Spanish Churches…an Atheist’s view

 “When I started writing, back in the early Seventies, I found I had no vocabulary for describing buildings. I read a couple of books on architecture and developed an interest in cathedrals. I became a bit of a ‘train spotter’ on the subject. I would go to a town, like Lincoln or Winchester, check into a hotel and spend a couple of days looking around the cathedral and learning about it. Before too long, it occurred to me to channel this enthusiasm into a novel.” ~ Ken Follett on writing Pillars of the Earth

Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración, La Roda, Spain
Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración, La Roda, Spain

This church, which is of unquestionable renaissance architecture, was built between the 16th and 17th centuries, on a gothic temple, on a small hill where there was the castle of Robda, which was demolished by the Catholic monarchs in 1476 [1]…like Ken Follett, I have few words to describe my love affair with cathedrals and churches. The older and more ornate, the more deep the love. This is an odd statement considering I lost my love for the god these grand pieces of architecture stand to glorify. After nearly a decade of European living and travel, I have balanced the seeming dichotomy of being an atheist and loving these houses of worship.

For me, the love of the buildings is opposed to the Christian love of their god. The dedication, the sweat and labor, the millions…vast millions…in today’s dollars, and the spiritual devotion that went into building these beautiful and dominating buildings truly astounds me. Some of these churches, especially the old gothic cathedrals not only cost millions to build, but took hundreds of years to complete. Ken Follett, in Pillars of the Earth, showed how the long march of building a cathedral became the life and heritage of a man, a family, and a village. Building a grand church or cathedral was a commitment…a commitment that outlasted the common laborer and designing architect. It outlasted the vision of the priests who served within its walls…and in some cases outlasted the village around it.

While in Spain, my wife and I spotted the Church of El Salvador o de la Transfiguración (pictured above) while leaving Madrid and headed southeast toward Murcia. This renaissance church sat prominently on a hill overlooking the village of La Roda, Spain. It’s gloriously orange and yellow stones reflected the similar landscape of surrounding Spanish countryside. Even the stores, homes, and apartments of La Roda seemed to don similar shades as if this church was a glowing beacon that was perfectly reflected in the man-made structures surrounding it. We saw it from the road and I guided our rental car through the small and winding streets of the village to final park [2] a mere 100 yards from the steps that marched up to this glorious church.

This was my wife’s first visit to Europe and her first experience with an old European church. She had seen my love for cathedrals and churches in Boston and New York, but this was the first time she saw me walk humbly into a grand European house of worship. She had listened to me ramble in pedantic terms about the architecture and labor of  building cathedrals…now she was experiencing her own visit to an old church of Europe…sort of like sitting down to tea with an old lady who is often ignored…but once engaged is full of wonderful stories. Taking a moment to engage these churches allows one to see a time and place that perfectly reflects the love and dedication in the heart of the community that built it and now maintains it. I specifically told my wife “Everyone in this village attends here, they meet future lovers here, get married here, christen their children here, and eventually have their funeral here. Regardless of one’s believe in god or the afterlife, this church is more about the living than the dead.” With these words I connected my love of man…my humanist and secular side…with the historical Christian side to our lives.

On our last day in Spain, we connected…once again…our everyday lives with the historical Christian side by stopping and visiting the  Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia. This was a true gothic (interior) cathedral.

 Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia
Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia, constructed 1391-1467

This was a cathedral to be marveled at…to be struck by awe…to be humbled by the magnificent stone structure built to honor the Holy Mother on the sight of Muslim mosque…Christian king Jaime I The Conquerer made no apologizes for his part in the reconquest of Islamic Spain…here was built a cathedral nearly a century later to consecrate the site he ordered a Mass. Here was a church that said volumes about the devotion of Christian man in his endless battle against pagan religions and invaders. Here was a church that beckoned the Lord’s grace.

As we entered, we were immediately met by the Holy Mother herself:

Santa Maria

Friday mass was about to begin, so we quickly walked through…absorbing the grandeur as we swiftly moved among the pews. The cathedral sits in a prominent spot in the center of the old city and a plaza surrounds it with modern shops and cafes offering tapas and sangria. We sat within the shade of the cathedral’s bell tower following our quick tour and ate cod and potato tapas while washing it down with a sweet red sangria. It was a perfect lunch within the benevolent shadow of the Iglesia Catedral de Santa María en Murcia. It was a perfect ending to a perfect vacation.

We had been stunned by the beauty of the Spanish countryside…but truly, it was the two Spanish churches that stole our hearts. I have been asked many times how an atheist can be so enraptured by old Christian churches and cathedrals. My answer is always the same…it is my love and respect of the human devotion and ability to design and build such altars that allows me to reconcile my non belief in a Christian god with my admiration of Christian temples. In the end, it is my respect for humans who made these gorgeous buildings that draws me within their doors.

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2. I got a parking ticket for not paying the parking fee…we quickly left once I discovered the ticket. If anyone ever rents this car again and stops at this church…we fear they may get towed.