A few months back, I was copied into an email correspondence between a friend and the host of a workshop she had just attended on Religion and Peace Building. It seemed that the research group that was hosting her event was putting on a similar workshop on Atheism and Literature in Barcelona, and my friend thought that I might be a great addition. Not only was I truly honoured to receive the invitation, but it served as yet another lasting testament to the truly wonderful character of this individual, ensuring that I, if nothing else, was made aware of this event. Then again, she has always shown herself to be that sort of genuine person. Even now, as she makes the transition from academia to the life of a postulant with the Congregation of Jesus (CJs) in London, she has offered to share her experiences so that we might get a special glimpse at the process.
I attended the workshop a week or so ago and had an incredible time. Everyone involved was engaging and interesting and the experience was truly wonderful. Here is a brief video of the event, in which I feature a little.
At dinner, and in and out of conversations in English, Spanish, and Catalan, I asked if there were any suggestions about things to do and see in and around Barcelona for the time I had left to explore. A number of suggestions were made, which I noted. I ended up seeing a few of these, but not all. At the top of the list, which I had added myself, was Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. There were a few giggles, and ‘well of course’ glances. Someone said something in Spanish, which was translated into English as ‘tourist trap.’ I didn’t think that this was that surprising of a description. After all, to avoid standing in line (as suggested by the website) I purchased my entrance ticket online. To do so, however, I had to choose a specific day and time window of when I wanted to visit. The options were limited, so I chose 12:30-12:45.
The next morning I took the metro from my hotel. The L2 line to the Sagrada Familia stop. I joined a small crowd heading up the escalator and watched as almost every person ahead of me turned, as if in sequence, and began taking pictures as they entered the sunlight. I waited until we got to the top, stepped away from the crowds, and took this picture.
Later, and after waiting in a line filled with very anxious tourists (including myself), I eventually had my ticket scanned and was permitted into a second line. After a bit more waiting, and after I had unpacked the contents of my bag at a security desk, I made my way up the stairs and inside. There must have been some specific detail about the interior columns on the audio guides everyone was listening to (I opted to wander without a guide), because everyone, and I mean everyone, stopped and tapped, rubbed, or slapped the columns, just at the entrance. I later learned that Gaudi had designed the columns to mimic tree trunks. Why this inspired the tapping, rubbing, or slapping, I’m still not quite sure.
I took a few pictures, avoided the larger crowds and groups, failed to avoid being in the background of innumerable selfies, and eventually found a chair. I had about fifteen minutes to enjoy the interior until my scheduled appointment to ascend the tower on the nativity side of the church. As I sat there, cold and basquing in the surreal green, orange, and red light, I reflected on the oddity that is the tourist trap sacred space. After all, as we moved along in our line outside I couldn’t help but relate the anxiety I felt about ‘getting in’ to the almost unbearable excitement I used to feel every time we drove into Disneyland. It was almost as if the church itself had become a novelty, a destination that just had to be checked off a list, but only after stepping through the doors.
This got me thinking. Was this still a sacred space? Sure, a crucifix was hanging front and centre over an altar, and the Bose surround sound speakers attached to the tree trunk columns were playing organ music. Yet, people were on their cell phones. They were talking loudly, and laughing. A young boy sitting a few chairs away was playing Angry Birds. Even I was reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. When I was in Madrid and stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica, the atmosphere seemed a bit more reverent. People spoke in hushed tones and politely obliged the no photography rule. It was as if they were standing before some sacred object. Or, perhaps it was nothing more than my misinterpretation of museum etiquette. Then, what about the etiquette of this church?
Here’s my thesis for this post: when a sacred space becomes a tourist attraction, does it transmute into something less sacred, or does it take on a polysemous identity that encompasses both sacred and profane?
As I thought about this, a few caveats came to mind. First, is Sagrada Familia different in some way? With its design and connection to the culture of Barcelona and Catalonia, is it more than just a church? In other words, is it religious, religious art, or just art? Second, in comparison to the Barcelona Cathedral, does this distinction become more clear?
In my travels, I’ve often found myself a visitor of the tourist trap sacred space. It seems, when one spends this much time studying religion, these sorts of pilgrimages occur without much prompting. So this then got me thinking again: is my association of these cites as ‘attractions’ merely the product of my training? Because I view these places through the lens of a pragmatic objectivity, have I transmuted them for my own intentions?
I quite fondly remember the feeling of sincere apprehension and discomfort when I was required to not just attend a Sabbath service, but participate as well. Likewise, I can recall a number of occasions being the odd phenomenologist in the back of the group not willing to ‘take part’ whenever our classes would visit local churches, temples, or synagogues for ‘field analysis.’ Even worse, I remember the infuriating frustration of having to ‘actively engage’ a monastic lifestyle for a course on monasticism. Though I took it as the University of California, Riverside, it seems the instructor still gives this course elsewhere:
Needless to say, I happily broke every single rule. Dr. McDaniel and I made an agreement, though. Here we are enjoying a beer I made for the class, the only acceptable mendicant role I was comfortable playing.
To return to my thesis, beyond my own perceptions, do these sorts of sacred spaces become something extra-sacred when individuals like me, or individuals who perceive these cites as nothing more than mere attractions, transform them via their own specialised interests? Additionally, does this in any way infect those who use these cites for religious purposes?
When I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem I found myself amongst pilgrims leaning their bodies against the walls or kneeling with severe penitence at the Tomb of Christ, while at the same time tourists in khaki shorts and polo shirts followed cartoonish maps and sipped Coca-Cola through straws bought at market stalls with American currency.
I’ve sat in the back of the St. Giles Cathedral here in Edinburgh reading novels by Ian McEwan while secular choir groups practiced singing hymns alongside the organ. Likewise, I’ve attended festival events at the Cafe Hub just up the Royal Mile.
Perhaps out of all of these examples, the most interesting was taking a tour of the Mt. Carmel Centre in Waco, Texas. Though not much remains after the joint FBI and ATF siege that took place in April 1993, the land itself still maintains a sense of sacredness.
Is the tourist trap sacred space a sacred space? Yes and no, it seems. Then again, I’m not sure I’m the proper authority to answer that question. After all, I am just as guilty in transforming these spaces, and thus just as guilty in treating them as attractions; evinced by the fact that I felt the need to include the pictures I took, or that I took pictures in the first place. Then again, a keen reader might have noticed that I failed to include pictures of Picasso’s Guernica, perhaps my favourite painting in all the world. Or of the beautiful Reina Sofia Museum in general. ‘Of course,’ I might respond. I didn’t take pictures that day. It seemed inappropriate to do so.