Architecture, ideas, and faith

In my Walter Mitty life, I’m not turning two with Cal Ripken at Camden Yards, or playing the Emperor Concerto with the National Symphony; I’m not even writing the Great American Novel. No, when I imagine a different life it’s as an architect.

On the face of it, my architectural fantasies are quite absurd. I can’t draw a circle. My mathematical skills are challenged by the family check book, and I’m clueless about engineering. But I love great buildings, and to think of the exhilaration involved in designing and building one is … well, exhilarating.

Which brings me to one recent experience, and one splendid book.

The experience took place in Barcelona where, this past November, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition to visit Antonio Gaudi’s Temple of the Sagrada Familia, perhaps the world’s most famous unfinished structure. How to describe the Sagrada Familia? It’s an utterly unique mix of naturalism and the gothic, sprawling over an entire city block and weaving elements of nature and classic Christian symbols together into a stone fabric unlike anything in the world. From another point if view, it’s a kind of colossal Christian forest, inside and out; there will eventually be eighteen exterior spires (Jesus, Mary, the apostles, the evangelists), and inside the gothic nave, the supporting columns resemble nothing so much as gigantic trees. The three facades—Nativity, Passion, and Glory—are mini-catechisms of the basics of Christian doctrine.

I was in Barcelona to received an honorary degree along with my old friend Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, former secretary to John Paul II and current archbishop of Cracow; we climbed to the very top of the temple, hundreds of feet above Barcelona, neither one of us feeling at liberty to tell our hosts that hiking up open-air scaffolding at those altitudes wasn’t our favorite pastime—and the cardinal did it in a cassock! But we made it, and I’m glad we did, because it’s only from that angle that you can get a full sense of both the enormity of Gaudi’s vision and his remarkable attention to detail. The current head of construction told us that they hoped to finish what Gaudi had begun in1892 in, say, twenty-five or thirty years. I hope they make it—and I hope Barcelona isn’t the capital of the Islamic Republic of Catalonia when the Sagrada Familia is done.

The splendid book in question is The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and His Office, by Ethan Anthony. In the first half of the twentieth century, when architectural modernism was riding high, Ralph Adams Cram was the leading classical architect in America. His most famous buildings include the Princeton University Chapel, the Post Headquarters at West Point, St. Thomas Episcopal Church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in New York (home to the greatest stone reredos in North America), Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and, of course, the never-completed Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. In addition to his magnificent churches—which he did in Gothic, Romanesque, Tudor, and Spanish Colonial, among other styles—Cram designed college campuses (Princeton, Rice, Sweet Briar, Boston University), public buildings, offices, and homes.

As Ethan Anthony puts it, neatly, Ralph Adams Cram was the “crusading knight” of American architecture, contesting for buildings that gave expression to the nobility of the human spirit and our aspiration to touch the true, the good, and the beautiful.  If, as architect-friends tell me, contemporary construction economics make Cram’s stone-based work impossible to replicate, then we are the much the poorer, aesthetically, for it.

Antonio Gaudi and Ralph Adams Cram were two very different architects, whose work could hardly be considered parallel. Except, I would submit, in the most important sense: both men worked out of a profound Christian sensibility, informed by classic Christian ideas about the way the world is—and the way our stewardship of the world should function. If the banal plainness of Bauhaus modernism bespeaks spiritual aridity, the architecture of Gaudi and Cram is redolent with an intellectually sophisticated faith that never loses sight of the mystical, of that which is beyond our reason. That’s why their works soar.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.