Travel is motion, but in the unfamiliar city, I sought stillness.
And so I looked for a sacred space. I hoped it would be the Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous churches in the world, the unfinished masterwork of Antoni Gaudi.
The church towers imposed themselves on my view, four of them in front, four of them in back, rising like gigantic, skeletal missiles -- or, since Gaudi was a vegetarian, let's say asparagus spears.
As I approached the Sagrada Familia, my first thought was not of spirituality, but of fantasy. The look of the building is what I had in my mind's eye when I was a boy, reading "The Lord of the Rings," imagining the fortress at Helm's Deep, long before Peter Jackson made his films.
I waited in line to get in (it took about an hour), and I wondered what it would have been like to be Gaudi. He was a genius. He was pious and moralistic. Stark raving mad, too.
Construction on the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) began in 1882, and Gaudi, a devoted Catholic, became the architect of the project soon after. He must have suspected that, because of its scope and grandeur (it was cathedral-like, if not officially a cathedral), he would not live to see the church's completion.
The Sagrada Familia was Gaudi's obsession. He never married, never had a family. In his last years, he lived like a hermit in a studio next to the church. He let his hair and beard grow for months. He wore threadbare clothes and old slippers. He went from house to house, asking for donations to keep the project going. In June 1926, he was walking on the street and, like most eccentric architects, was probably paying more attention to design than to traffic.
He was hit by a tram. He died a few days later.
As I finally entered the church, I asked: Why would you dedicate your life to one project, knowing that you wouldn't live to see its fruition?
In the church's expansive, parabolic space, I succumbed to insignificance. Sweeping stained-glass windows, designed by Joan Vila-Grau in the past decade, depicted the Resurrection. Treelike spiraling columns rose to touch the ceiling. They reminded me of bones, too, as if I were in a whale's rib cage. It was late in the day. The sun, filtered through windows, cast its light as flowers against high walls.
Wandering into the apse, I came upon Jesus on the cross but, strangely, he appeared to be falling from the sky, buoyed by a parachute, as if he had taken up parasailing.
I searched the ceiling and saw stars, shells, more flowers. Gaudi had grown up in rural Spain and loved the organic shapes found in nature: flowers, trees, branches, plants, vegetables. Nature, he said, was "the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read."
This was my solitude, then, watching the German and Italian tourists crane their necks to catch a glimpse of God, only to encounter the vision of an egotistical, self-righteous architect who struggled with his own internal contradictions -- of staying within the lines and not staying within the lines.
Art critic Robert Hughes explained in his history, "Barcelona," that Gaudi's imaginative life was "bound up with ideas of death, obedience, penance, deliverance and transcendence," and yet his brand of art nouveau "declared one's freedom from the straight line, the corporate grid, and all that was soulless in modern architecture."
And yet what the Germans, Italians and I beheld was not fully Gaudi's vision. Most of his plans were destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, when anarchists blew up part of the church. A whole line of architects, artists and designers have added their own imprint to the church in the past 75 years. This transmogrification of Gaudi's original vision will go on and on until the church is completed -- some hope in 2026, the centenary of the genius' passing.
In the fading light outside the church, I studied Gaudi's Nativity scene, chronicled in sculpture on the temple walls.
I asked: What does all of our work amount to if, to achieve it, we end up forsaking our families? When I was younger, I thought it was brave to do so. Now, standing outside the Sagrada Familia, I wasn't so sure.
Travel is motion, but sometimes, as writer Pico Iyer once said, we need to find "a place where we can hold our breath and stop, and prepare for the time when conversation ends."
> If you go:
Visiting hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. April to September; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. October to March; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 25 and 26 and Jan. 1 and 6.
Admission: Adults, about $18 (about $24 with audio guide or guided tour); retirees, students and kids under 18, about $15 (about $19.50 with audio guide or guided tour). Guided tours, which last about an hour and 10 minutes, are available until 30 minutes before closing.
Towers: The church's towers are accessible via elevator for a charge of about $4. The towers on the Passion facade side close 30 minutes before church closing; the towers on the Nativity side close 15 minutes before church closing.
Contact: Mallorca 401; 011-34-93-207-30-31; www.sagradafamilia.cat (click "ENG" on top left of screen for English version).