Tourists flock to Sagrada Familia - work in progress since 1882

Travel is motion, but in the unfamiliar city, I sought stillness.

I missed my family desperately. Christmas Day had passed, and I was alone in Spain. And so I looked for a sacred space. I hoped it would be the Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous churches in the world, the unfinished masterwork of Antoni Gaudi.

Could the symbols of God, maybe even the presence of God, quiet the chaos inside me? A brisk walk took me through the Catalan cold, the gray shuttered streets that promised colors come spring. The church towers imposed themselves on my view, four of them in front, four of them in back, rising like gigantic, skeletal missiles - or, since Gaudi was a vegetarian, let's say asparagus spears.

As I approached the Sagrada Familia, my first thought was not of spirituality but of fantasy. The look of the building is what I had in my mind's eye when I was a boy, reading "The Lord of the Rings," imagining the fortress at Helm's Deep, long before Peter Jackson made his films.

I waited in line to get in (it took about an hour), and I wondered what it would have been like to be Gaudi. He was a genius. He was pious and moralistic - stark raving mad, too.

Construction on the Sagrada Familia ("Sacred Family") began in 1882, and Gaudi, a devoted Catholic, became the architect of the project soon after. He must have suspected that, because of its scope and grandeur (it was cathedral-like, if not officially a cathedral), he would not live to see the church's completion.

The Sagrada Familia was Gaudi's obsession. He never married, never had a family. In his last years, he lived like a hermit in a studio next to the church. He let his hair and beard grow for months. He wore threadbare clothes and old slippers. He went from house to house, asking for donations to keep the project going. In June 1926, he was walking on the street and, like most eccentric architects, was probably paying more attention to design than to traffic.

He was hit by a tram. He died a few days later.

In the church's expansive, parabolic space, I succumbed to insignificance. Sweeping stained-glass windows, designed by Joan Vila-Grau in the past decade, depicted the Resurrection. Treelike spiraling columns rose to touch the ceiling. They reminded me of bones, too, as if I were in a whale's rib cage. It was late in the day. The sun, filtered through windows, cast its light as flowers against high walls.

Wandering into the apse, I came upon Jesus on the cross but, strangely, he appeared to be falling from the sky, buoyed by a parachute, as if he had taken up parasailing.

I searched the ceiling and saw stars, shells, more flowers. Gaudi had grown up in rural Spain and loved the organic shapes found in nature: flowers, trees, branches, plants, vegetables. Nature, he said, was "the Great Book, always open, that we should force ourselves to read."

Dashed vision

But what I beheld here was not fully Gaudi's vision. Most of his plans were destroyed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, when anarchists blew up part of the church. A whole line of architects, artists and designers have added their own imprint to the church in the past 75 years.

This transmogrification of Gaudi's original vision will go on and on until the church is completed - some hope in 2026, the centenary of the genius's passing.

In the fading light outside the church, I studied Gaudi's Nativity scene, chronicled in sculpture on the temple walls.

A group of young people stepped out of the church and began to sing "Silent Night," and I stood there for a long time.

Travel is motion, but sometimes, as travel writer Pico Iyer once said, we need to find "a place where we can hold our breath and stop, and prepare for the time when conversation ends."