By Elise Brown '17
In Barcelona's biggest and most modern church, The Sagrada Familia, there's a small chapel in the back, behind the apse and protected by a security guard, where no pictures are allowed; visitors can only sit down and pray. Even though I’ve been an atheist/humanist all my life, I decided to sit in one of the pews and reflect on how I was feeling inside this big, gorgeous building. None of the other cathedrals we had seen thus far had made me feel so connected to my own spirituality, so as I sat there, I said a little prayer while I tried to piece together what that meant:
Hi God. I don’t think You can hear me, and really, I don’t even believe in You. Then again, I suppose thinking You can actually hear me would be taking the idea of prayer too literally. Really, when people pray, it seems to be more of a meditation on their lives and their faith and their relationship to You and their relationship to fate. Whatever they don’t have power over, they ascribe to You, which is certainly more comfortable than thinking chance rules our lives. I often have to remind myself how much of my life is chance. It’s a very helpless feeling. And many of the people in this building reconcile that helplessness through faith in You, which really does take a lot of strength.
After all, God, all these grand cathedrals I’ve been seeing throughout Spain are testaments to how strongly people are devoted to You and Your son. They represent how people will spend lifetimes creating and building and collaborating in Your name. And I like that. Because sitting here, I cannot help but think one thing over and over: “People built this.” It makes me wonder what Your followers think in spaces like this. Maybe “People built this for You” or “You inspired this,” but all I’ve got is “People built this.” And that’s enough to inspire so much wonder and curiosity and joy and love in me that it almost feels divine.
Because I’m just a person, Y’know? A person who sometimes feels very big and can easily feel very, very small. Often it’s because of galaxies, forests, oceans — things people believe You built. But more often it’s because of nations, scientific discoveries, relationships, art — things we humans made here on earth. Very rarely is it something like this building that combines both. People built this in Your name and in Your son’s name and as an atheist, that almost baffles me. Because Jesus was just a person too, Y’know? As far as I can believe, at least. He was a teacher, a philosopher, a Jew who died defending His people — that in particular takes a kind of devotion and courage that I often doubt I have. Maybe Jesus felt small sometimes too. Maybe He died in Your name because he was OK with being small next to You. And right here, I’m OK with being small too.
I used to sit in churches and wonder why You would condone such extravagant buildings when Your son was a poor carpenter who shared what little He had with His community — wealth just never seemed very Christ-like to me. But being in a cathedral that’s still in progress makes me think differently: the carpenters and architects and sculptors and masons and all the workers who build these spaces (and the people who pay their salaries too, I bet) give so much of themselves over centuries to create a lasting space for their community. I like the idea that Christ was one of history’s great community organizers.
So, really, God, to me, these cathedrals, these good works, these billions of believers and what they build… they’re not really about YOU. They’re inspired by You, but the capital-M Meaning I see in all of this is the collaboration and creativity and collective power that their belief in You — their belief that the unexplained parts of the universe have an order and You and Jesus have very significant roles in that order — inspires them to achieve. I like how You bring out the best in people. My mom’s favorite Bible verse is Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” And sitting here, I can see all of that. If people believe in You so much that they have the patience to work on a project from 1882 to 2027 in Your name — a project that’s a culmination of the math and science and storytelling we’ve accumulated over the past 10,000 years of human history — and they have the love and kindness to share it with the world and the joy of choosing to work on it even though they may not see it done in their lifetime… that’s inspiring. Those are feelings we should all have about something.
Some people get those feelings from You. I feel them from collective power of us humans. But in the end, works like this building give me a new appreciation for how our convictions bring out the better angels of our nature — the fruit of the spirit — our best selves.
Anyway, God, I guess if I had to petition You for one thing, it would be that Your followers don’t allow their convictions to bring out their worst selves too. Some very scary people who say they believe in You are attacking women/LGBTQ folks like me and running for president on racist platforms and generally not reflecting the fruit of the spirit. See, my favorite verse is 1 John 2:11: “But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.” And You have followers, very powerful ones too, who hate their siblings. I want to see that change, so that is my prayer to You: that all Your followers have the will and strength and kindness to work together, not against each other. That they all see the light of love and treat every person on the planet with the respect they deserve. That You prove my mom’s favorite verse right and show that our human spirit is the root (or the fruit) of some pretty incredible things.
Outside of that… forgive me for not giving a Euro to that street musician I saw earlier, make sure my significant other is safe and happy, and… forgive me for trespassing and lead me not to the Temptations.
In the name of Anakin, Luke, and the Force, Amen.
From March 2016 issue