Last month during his trip to Spain, Benedict XVI dedicated Barcelona’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, an architectural marvel that combines ancient and contemporary elements. He described the work of the architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), a serious Catholic, as having “accomplished one of the most important tasks of our times: overcoming the division between human consciousness and Christian consciousness, between living in this temporal world and being open to eternal life, between the beauty of things and God as beauty.”
In other words, our supposedly “rigid” pope celebrated the beauties of this spectacular basilica with its three porticos dedicated to the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory. On that day, a vast crowd gathered beneath the towering treelike columns, surrounded by crowds of statues and symbolism in the towers and on every wall. The church itself is a celebration of Catholic exuberance in a time that sorely needs to be reminded that Catholicism is about truth – and also beauty and joyful goodness. It survived the bizarre distortions of Catholicism as well as the horrors of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).
In the United States, we are now forty years from the peak period of building sterile unadorned churches that looked more like car dealerships and banks. When statues were used, they often looked as if they would be more at home in one of Mussolini’s monstrosities. So it seems to be about time that church buildings start to touch our hearts again because – Benedict’s word – “beauty is one of mankind’s greatest needs; it is the root from which the branches of our peace and the fruits of our hope come forth. Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness.” Benedict is recalling us to the aesthetic dimension of human being, of human faith and of the Incarnation itself. As the great modern theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says, “In the case of revelation . . . form cannot be separated from content.”
Benedict XVI on Sagrada Familia: “Beauty reveals God.”
We are not souls accidentally in bodies. It’s our nature to be embodied spirits. So a theological aesthetics is crucial to the Christian path. The path cannot be expressed in “the wholesale rejection of all human ‘vessels’ and ‘figures’ of grace in Christian liturgy and ceremonies in favor of the pure ‘interiority’ of faith.” (von Balthasar) That’s the deep problem about the Spartan, sterile constructions more tied to some special effect of light or stone than to the lush exposition of the symbols of Christianity that uniquely befit God’s self-expression in the world. Partly the phenomenon of sterility was due to the sixties’ fascination with Protestant theologies, especially after the Council. Partly it was due to the wholesale misunderstandings of Vatican II’s teachings. For example, liturgies could start with a prayer to the spirits of the four winds because they were on a par with the Spirit of God. This borrowing from Native American religion was alright because Vatican II had said all religions were equivalent – except the Council never said anything of the kind. But in a period of deep shallowness, a superficial reading of Vatican II, mainly through the media, meant that poorly understood concepts reigned supreme.
The design of Gaudi’s basilica cuts right across this rather embarrassing and mediocre period in western Catholic expression. It’s an oasis of Christianity in the heart of Barcelona. Everything is appropriately centered on the table of the Eucharist. The tree-like columns highlight the oasis that Christianity brings into the desert of sin. (Jean-Paul Hernández) There is a whole humanizing aesthetic here. The community has to gather for the sacraments and for the prayer and teaching that the Church is about. The sovereignty of the Incarnation is cast into concrete and glass and human experience. This aesthetic in turn becomes the school for Christians so that “such art becomes visible in the Christian sphere in the life-forms of the chosen.” (Von Balthasar) The whole purpose is for the transformation of human beings through the mystery of Christ. This is not simply a question of “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” reactions more suited to choosing ice cream. This is a human question. What brings human beings to their fullness as creatures of God?
Aesthetics is not accidental but intrinsic to the development of man. Leaving the last word to Benedict XVI: “In this masterpiece, Gaudí shows us that God is the true measure of man; that the secret of authentic originality consists, as he himself said, in returning to one’s origin which is God. Gaudí, by opening his spirit to God, was capable of creating in this city a space of beauty, faith and hope which leads man to an encounter with him who is truth and beauty itself. The architect expressed his sentiments in the following words: ‘A church [is] the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man.’”