Today would be a good day to be at La Sagrada Família

If you haven’t visited Barcelona’s Sagrada Família, you might have difficulty believing all of these photos are of the exact same building. I’ve been back from my latest holiday just on a month, and the place I have spent more time trying to describe to people than any other would have to be this remarkable church. I’d love to have a few more hours to spend there today.

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With an ambitious design by Antoni Gaudí, construction on this spectacular church began in 1882. Current estimates are that it will be completed by 2026, although that still seems to be a massive task. Barcelona is a beautiful city for many other reasons, but I think it would be worth visiting just for this one building alone.

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What did I love about Sagrada Família?

On the outside, the church tells biblical stories. The Nativity façade, the only side Gaudí saw completed in his lifetime, uses lifelike figures to present all aspects of the story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah – the familiar and the unfamiliar, the triumphant and the tragic.

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The details are incredible.

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On the other side, the Passion façade follows Gaudí’s plans but with the style of a completely different sculptor.

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The story of the betrayal, trial, death and resurrection of Jesus the Saviour unfolds through figures with square-cut faces and yet amazing depths of emotion.

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The third façade, supposedly the “largest and the most striking” has not even been begun yet, but will tell the story of the risen and triumphant Jesus the King.

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The building is fascinating and complex and intricate on the outside.

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There are extra, unexpected details and symbols everywhere you can see.

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And then you walk inside …

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The interior took my breath away.

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The light.

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The colours.

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The sense of space. This is a place for prayer and reflection, to marvel at the God of creation in all His magnitude.

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A place to slow down, to wonder, to worship.

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What did I learn from Sagrada Família?

I teach a subject called “Understanding the Biblical Narrative” and in my PhD I looked at ideas of orality and embodiment in understanding the Bible. For me, this church brings some of that to life. The biblical story can be seen, felt, even interacted with, in a completely different way to reading words on a page.

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The world has changed an awful lot since 1882, and I wonder if the architects and funders of this project had known how accessible the Bible would become whether they would have embarked on this project. But I’m so glad they did.

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“Reading” the story in this way takes time, and oral storytelling to go along with it, and imagination, and engagement. Despite the overwhelming accessibility of the printed and digital text, things we can so often lose.

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The contrast between the outside and inside of the church, for me, took me to a whole other place. It is one thing to know the stories, to ponder their meaning, to enter into their emotions.

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It is yet another to be brought to a place of stillness, silence, speechlessness.

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This is not a church of my tradition, and in some ways it is more a tourist attraction than a house of prayer. And yet … sitting in the pews, taking time to tune out the voices bustling around (listening to this podcast helped me focus), for me this became a place of prayer and worship.

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To be sure, I have experienced the same wonder and worship in nature, in community, alone in my room.  I don’t need a place like this to spend time with God, but it sure is a genuine delight to be provided with one every now and then.

My Australia Day thanksgiving

I have the privilege of living in a land that is home to the world’s oldest living culture.

My country’s indigenous people have been storytellers for thousands of years, a rich tradition that inspires and instructs me as I seek to be a good teller of truth through stories.

Communities across this land have shared some of their unique songs with those of us who have come here more recently, enriching our experience of the great diversity of music.

The peoples of my nation have been custodians and caretakers of the land in a way that encourages and challenges my own care for creation.

My continent has hosted around 700 indigenous languages, weaving a rich tapestry that intrigues me and provides great insight for those who study the history of linguistics. The modern revival of some of these languages is a testimony to their people’s diligence and resilience.

I have personally been welcomed without question into the homes and campfires of strangers through mutual friendships and even embraced by being given a Warlpiri skin name.

The indigenous cultures of my home maintain a deep and abiding spirituality that confronts my tendencies to the novel and the superficial.

Many of the people groups of my homeland have embraced the gospel, enculturating it in ways that demonstrate new facets of God’s grace and glory to me.

This January 26, I am thankful for all the richness, beauty, culture, and knowledge that my indigenous brothers and sisters have and can share with me.

Today is a complicated day, for some observed as Invasion Day, for others lamented as a Day of Mourning, for others commemorated as Survival Day.

Last night I attended a beautiful service of prayer and lament, acknowledging our history as a nation, naming the injustices that have been and are being done, and recognising the ongoing consequences for indigenous people of our failure to address them. We need to walk and work together to bring change. I hope I can find ways to be part of bringing this change.

