Just recently, a reporter for the Missourian interviewed me. He was studying at the Journalism School at the University on a year abroad. His homeland is Spain. And as we talked I couldn’t help remembering a visit to Spain not so long ago.
If it is summertime and you find yourself on the southern coast of Spain, perched on the edge of the Mediterranean, the sea breezes stave off the heat of the day and provide deliciously cool nights. If you make the decision to leave this rarified geography and travel north toward the plains and its multitude of olive trees, you are in for an entirely different experience. The sun bears down on that parched ground in such a way that the song, “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” is forever called into question. What rain?
The magnificent city of Seville is baked in this summer oven, and after walking around its alleys and plazas for an hour or two in mid-day, you begin to question your sanity. Just why did I decide to visit this place in the midst of summer? This is made for fall touring, or winter. It’s no wonder that so many tourists, alone or part of a tour group, duck into large, cooler public spaces and stay longer than their normal interest might usually hold them.
When I walked into the cathedral in Seville, one of the very largest Gothic style edifices in Europe, I was first struck by its sheer immensity. The huge apse of the cathedral houses a series of devotional chapels dedicated to this saint and that. An impressive monument to Christopher Columbus is located near the south transept and four stately figures carry the stone bier of the explorer off into statue eternity.
Seville is distinguished not only by the personage of Columbus and his commissioning and provisioning by Ferdinand and Isabella for his new world adventures, but also by the monarchs’ pursuit of a purely Catholic Spain which included the expulsion of both Jews and Muslims.
As regards the Moors, they had occupied Spain for eight centuries, a slowly shrinking empire attempting to stave off the steady re-conquest by Christian rulers who moved southward down the Iberian peninsula taking back territory as they went. Granada was the last Moorish stronghold to fall.
Seville witnessed its long-standing Jewish quarter decimated as Jewry scattered in all directions into the Diaspora, Sephardic Jews who are still found throughout the world carrying their many Spanish names.
Still delirious from the heat, I plunked down before the high altar for a rest. After composing myself I beheld the huge, gold-encrusted altar piece and waited for inspiration. I generally find spiritual depth and transcendence in ancient sacred spaces. Put me in the Cathedral at Chartres or the monastic church at Iona and leave me alone. I’m in communion with the saints of the ages.
But here I sit in one of the wonders of the church world, beholding this spectacle in gold, and … nothing. I feel nothing. Perhaps it was the heat, I told myself. Or too many tourists milling about. Or my heart was somehow not in the right place. It could have been any or all of those things. But I think not. All I could focus on was the source of all that gold. It was plundered by the empire, taken from the weaker and carried back to the source of the power. Columbus got a nice burial place in the Cathedral because of it. In fact, his burial vault inclined in my direction as I sat in front of the altar. Here was gold upon gold and the legacy of Jews and Muslims stamped out when in some communities several faiths had harmoniously coexisted for centuries. My heart did not go pitter-pat.
There was nothing inside me that was stirred to awe and wonder. And I confessed this to the God for whom this house of stone and gold was supposedly built. The only answer I received was no answer. So I gave up for the time being and just sat, waiting. Some things can’t be forced.
I watched a group of Japanese tourists looking over the altar as they would any other of the world’s religious shrines. How beautiful. Time for photos. What time, artistry and resources must have been required to create such a piece. More photos. Imagine the history and religious perspective that brought it into being. Time to move on. Turn in the audio headset.
Somewhere between Columbus and his stony pall bearers and the Japanese and their clicking cameras my attention was drawn to the great vaulted ceiling directly overhead. At least a hundred feet above me the cap of the cathedral arched over everything beneath, a symbolic representation of the heavens touching the earth. And there, lazily circling the circumference of the highest interior point of this voluminous space was a lone bird in flight.
It looked like a Swallow, though I couldn’t be sure. It was a winged interloper, a cathedral squatter who threw up a shanty on the ceiling over the high altar. Did this vagrant buzz the cathedral for recreation and loiter among pillars as though they were trees? The routine was always the same – the falling into open space, circling three times and then returning to the point of departure. What about those intervals between flights, the brief layovers in this bird nest terminal? Was he reflecting on the last ride, assessing his performance, tuning up the trajectory, or just waiting for a new tour group to stroll by?
By contrast the cathedral was not nearly so nimble. It was heavy, bulky and chained to every noble and less than noble history recorded on its walls, its floors, and its statues. It could never take flight, but instead stood flat footed, coveting every aeronautical maneuver of its envied guest.
Did the cathedral secretly wish to trade places and exchange its never ending assignment for another? It’s tough work being a cathedral. Keeping up appearances for 800 years can begin to wear on you. The bird, on the other hand, aloft and in play, was perfectly free.
It is no wonder, I think, that a bird – the dove – has been chosen as a universal symbol of the spirit, the active presence of God. We are told that at our Lord’s baptism, the spirit descended upon him in the form or the appearance of a dove. Somewhere over the waters and the son in whom the creator was well pleased the bird circled and circled, calling out through the empty spaces in holy tones.
It is no small consolation that the same bird often descends on the piles of stones we have cobbled together. Its arrival reminds us of what we should know anyway; that there are sacred underpinnings to the planet and the eternal nest in which it rests. The winged messenger moves into every temple, every building, knowing that no stone will be left standing upon another. It calls out that all flesh is grass, that every human enterprise, large or small, has its day. It dances around the spoils of every conquest and consigns them to the whispers of history.
Ever so often these long-dead artifacts of stone and gold are awakened by the arrival of a holy guest, and then, every voice silent, even the stones begin to cry out. And what will they say to the soaring phantom that haunts her arches and gables? Does the old girl clear her long-ruined voice and creak out a paeon of gratitude because the spirit still comes long after the altar piece has forgotten what to do?