Ours is a civilization both fascinated with and repelled by what we consider garbage. We spend hours in front of a screen, voyeuristically watching emotionally disturbed people known as hoarders, climbing over mountains of junk and rotting food. We weep over images of children in the developing world, picking over scraps in a junkyard for something they can sell. We shake our heads over news reports about the amount of garbage clogging our waterways, killing off plants and wildlife.
Then we pull ourselves together, drive to the local big box store, and buy a bunch of poorly made, imported goods on impulse.
Within weeks or months, many of these objects will become part of someone else’s hoard, garbage dump, or floating pollution island. We will not give a thought to those who suffer from the consequences of these decisions, because we don’t have to look at them, as we insulate ourselves from the weak, the poor, and the sorrowful. After all, the consumerism dominating our present age has taught us that people are little more than means to an end, to be used as objects, and objects are infinitely disposable in our disposable society.
In this month’s issue of Magnificat, author Heather King has a terrific reflection on the life and spirituality of the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, which speaks to this point. His is a figure well-known to you if you visit these pages regularly, or drop by my ongoing Catholic Barcelona project. In her piece, Ms. King describes the ways Gaudi, whose cause for beatification is presently being considered at the Vatican, gradually diminished himself, even as the Sagrada Familia rose higher and higher. She also quotes from Gijs van Hensbergen’s very readable Gaudí : A Biography, in which the author lists some of the items which the architect employed in the fabrication of his designs, including “broken tiles, crockery, children’s toys, old needles from textile mills, metal bands for baling cotton cloth, bedsprings, and the burnt-out linings of industrial ovens.”
Gaudí’s most famous work, Barcelona’s Basilica of the Holy Family, a.k.a. the Sagrada Familia, is sometimes referred to, as Ms. King points out, as the “Cathedral of the Poor”. Yes, it is full of cut stone, stained glass, and polished marble, as one would expect in the construction of a building which, upon completion, will be the tallest church in the world. However it is also full of applied decoration, employing some of the scrap heap odds and ends which Hensbergen describes above. The massive, breathtaking scale of the place is humanized and humbled by these details.
Whether you like Gaudí’s masterwork or not however, oftentimes secular commentators on this, one of the most famous churches and architects in the world, will miss the point of what he was doing. God’s garbage man is not simply making use of what the contemporary art world would call, “found objects”, in bringing his designs to life. What he is doing is showing that, as the old billboards and bumper stickers one would see on American highways used to say, God doesn’t make junk. Even these discarded, unwanted elements of man’s intelligence and ingenuity, themselves gifts from the Almighty, have their place in His Creation. We may think that these articles are useless, but as the Lord tells Samuel before the anointing of King David, “Not as man sees, does God see.”
In the Sagrada Familia, as in other works where Gaudí managed to create things of beauty out of the stuff nobody wanted, we see a reflection of what other saintly people have done, when it comes to embracing all aspects of God’s Creation, particularly those members of it who are seen as disposable, little more than junk. One thinks of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, taking in the Untouchables, who were quite literally thrown away on the streets to die. Or we recall St. Damien of Molokai, caring for Hawaiian lepers, all banished to an island where no one would have to look at them.
In seeing that all of Creation matters, even the parts of it that we would rather just toss out, Gaudí is holding up a mirror to all of us. He is showing us that there is beauty to be found in the everyday, in the ignored, in the unwanted. We cannot continue to treat everyone and everything around us as disposable, without suffering the consequences of that mindset ourselves, one day. What Gaudí’s work shows us is that if we make an effort to remember that none of us are garbage, and that there is beauty to be found in everything, perhaps that, in turn, will encourage us to be better stewards of the Creation which we have been given.