Friday, 14 November 2014

Cathedral to Mammon in a city of bling

Before we set off last week for a few days in Barcelona, my friend’s young son had a simple request. “Can you get me Messi’s autograph?” he asked.
Simple to ask, not so simple to fulfil.
The world’s finest footballer doesn’t tend to mix with the tourists in the Rambla.
Except in the sense that his name and number appear on the shirt-backs of countless hordes, both of the sightseeing visitors and the home fans.
Small boys, fat middle-aged blokes, teenage twin Japanese girls - they all bear the name of Lionel Messi on their purple-and-blue striped tops. Which must make it a very strange experience for the man himself if indeed he ever does take a stroll through the city centre.
He’s there, too, on a myriad posters on street corners and in the Metro advertising the next home game at the Nou Camp. In English.
Presumably the mighty Barca feel no need to advertise their fixtures to their own fans, but are happy to boost their coffers with a bit of tourist cash.
Football is a religion in Spain - and nowhere more so than in Barcelona, where the Nou Camp is its grandiose temple.
But there’s another, bigger, religion. A worldwide worship. The prevailing ritual and belief system of the 21st century. The driving force and obsession, it seems, of nearly every society on the planet.
I refer, of course, to the worship of Mammon.
It’s related, inevitably, to football. Money now talks a lot louder than trophies and medals.
But then the religion of Mammon gets into practically everything these says. Such as, for instance... religion.
As we exited the Sagrada Familia Metro station right outside the world-famous cathedral of that name (otherwise known as the “Gaudi cathedral”, after its architect), I marvelled at the length of the coralled queue. Waiting, not to get in - they’d have to queue again for that - but to buy tickets for later admission. And if you want to go up one of the towers, that’ll be a case of buy now, come back tomorrow.
Simple entrance to the still-unfinished cathedral will set you back about £15 each. Add another fiver for the tower. Or potentially rather more – up to about £25 total – if you get suckered into one of the “deals” or “offers” from various websites. We managed to pay online at the official price before we’d reached the front of the ticket-office queue.
As we edged forward beneath Gaudi’s statue-encrusted, dripping-stone facade, I experienced a deep fellow-feeling with Christ.
Not, it may be said, for anything like the first time. And not because I espouse Christianity, or any other religious faith.
I’ve always thought the real Jesus - so far as we can be sure there ever was such a person, or exactly what he stood for - has been badly served by Christianity.
In all the stories, the one where his humanity comes through most clearly is when he overturns the money-changers’ tables.
As told in John 2, after throwing the tradesmen out of the temple, he tells them: "Take these things hence! Make not My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”
What he would make of the Sagrada Familia, or the City of London - or pretty much any city in the world today - is an interesting question.
But let’s be fair here. Once we got inside the cathedral - more than 24 hours after paying for the privilege - I found it a revelation.
I’d been here before, 12 years ago, when my experience of the interior was severely limited by scaffolding, men in hard hats, and tarpaulins blocking almost everything from view. It left me totally unprepared for the glorious space now revealed, the other-worldly elegance of the slender pillars and the roof they support, and the light thrown by the loveliest of modern stained glass in the windows.
Even the queue protocols make sense when you see them as a way of ensuring the cathedral never gets too crowded to appreciate.
The way the architecture combines engineering with artistic invention is uplifting, but not exactly a religious experience. Certainly not for me - not for the hundreds to be seen (like me) at any given moment wielding cameras left and right - and not really, I suspect, for people a lot more religious than I am.
If there’s a touch of bling about it, that’s hardly out of keeping with what the Catholic Church has always been.
And in Barcelona right now it doesn’t have quite that old nasty taste of extravagance amidst poverty.
From its shiny shopfronts to its clean, efficient transport system the city hardly seems mired in the financial despair we hear Spain as a whole is suffering.
Which leads to an uncomfortable thought about Catalonia’s eager desire for independence, as expressed in Sunday’s “unofficial” referendum.

That this might be a case not of an oppressed minority seeking its freedom, but of a rich region wishing to leave its poor neighbours by the wayside. Which is very bling, if not very Christian.

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