and whether it can be found in blocks of stone that centuries later are still reaching for the heavens or only in imagining the lives of the men and women who wielded iron chisels and wooden hammers so that those stones might reach higher and higher. The Kingsbridge Cathedral becomes a way of keeping time, measuring progress in the novel, but not even its completion takes precedence over the daily lives of those who build it.
Cathedrals are symbols of faith, but also monuments of human ambition. The muddling of the human and the divine is what captured the attention of novelist William Golding. A decade after The Lord of the Flies, Golding published The Spire, which chronicles a relentless cathedral dean’s attempt to install a four-hundred-foot spire on his church. Although unnamed, the cathedral town is thought to be Salisbury, near which Golding lived, and whose own spire is the tallest in all of England.
Golding’s novel is a violent account of dreams and delusions. Jocelin, the dean and central character, is an architectural Ahab. There is no whale, but the spire threatens to ruin the community financially, the cathedral structurally, and the cleric spiritually. Jocelin persists in his folly against the advice of builders and workmen, parishioners and superiors, pagans and the faithful alike. The spire serves not only as symbol, but totem for the omniscient narrator and readers alike; and much of the novel’s anxiety about such a deluded vision seems like Golding’s own confessions about making cathedrals of words.
And yet, witnessing construction is one of life’s great joys, whether it is with words or bricks, sentences or stones. The great cathedrals of literature are not limited to those with visible churches. One of the greatest literary cathedrals has both completed and incomplete, real and imagined cathedrals in its pages. In Raymond Carver’s magnificent story “Cathedral,” the unnamed narrator and his houseguest Robert watch a television documentary about cathedrals.
As the program moves from one gothic masterpiece to the next, the narrator worries for his houseguest, who is blind. “I waited as long as I could,” he describes, “Then I felt I had to say something.” He begins to describe the images on the television: “They’re showing the outside of this cathedral now. Gargoyles. Little statues carved to look like monsters.”
The television program moves faster than the narrator can describe: from France to Italy to Portugal, until finally the narrator asks something more fundamental, more basic: “Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like, that is? Do you follow me?”
Such understanding, such knowledge eludes even those gifted with sight. The blind man says, “I know they took hundreds of workers fifty or a hundred years to build.” He continues: “The men who began their life’s work on them, they never lived to see the completion of their work. In that wise, bub, they’re no different from the rest of us, right?”
The man laughs, but we wince. The television program takes them through the hundreds of pages of Ken Follett’s novel, through the years and years and years it takes to build a cathedral. But such time is not only historical, think again of Sagrada Família: under construction for our whole lifetimes and still crawling to completion. So cathedral time is not only ancient, but contemporary. The narrator tells his houseguest that “[i]n those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life.”
Such closeness is still a part of everyday life. The spires and steeples of churches still dot the landscape even when worship no longer takes place inside their doors; humankind yearns for the divine whether or not marble is made to rise hundreds of feet into the air.
Rather than produce another story in which characters build another cathedral of stone, Carver has two who make one of pen and paper. Robert asks the narrator to draw him a cathedral in order to understand them. “First I drew a box that looked like a house,” the narrator says: “Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires.”
The narrator’s wife wakes to find them drawing, hand upon hand, the blind man tracing the narrator’s movements on the heavy paper of a bag emptied and smoothed. “We’re drawing a cathedral,” Robert says, “Me and him are working on it.”
They continue, when moments later Robert says, “Close your eyes now.” Now both blind, they keep moving across the paper, adding features of the cathedral silently. The catharsis of the encounter, rendered as only Raymond Carver could, is when Robert asks the narrator: “Take a look. What do you think?”
“My eyes were still closed,” the narrator confesses to us, but not Robert. “I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” To Robert, the narrator says only: “It’s really something.”
Carver does not deprive us of a familiar moral: a seeing man can surrender his vision; a blind man can sometimes see with a truer, deeper sight. But what to say of so perfect a fable as this? Perhaps we could say that wordless, weightless epiphanies come when least expected or that empathy cannot come from anticipation, only adjacency.
Perhaps, too, we can say something of cathedrals themselves. Whether watched at midnight on television documentaries, looked at from the lowly position of a dirty sidewalk, or imagined with pen and paper, these seats for bishops and houses for the holy attract our attention. And while the decades, sometimes centuries of human life poured into their foundations and fixtures are not always visible, we might well imagine them.
Go to Barcelona and stare at the Sagrada Família, page through the novels of Follett or Golding, read with care the small number of pages in Carver’s short story, or let your eyes take in the lines of Rilke’s poem and cathedral time comes alive. Continual incompletion and never-ending construction reveal themselves. Another view of the cathedral is one attentive to both the human and the divine, the becoming and the being, the never and the always.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter at @cncep.