Many readers may have travelled through Europe with Rick Steves’ guidebooks in their backpacks.  The boy is good.  He winnows away a lot of chaff and points to kernels of excellence, like the intense Englishman in the baseball cap below, Nick Lloyd.  Nick is a professional tourguide, a Barcelona resident, and author of an excellent book on the Spanish Civil War.  His four-hour tour was the first thing we did after setting up camp in El Masnou, just north of this Catalunyan city.

Here we stood in the churchyard of St. Philip Neri, where in 1938 Italian planes bombed a school full of children, then came back for another pass and bombed them as they huddled for safety outside under the trees.  Mussolini, Hitler, and the Catholic Church sided with the military generals who’d staged a coup to topple the government, and guys like Hemingway, George Orwell, and unfortunately Stalin sided with the government, along with the hippies of the day–anarchists–and most unions.  The pits in the stone walls of St. Philip’s Church are from shrapnel.


As we were leaving, a bell rang and children poured out of the school, including this little straggler.


The war was a grim dress rehearsal for World War II.  On the Fascist side were officers who had recently fought in Morocco and were eager to use some of the same tactics back home, and Germany and Italy were eager to do the same.  Stalin, meanwhile, wanted a satellite state on the other side of Europe much like the cold war states of eastern Europe would soon become.  Idealists of all kinds flocked to Spain as young men do in times of war.

Nick also took us down the passageways of the old city, where John could not resist taking a picture of this shoe store and its rainbow of flats:


The next day, not far from that same store, we visited the site of a medieval synagogue where this Torah scroll is again on display, though I expect it is seldom read.  The Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492 by the same Ferdinand and Isabella who supported Columbus.


Speaking of Columbus, he stands atop a very tall obelisk on the seaside in Barcelona, and scenes from his mythic life wrap round the base of the monument.  Here he is explaining confidently to dumbfounded Spaniards that the Earth is round and he was going west to India. 


Barcelona seemed more like a beach town to us than a port, and someone had just painted this dinghy on the beach at Montgat:


Maybe the greatest work of art in Spain is the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, an immense “temple” devoted to Jesus and his parents.  Started in 1882 by one architect and then taken over the next year by Antonio Gaudí, it just might be finished by 2026, a hundred years after Gaudí’s death.

We spent the better part of two days learning about this man and his vision of architecture: learn from nature and apply what you learn.  Honor God’s creation and remember that God is never in a hurry.  Be sincere in your devotion and pay homage to goodness, truth, and beauty.  And so the columns of this church are like elm trees.  The windows on the east let in cool-colored light and those on the west are tinted red and orange.  Four bell towers rise on each side, and the facades are dedicated to the miraculous incarnation of Jesus, to his unflinching confrontation with death, and his glorious transcendence in rising from the dead.  Animals, insects, flowers, and vines are captured in bronze and stone, and the doors alone are worth two or three hours’ contemplation.  Here is a door on the passion facade with (Catalunian) words from the Gospels describing the last days of Jesus’ life:


We spent three hours at Sagrada Familia, alternately drinking in the details and trying to capture something of the whole in a picture or two.  John was stymied in his attempts to get a decent shot of the stained glass windows.  The human eye, ultimately, is a much more supple recorder of beauty: the window is too bright and the stone work too heavily shadowed for one exposure to do any kind of justice to both.  As a result, all our interior pictures don’t do justice to either the radiance and color of the windows or the wonderful and welcoming interior of the church.  But here is a photo of the ceiling, taken in a mirror. Gaudi illuminated the higher spaces better than lower ones, just as the heavens reflect more of God’s light than the lower levels where we live.


While in Barcelona, John did his best to visit as many places as he could which were important in the life of Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a Basque knight, a playboy, maybe even what we’d now call a “bro'”.  Until the age of 30, he fought in the army, challenged rivals to duels, and defended his honor, which was apparently easily besmirched.

But in the battle of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius suffered cannonball injuries to both legs, and was brought home to daddy’s castle where he came to his senses and realized that there was more to life than making sure no one disrespected you.  He traded his sword and fancy clothes for the garb of a poor man, and found himself magnetically drawn to the example of Francis of Assisi and Jesus.

John is a graduate of University of Detroit Jesuit High School, and even took “Ignatius” as his confirmation name in 1968, without knowing a whole lot about the bounding Basque.  While here in Barcelona, we’ve stopped at the church where Ignatius used to join the children in listening to Bible-story sermons.  We drove up into the mountains northwest of the city to see the monastery at Montserrat where Ignatius, just recovered from his battle wounds but limping as he would for the rest of his life, sought to understand a calling from God to more valuable work than swordsmanship.  He volunteered in hospitals there and in the nearby town of Manresa.

Here’s the Montserrat monastery where the monks’ simple and holy lives made such an impression on Ignatius:


And here is John Edward Ignatius Bellaimey (only my sister has permission to call me that) in the church in Manresa where the man who would become the first Jesuit decided to travel to the Holy Land, join the Franciscans, and convert the heathen:


Interestingly, Ignatius spent only a couple of weeks in Israel.  The Franciscans sent him home, back to Spain, where he went to grammar school, learned Latin, and then spent seven years in university, studying theology, mostly in Paris.  He ran afoul of the Inquisition at least once, and at least seriously enough to be jailed.  He and friends from France and Spain founded the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1534, with the blessing of Pope Paul III in 1540.  Ignatius is maybe best remembered as a spiritual teacher, the author of The Spiritual Exercises, which are a well-defined series of meditations in which the student puts him/herself into the specific context of events or stories in the life of Jesus and pays attention to his/her response.

This vivid approach to context and spiritual response is at the heart of how I approach scripture and preaching.  It’s remarkable how consistently this has been true for all these years.

Here is the memorial to Ignatius in the courtyard outside the monastery church in Montserrat.   In high school, we used to write “AMDG” (to the greater glory of God) on top of our papers, despite wanting the greater glory of A’s or at least A-minuses.



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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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