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.”