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La Sagrada Família

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Master of One

The most visited attraction in Barcelona, Spain, is not a theme park, a beach, or a soccer stadium. It’s an unfinished church that has been under construction for more than 135 years.

As you approach la Sagrada Família, it’s easy to see why more than three million people make the pilgrimage to the church each year. For one thing it is truly awe inspiring, even when compared to Europe’s more famous cathedrals such as Notre-Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London. Like something out of a fairy tale, la Sagrada Família resembles the drip sandcastles children make at the beach, only on an extraordinarily larger and more beautiful scale.

As your eyes make their way to the top of this massive structure, the working construction cranes hovering high in the Spanish sky point to the second reason the church is such a draw for world travelers: in an age that prioritizes speed over everything else, the pace at which la Sagrada Família is being built commands our attention. We are used to seeing restaurants get built in weeks, houses go up in months, and skyscrapers rise in just a few years. The idea of spending more than thirteen decades building a single church is simply incomprehensible to most of us. It is that commitment to slow, masterful, excellent work that draws millions of people into this church each year—a church that was intentionally designed to make the world stop and stare at great architecture as a means of pointing us to the glory of God.

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Before Antoni Gaudí designed the plans for la Sagrada Família, he had already experienced tremendous success as an architect, using his signature combination of colorful glass and stone to create some of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks, including Park Güell and Casa Batlló. But in 1883, at the age of thirty-one, Gaudí began to catch a vision for la Sagrada Família, the project that would become the magnum opus of his career. From the beginning, Gaudí’s vision for the church was enormous. A devout Christian, Gaudí envisioned a single church that would visually tell a comprehensive narrative of the life of Christ. “The temple as a whole, as well as being a place for divine worship, will artistically represent the truths of religion and the glorification of God and His Saints,” Gaudí said. His vision was a church that would be the physical representation of the Gospels, designed to quite literally “proclaim the excellencies” of God to the world (1 Peter 2:9, ESV).

To do this effectively, Gaudí knew that the church would have to be built on an epic scale. Once construction of the church is completed, la Sagrada Família will be the tallest church building on earth, standing at 560 feet tall. In a conscious effort to prevent his church from surpassing the glory of God’s own creation, Gaudí’s chosen height for la Sagrada Família is just a few feet short of Montjuïc—the highest natural point in Barcelona. While the height of Gaudí’s design is intended to point us to the heavens, it is the rest of this deeply symbolic structure that really declares the glories of God. Once completed, the church will be topped with eighteen spires representing, in ascending order of height, the twelve apostles, the virgin Mary, the four evangelists, and tallest of all, Jesus Christ. At ground level, three grand facades will welcome visitors into the church: the Nativity facade to the east, the Passion facade to the west, and the Glory facade to the south. Today, you can see the completed Nativity and Passion facades, which portray in vivid artistic detail the birth and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But it’s not until visitors step past these facades and into the church that their jaws really begin to drop. As one well-traveled yet skeptical journalist said:

I passed through the door of the nativity façade—and almost at once, any doubts were expelled. It is the most astonishing space with immediate emotional punch. The scale and colours of the interior are truly magnificent. Bone-like columns twist their way to the ceiling, branching out from ellipsoid knots, reaching upwards, creating the impression of being in an enormous forest. Vast geometric stars decorate the ceiling, punctured by open hyperboloids, sucking in the light and all suggesting the canopy of heaven. The greens, blues, yellows and reds of the light coming through [the] stained-glass windows create a dappled effect with constantly shifting patterns illuminating the stone, decorated by grapes, cherries and flowers. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” is how Psalm 19 described creation. Gaudí and his successors just copied it. . . . Everywhere you look, the details have been attended to with such meticulous care and attention; everything has a meaning in line with a desire that the building should be a teaching tool, from which the entire history of the church could be read.

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Because of Gaudí’s commitment to masterful work, la Sagrada Família quite literally proclaims the gospel to millions of people each year. What can we learn from Gaudí’s example that would inform our own pursuit of masterful work that glorifies God?

First, Gaudí and his church teach us that excellence requires a tremendous amount of hard work. Gaudi spent forty-three years—more than half his life—dedicated to la Sagrada Família. No doubt there were friends and community members urging Gaudí to take shortcuts so he could see some level of completion of his grand vision in his lifetime. But Gaudí would have none of it. Gaudí knew that mastery requires time, and his vision for the church kept him on a slower, more deliberate path. When asked why the church was taking so long to build, Gaudí once commented, “My client is not in a hurry.”

There is a second lesson we can draw from Gaudí’s story and it is a central theme in this book: masterful work requires tremendous focus. Throughout his four decades working on la Sagrada Família, Gaudí took on fewer and fewer projects until, twelve years prior to his death, he decided to focus exclusively on the building of his church. From 1914 until his death in 1926, Gaudí “dedicated himself exclusively to prayer, to long periods of fasting, and to the construction of la Sagrada Família,” spending most of his days building three-dimensional models of his designs that subsequent generations of architects and craftsmen could follow. A true essentialist, Gaudí went to extremes to eliminate anything from his life that would distract him from his mission of setting la Sagrada Família on a path to its glorious completion after his death. The renowned architect took a vow of poverty, putting himself in the shoes of those his church is meant to serve. In a very real sense, Gaudí poured everything he had into mastering the one thing he believed God was calling him to create. Quite fittingly, Gaudí is buried inside la Sagrada Família, under a headstone that describes the great architect as “a man of exemplary life, and an extraordinary craftsman, the author of this marvelous work.”

Today, dozens of craftspeople continue the work Gaudí started, working diligently to bring la Sagrada Família to its highly anticipated completion (currently slated for 2026). But with an annual construction budget of nearly $30 million, this work continues amidst significant debate and controversy, with some arguing that those funds would be better spent more directly on the poor the building is meant to serve. But there’s no denying that this costly masterpiece-in-the making has already produced something of great and increasingly rare value. In an age in which we are addicted to rapid production, quick fixes, fast food, and speed at the cost of everything else, the sheer excellence of la Sagrada Família commands our attention. Then, once it grabs us, the magnificent architecture redirects our gaze to the glory of God and the life of his Son, causing us to yearn to learn more about the exceptional character of the God the church seeks to reflect.

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