Architects design buildings with many materials in mind: stone, wood, concrete, and glass, to name just a few. However, one of the buildings I visited recently was designed with entirely different materials in mind: light and dark.
La Sagrada Familia (The Holy Family) is the famous basilica in Barcelona that was designed by Antoni Gaudi in the 19th century. Construction began in 1882 and is still ongoing. Visitors to Barcelona can see the odd, art nouveau style building from many places in the city because it is so big. From a distance, it looks a bit like a Dr. Seuss sandcastle — with towers that seem to be melting in front of your eyes. It is startling and fascinating, and attracts millions of visitors every year, as builders continue to follow the original plans and little by little attempt to complete the church.
La Sagrada Familia is more than an unusual (even strange) building, however. It is an active place for worship and prayer. Tourists may come and go, but the faith of the people involved in the community there is continuous. When you walk in the door for the first time, the spirituality of the place is palpable. The building transforms from an intellectually and aesthetically curious place to the house of God, a sacred space. As I marveled at the change in the atmosphere, I learned that Gaudi had planned for this very experience. He meticulously designed the placement and colors of the windows to reflect a balance of light and dark. He felt that spaces which were too dark (think of some of the medieval churches) caused people to reflect mostly on the difficulties of their lives or to obscure their vision to the hope in their midst. Likewise, churches which let in too much light (think the Crystal Cathedral), could blind people to the complexities of a world in need of service and transformation. Too much darkness or too much light — either way, our vision is not comprehensive enough.
Gaudi knew this, and so did Jesus. They both knew that the real world was made up of life and death, suffering and joy, sin and the overcoming of it. People of faith live in the balance of light and dark, for we live in the real world. Gaudi’s genius is that he designed a whole cathedral with that as a guiding principle, thus creating a powerful experience of the holy.
Every life experience is an invitation to know ourselves and God more fully. I got a visual reminder of that on our trip to Barcelona. As we embrace the fullness of our lives, may our vision deepen, so that in the balance of light and dark, we more clearly see the presence of God in our midst.