In response, for me today is not about celebrating or commemorating, but about naming some truths that are too often overlooked. I live on and in a land that belonged to others, and they have much to teach and bless me with. I am thankful for them and for how their story has enriched my life.

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Would you like a selfie stick with that?

I can’t remember what it used to be.

I know that when I was in Europe a few years ago, there was something that everyone on the streets was hawking, the latest tourist must have, an item whose name became a cry that you would hear over and over as you walked past, as they tried to sell it to you.

I can’t remember what it used to be, but I know what it is now. Walking around heavy tourist traffic areas in cities like Rome, Lisbon, and Barcelona the last few weeks, there are two words that you hear on constant repeat, every few metres or so:

“Selfie Stick?” “Selfie Stick?”

It’s the street vendors’ current offering of choice, and therefore I assume the current tourist must-have. No matter where you are, for 5€, you can buy your very own phone holder on a stick so that you can more easily take photos of yourself in front of the various monuments and views to your heart’s content.

Walking inside busy sites like the Colosseum or St Peter’s Square, you only need to look in the air to see the results: hundreds of hands holding up hundreds of sticks with hundreds of phones attached.

The selfie sticks are everywhere. And I hate to be that person, but I have to say, I just don’t get it. Or maybe, I just don’t like it.

I think I’m allergic to selfies.*

Why do I think I’m allergic to selfies? There are a few reasons, to be sure. I don’t love many photos of myself at the best of times, so why would I want to take more of them? More to the point, I figure that I and my friends already know what I look like, so I want to get out of the way so that I can capture the amazing sites that I am privileged to be visiting and that I may not get to see again.

And being the kind of person I am, I also wonder what the seeming obsession with selfie sticks says about some bigger questions like why we take photos, and perhaps even why we travel.

If I take a photo of an ancient building, or a beautiful natural landscape, what is my intention? To capture the beauty of what I have seen? To preserve it? To remember it? To be able to show it to you so you can share in my wonder and admiration?

If I take a photo of the same monument or landscape with me in front of it, what is my intention? To have proof that I went there (and, perhaps, that you didn’t)?

When I share with you a photo I took of a beautiful city or an impressive work of art, I hope that I am inviting you to share my own sense of wonder and admiration, to see something of what I saw and to feel something of what I felt.

When I show you a photo of me in front of that same beauty, I don’t think I am communicating the same thing. Rather than “Look at this!” it appears to say “Look at me” or, “Look where I went!”

It seems to me that the focus has shifted from me inviting you to share an appreciation for what I saw, to me inviting you to appreciate me for having gone and seen it.

(There’s a reason selfie sticks have been dubbed “wands of Narcissus“.)

I’m also thinking that this can feed into a sense that travelling is about making sure you tick places off “the list” – that it’s about the fact of having been there and being able to say you went there, rather than about what you experience and learn while there.

Perhaps one reason this bothers me is because I do recognise that temptation within myself. Particularly when travelling somewhere like Europe where there are so many beautiful places and so many famous sites, it is all too easy to slip into the ‘tick off the list’ mentality. To lose the wonder and joy at being there in the moment, to miss out on what there might be to learn from what is being seen and experienced.

I know that I am incredibly privileged to be able to do the travel I have done. And I don’t want to take that for granted, nor allow it to become merely some kind of symbol of status or accomplishment. I travel because I want to take in beauty and history and art and culture, and I want to be changed by it and have my life and work shaped by it. I love knowing that the world is a big place, a diverse place, and that I am but one tiny part of it. I love being challenged, provoked, and stretched by experiencing more of the world and its people and I pray that that is what I can share with others – whether through stories, insights, or photos. But, no thank you, Mr. Street Vendor, I don’t think I need a selfie stick to do that.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre: aren't you glad my head isn't blocking that beautiful view?
Vernazza, Cinque Terre: aren’t you glad my head isn’t blocking that incredible view?

* Caveat: Okay, I do think that selfies can have a place. Particularly when they are used to capture a shared memory between a group of people who experience an event or place together. I have a handful of selfies from my recent trip and all but one of them are of me with people I met on the trip, which is a lovely way to record and remember our interactions. The other one? It’s of me looking up in an art gallery: taken when I was aiming to capture the beautifully painted ceiling and accidentally turned the iphone camera around!