For all the hype surrounding the Holy Family‘s first communion, I wanted to see the miracle through my own two eyes. I chose a sunlit November afternoon to walk up there, assuming my place in the waiting line stretching more than halfway round the block sized building.
Soon appeared a young woman, her hair covered with scarf, a baby on her arm and her big dark eyes wide open and sad.
“Give me something, sir, my baby is hungry,” she announced without introduction.
“I have no money,” I replied routinely.
“Please, sir? We are both very hungry. Just a little something.”
Not able to walk from her without losing my place in the queue, I looked her in the eye and said no again. She smiled a tiny grin, having caught me, and seemed to pinch the child on her arm.
“My baby is crying.”
“I have no money.”
Feeling her need pulling, I awkwardly stared her down until she finally moved on, leaving me with a probably heartfelt: “son of a bitch“.
I stuck my face up to the sun and observed the gate of youth, the one I had climbed 23 years ago on my first visit to Barcelona. I now realised this original gate, built under supervision of Gaudí himself and for years a singular monument to his devotion, faced the workers’ areas, in Gaudí’s era mostly factory communities in a garden landscape, its piping angels calling the devoted and the not-so-devoted to the market hall of God‘s kingdom. The gate of suffering, I understood, faced the Eixample where the good people lived, they of course knowing all about suffering from the crushing reality that for all their money immortality most likely would escape them.
When I had shuffled my way over there, the entrance now less than half an hour away I estimated, my eye fell on a white bearded man, bald and wrinkled and dressed in worn-out working man’s gear, who sat cross-legged on the pavement with a carton sign resting on his thighs.
I don’t enjoy begging but my family needs food. My young wife is with baby and I’ve lost my work because of the crisis. Please give what you can. God will someday repay you.
“Not much, sir,” he suggested, “some loose change perhaps.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“A coin? A cigarette?”
“I too suffer from the crisis, sir. It’s been ages since I gave on the street.”
The latter was certainly true. I had managed to squeeze past the beggar at the entrance of my supermarket unfazed ever since he took up his post by the end of summer, telling myself I really couldn’t afford sharing any of my household money.
“But you are going to visit the atonement temple, sir.”
“Twelve euros for admittance. You must have money on you.”
Again I could not walk away. “Twelve is precisely what I‘ve got.”
“Give me one,” the old man pleaded. “You can come back another day.”
I guess he was right but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. With winter coming, when would we have such clear blue skies over the city again?
“I shall not give you, man,” I said. “It’s my money and I want to spend it on the church, however expensive it may be.”
“You are a cold-hearted bastard, sir,” the laid-off worker noted, “with all your eloquence you are no better than the rest of the lot.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” I admitted, relieved the empty space ahead of me allowed for moving out of earshot.
I paid my dues and climbed the slope towards the modern gate, surprisingly guarded by Darth Vader & Friends. Upon entering, towards the gate of glory on the right hand side was the splendid nave, open and empty and rich with light of day. It felt like Jacob Saenredam, a 17th century Dutch painter specialising in the big empty churches of the Low Countries which were the product of the iconoclastic riots of 1566 the Dutch celebrated their reformation to the protestant belief with. I thought it befitted the city of Barcelona, such nakedness which can also be seen in La Santa María del Mar, since it corresponds well with the Calvinist touch to Catalan society, that earnest devotion to hard work as the essential expression of their trust in the Lord’s righteousness.
The gate itself had yet to be finished.
To the other side the altar, circumvented by colourful glazing casting myriad reflections to a trompe l’oeil effect.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” an old woman’s voice sounded.
“Much better than I’d hoped for,” I responded.
“Shall I show you around?”
She was very small and bent over a stick, and her clothes smelled of lasting poverty. “That’d be very kind, but I couldn’t pay you for it, madam. I spent my last dime at the entrance gate.”
“Not even a euro?” She looked me up and down. “Judging by your clothes you are well off.”
“All bought two years ago, I‘m afraid.”
“I’ve lost everything,” she confided, “my husband and my home and foremost my son, my one and only child. He was so handsome and smart, too smart for this world, you see. They took him away to fight in one of those holy wars the Americans are fighting all the time. We are with America in this country.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I spend my days in here. I have free admittance on my late husband’s membership card, but every evening I have to leave and stay the night on the streets.”
She grabbed my arm and looked up at me. “What shall I do, I am hungry and lonely all the time, nobody to take care of me.”
“I do not know, madam, I’m not of this church,” I said and added: “I live on the other side of town.”
I couldn’t stand her depressing presence any longer and hastily walked away. Someone else should take care of her.
Last was the longhaired slender young man, much shorter than I had imagined. He was waiting in the wings of the basement museum where I saw him leaning comfortably against a display of technical drawings. He didn’t come up to me, of course not, he didn’t say anything either. He wanted me to take care of that, choose out of my own free will whether I’d confess my sins or hand him my coat.
“I’m really sorry I don’t give to strangers these days,” I began.
“Your father, outside on the pavement. And your poor old mother, and the young girl with the baby, I guess that’s her when you were just born.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I feel bad about not giving, but with the ongoing crisis I simply don’t have the money to spare.”
“You don’t have to give me anything,” the dwarfish youth smiled. “And my father is not outside on the street, he must be at work. He runs a woodwork industry and we are doing just fine.”
“I see,” I mumbled.
I felt it was time to go. Without another word I hurried outside and down the stairs to the underground. There was someone selling disposable lighters, two for a euro, and I wondered how much profit he was making. I shook my head when he looked my way.
“I have no money.”