For a while now, I’ve wanted to write about the vocation of the laity because—despite the best efforts of the Second Vatican Council, as well as a great many Popes and saints—it remains widely misunderstood. Many Catholics have the mistaken notion that the laity can get away with not being as holy as priests or religious; that God will cut them some slack just because they are normal people with normal lives. St. Francis de Sales has some good words for those who have this attitude. Said the saintly bishop in his famous Introduction to the Devout Life:
“It is not merely an error but a heresy to suppose that a devout life is necessarily banished from the soldier’s camp, the merchant’s shop, the prince’s court or the domestic hearth. […] Wheresoever we may be, we may and should aim at a life of perfect devotion.”
Both the laity and the clergy are called to Christian perfection: “be perfect as your Father is perfect.” Undoubtedly, the way in which the laity will reach this summit of Christian perfection is different than the way the clergy will. Especially because the lay faithful are called to be in the world and sanctify it:
“By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will…. It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.” (CCC, 898)
Since this post is part of my series on Catholic art, I wish to convey some thoughts about the Church’s view of the lay vocation by relying on some of the many works of art that have been wrought since Christianity first came into the world. The history of the Church is filled with examples of holy men and women who have embodied this Christian ideal and none is more notorious than the Holy Family. But while there is much to say about the Holy Family—that most magnificent example of the laity and of the utmost heights of holiness!—on this occasion I wish to look at the life and work of a man who has not even been canonized yet. I am speaking of Antoni Gaudí, the famed Catalan/Spanish architect.
I take him as my exemplar layman for several reasons. One, he was an artist who designed one of the most emblematic works of Catholic art of the past hundred and fifty years; two, he was a devout Catholic who in life was dubbed “God’s architect” and lived the virtues so heroically that his process for canonization is underway; and three, his work makes truly tangible the paragraph of the Catechism that I quoted above. Though this post is about Gaudí’s work, I brought up the Holy Family for a reason. I mentioned them not only because they are, by far, the perfect model of the lay life, but also because Gaudí’s best known work is the Expiatory Basilica of La Sagrada Familia, named after Christ’s earthly family. Gaudí was profoundly devoted to the Holy Family and, by what was probably a gift of God, this devotion became, in a sense, his reality. He dedicated the last eleven years of his life, from 1915 to his death in 1926, solely to the construction of the basilica, so that we might say that in those last years, his entire life revolved around the Holy Family.
The basilica stands at the very center of the city of Barcelona, a city that has, since the beginning of the twentieth century, become synonymous with Antoni Gaudí. Any promotional poster of Barcelona will most likely contain a picture of one of Gaudí’s many works; his basilica has become an emblem of the city and the defining feature of its skyline. This is exactly what I meant when I said that his work makes that Catechism paragraph jump out of the page. “It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.” Gaudí’s work has forever shaped the city in which he lived. Barcelona is forever wedded to the Holy Family and at its very heart stands a monument to Jesus Christ. While the nature of Gaudí’s profession led to a very visible transfiguration of his home city, it is part of the calling of all the lay faithful to transfigure their homes and workplaces in a similar (though perhaps more hidden) fashion. At the center of every Christian home and of every city where Christians live, ought to stand a monument to Christ, if not of stone and mortar, of faith, hope and love. The presence of the Christian faithful cannot—should not—go unnoticed, for the Lord Himself commanded that we be light of the world and that our light should not be hidden under a basket. The laity should live in such a way that their faith permeates every single aspect of their lives and, hence, transforms their homes, their workplaces, their hometowns and the world around them. In a very literal way, we are called to infuse the skylines of our towns and cities with the life of Christ. That is the very reason why the laity exists.
This, of course, brings in the interesting question of how we, as lay faithful, ought to engage the world and the prevailing culture. There are two extremes that we should always avoid. The first one looks only to the past and yearns for the “good old days”—a romanticized and, therefore, false, version of the past—closing itself off from any advances and innovations, rejecting any real and significant contact with the culture. It calls itself “traditionalist” but fails to see that a rigid tradition, incapable of growing and developing, is dead and cannot give life. It leads to the formation of Catholic “ghettos”, isolated islands of supposed purity, with little, if any, impact on the world. The second one enthusiastically embraces every change and willingly throws off anything that might seem outdated or no longer relevant. It labels itself “progressive” but is blind to the fact that adopting every single fad that comes into the world makes you as ephemeral and irrelevant as the very fads you have adopted. This extreme leads to a complete identification with the world that cannot change the world because it is one with it.
The correct attitude towards the world sees what was good in the past and gladly builds upon it using what is good in the present. It does not accept or reject the past simply because it is past or the present simply because it is present. It accepts or rejects things based on whether they are good or bad, regardless of when they came into being. This attitude, which can embrace the past, the present and the future, cannot be defined by the terms “traditionalist” or “progressive” or any other similar terms you can think of. The only label that fits it is “Catholic”, that is, universal, whole. The true Catholic stands in a category of his own. And here we see Gaudí as an embodiment of this truth. Gaudí’s style cannot be properly termed “modernist” but it is not “traditional” either. It is something different, born neither from a rejection of the past nor from a blind acceptance of it. In his style the past and the present meet and are fused into something radically new.
Gaudí had studied in great detail the structural aspects of Gothic architecture and had come across its many deficiencies. While others were simply imitating or openly rejecting that ancient style, Gaudí set out to perfect it. He accepted the ideal of the Gothic—tall, slender structures that direct the gaze towards heaven—but realized that he had to update, or even change completely, many of their structural solutions. They had been the right solutions in the twelfth century. They were not the right ones for the early twentieth, where new techniques and materials were available.
Let us look at one example. One of the key features of the Gothic style was the use of the pointed arch. Its introduction had enabled medieval builders to raise taller buildings with thinner walls and slimmer columns which in turn gave them the freedom to add the colossal stained glass windows so characteristic of the period. However, even the pointed arch had its limitations, so that exterior structures known as buttresses had to be added to handle the horizontal forces generated by the weight of the building. Gaudí thought of these exterior elements as crutches since without them Gothic buildings would collapse. If Gaudí wanted to rid his designs of these elements, and hence perfect Gothic architecture, he would have to find a new solution. To do this, he looked to God’s work, that is, to nature.
There he found shapes and forms that had never been systematically used in architecture before, but that were part of the solution to the structural problems encountered in the natural world. In particular, he discovered the prevalence of ruled surfaces—surfaces generated by the movement of a straight line along a predetermined path—in tree trunks, bones, shells and other organic structures. To some of these he attached a special meaning. For instance, hyperboloids represented light so that he used them in windows and as holes for artificial lights in the vaults; helicoids represented the ascent of the soul towards heaven and so they were used in the spiral stairs and in the columns holding up the entire building. The most important of all these surfaces, however, was the hyperbolic paraboloid, which for Gaudí symbolized the Trinity. Paraboloids are generated by the sweep of a straight line along two opposite sides of a twisted quadrilateral. For him one side represented the Father, the opposite side the Son, and the straight line bonding them together for all eternity stood for the Holy Spirit. This surface he termed the “father of geometry.” Gaudí, however, realized that there was more than a symbolic meaning to this kind of surface. He found it had some exceptional structural qualities as well. It is ideal for transitioning from one surface to another or from one plane to another; therefore, it can function as a connector for different elements of a structure. Most importantly, it is extremely efficient in redirecting mechanical forces. Therefore, the hyperbolic paraboloid came to substitute the pointed arch as the foundational structural element of Gaudí’s perfected Gothic. Its use in the vaults and the towers allowed for the use of inclined columns that branch out in imitation of trees to hold up the entire ceiling, without requiring buttresses and exterior supports. Furthermore, unlike any kind of arch, it does not require the use of keystones. In their place, hyperboloids were placed so as to permit the entrance of natural light through the ceiling. In that way, the symbol of the Trinity became the geometric building block that (literally) held everything together and kept it standing. It was thanks to God, therefore, that the ideal of the Gothic could be finally reached, that man could finally look up into heaven and be flooded by its light.
This had more than a purely symbolic meaning for Gaudí. He was a Catholic, which means that for him symbols often stand for a hidden reality, that is, they can be sacramental. If it was only through the geometric form representative of God that his basilica could avoid collapse, it was only through God Himself that Gaudí as a man could avoid collapse. Frequent confession and daily Mass were the remedies that Gaudí realized could help him overcome the main struggle of his life: controlling his temper. Just like the paraboloid, standing for the Blessed Trinity, held the basilica together in a harmony of stone, it was God, through His life-giving Sacraments that held Gaudí’s personality together. The architect who had perfected his designs with the help of God, could only perfect himself with that same help.
On June 7th, 1926, Gaudí left his workshop at the construction site of the basilica, and set out to the church of St. Phillip Neri where he would go daily to spend time in prayer. As he was crossing a major road, he got hit by a streetcar and was knocked unconscious. Dressed as he was—worn out shoes and suit, a sign of the life of poverty he had voluntarily taken upon himself to atone for the vanity of his youth—he was mistaken for a beggar and left there. Finally, a police officer took him to a hospital where he would die three days later. On June 12, crowds poured out into the streets of Barcelona to bid farewell to the architect who had forever changed the face of their city. His life and work had been like the yeast that leavens the entire batch of dough, infusing the landscape of Barcelona with the love of God manifest in the beauty of his architecture. Just like a city on a hill cannot be hidden, Gaudí’s basilica cannot be hidden. It will forever stand as a symbol of his profound faith and as a reminder to all of us of what our vocation as lay men and women is.
[Many additional pictures, a virtual tour, and a vast amount of additional information and details can be found at the official website of the basilica. Check it out.]