Thoughts at the back of a Spanish church

Every time I enter or leave a church on the Camino I make point of looking at the bulletin board that usually hangs by the entrance and study what has been posted thereon. I also make a point of studying the brochures and other materials made available at the entrance of these churches. This has been a most edifying exercise and together with even just a cursory glance at the effigies, statues, altarpieces and other iconography I have been able to get a pretty good idea as to the tenor and practice of French and Spanish Catholicism and especially of the great difference between them.

For example, an experience I had in a church in Spain a very short time after I had left the Camino in France. As I left the church I had what in keeping with the ambiance might as well be called an epiphany: right then and there I found corroboration for what I had written in a previous blog concerning the differences between French and Spanish Catholicism, their church iconography and in the way they present Christianity to their congregations and the world in general

The Renaissance Alter of the church was an imposing and impressive and totally over the top: 10 meters by 30 meters tall intricately carved with bible stories and homilies and almost completely covered in in gold leaf. This type of alter is known as “plataresque” in that it truly would seem that they were made as carefully as if they were the works of goldsmiths,  It was not the first such alter I had seen, but it certainly was the most impressive.

My first thoughts, (having myself done some research into world trade history ) is that  the wealth here presented must almost certainly be derived from mines and plantations in the New World on the backs of slave Amerindian labor if not directly stolen from them, or from the  near monopoly the Spanish had on many trade items from the Americas, Africa and India; secondly in terms of economic history it is well known that all the gold silver and wealth that came from the Americas to Spain for some reason did not enrich Spanish Society or lead to development, and this altarpiece could be an indication as to why: wealth was sunk in religious and not in productive.

However this is not what led me to think of the tenor of Spanish Catholicism and where it differed from that in France. Neither was it the many effigies of the suffering Christ or sorrowing Mother Mary all over the walls, neither was it the glass case with a life-size effigy of Christ complete with thorn crown and “dried blood” on his hands and feet (this glass case had long wooden handles attached to it and once a year it carried around in processions

No, what got me started was that as we were leaving I noted a stack of small oblong cards on a table with the picture of a priest on it. It was of Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of OPUS DEI, and the little text that accompanied the picture praised the greatness of his devotion and his funding of the organization, and extoled the reader to follow his and the organization’s devotion to god and the Pope.  By itself this would certainly have piqued me, but now that it had not been so long since I had seen French churches my assumptions and theorizing concerning the differences were here categorically brought home to me as no textbook or article concerning how the Spanish churches is founded on unchanging roots and how they thereby dramatically differed from the present position of the French churches.

Almost every church I entered thereafter I noticed one or another version of this little colorful piece of propaganda (I use this word intentionally) sometimes accompanied with a picture of  Josemaría Escrivá alone and sometimes with a sugar-sweet tinted picture of Josemaría Escrivá  surrounded by children in the best Maoist/ Kim ill Sung style.

In many ways modern Spanish church history starts with Franco and ends with Franco (who knows though with the economic catastrophe Spain is going through today). Opus Dei had a natural place in “Franco’s church”. And the symbiotic relationship between the Franco regime and the Church depended on both parties retaining a shared vision of each other’s role in the destiny of Spain. Each was happy to cocoon the country in a nostalgic, imperial and Catholic past.

We tend to forget that Opus Dei is not only the powerful rich and extremely conservative organization of “The Da Vinci Code” infamy, but in Spain under Franco it was an extremely active and effective on the ground organization whose main project was to influence what and how Spanish school children learnt in school in order to have total control with the development of the Catholic loyalties and sensibilities … in which they were extremely successful and their control extended to almost all private as well as public schools w until well after Franco died… (Today they are experiencing a renaissance after the many years they were out in the cold when socialist sensibilities and pedagogy dominated the Public school system in the post-Franco era, and in the past few years more and more private schools have again come under the sway of Opus Dei)

The symbiotic relationship between the Franco regime and the Church depended on both parties retaining a shared vision of each other’s role in the destiny of Spain. Each was happy to cocoon the country in a nostalgic, imperial and Catholic past. French churches on the other hand look to the future, moreover whereas it seems to me that there never really has been any modernizing influence in Spain, the French have in all aspects of how both content and how they present their “message” endeavored to be modern and relevant to modern Catholics. There is a simple historical reason why and how this has occurred: The French Revolution. The French revolution not only saw the nobility as the enemy of the people, but it also rebelled against the clergy who were seen as being intimately allied with the nobility in oppressing the people. Much as also happened centuries later in the Russian revolution (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose),  priests were killed or quite publicly and quite literally defrocked, and Churches were turned into  granaries, stables … you get the picture. Afterwards the church had to reinvent itself as the protector of the poor: a combination of active priest, monks and nuns, went out into the world, not to save souls, but to succor the poor. A sort of resurgence of the female principle manifested by saintly ecstatic contacts with the divine by young women engendered also contributed to engendering an approachable people’s church.

Spanish Catholicism was born and developed in a constant battle with “foreign” elements who had either conquered or dominated Spanish culture especially in Andalus up until 1492 also known as the Reconquista (“reconquest”)i.e. the period (781 years) between the first Islamic invasion in 711 and the fall of Granada,  the last Islamic state on the peninsula, in 1492.

The Reconquista corresponds to, and is named for, a period of expansion of the Christian states of the peninsula at the expense of the Muslim states: I am of course referring to the Moorish conquest and Jewish influences especially in southern Spain. What resulted is to my mind a more devotional inward-looking attitude towards Christianity with an almost fundamentalist fervor.

But then personality differences to of the two otherwise related cultures “ Sangre and Arena” (blood and sand) fierce independence, masculine in Spain, and the female mother of god, La Virge, succoring and protecting the independent farmer. Most likely it is neither/nor and as well as synthesis of them all

French churches are decorated with (sometimes over the top) statues and paintings of the Virgin. Churches are also adorned with statues of “good” and saintly priests “bon homes” and monks and of the two or three ecstatic young girls that had been in personal contact with the Virgin or her son in the 19th century and before, most famously of Lourdes (it worked for the French in the in the 15th century i.e. Joan of Arc, so why not?). Most often there is a statue of St Roche dressed as a pilgrim … and in fact many a church in France on the pilgrim trails proudly emphasize their association with the Camino, not only by their iconography, but often by offering a devotional or resting place somewhere in or attached to the church for passing pilgrims sometimes with free tea and cakes.

The passion of Christ and the of the church is thereby made more personal and individually relevant here and now, today, and churches are friendly welcoming appearance. At the back of the churches instead of the Spanish admonitions to be a devout Christian, there are innumerable folders and magazines encouraging people to be  good Christians who are concerned with the welfare of the disadvantaged in the world , or with guides as to how to be a modern christen (catholic), father, husband wife, mother child … often these magazines have a cover-picture reminiscent of a one of those multiracial Benetton advertisements. Innumerable enlightening self-help Christian lectures and courses are on offer all through the year.

Every French village and town has a centrally placed statue commemorating the fallen in the first and Second World War, as well as the fallen in the French colonial wars in Indochina and North Africa. This statue always is adorned with tablets listing the fallen. When going through a town whenever possible I always make it point to look at these moments and without fail I feel a great sadness and an understanding for the French. So many men have died in such a short period of time, especially in the First World War. They left whole villages bereft of their men, and often you can see both two three and even four men listed who have the same family name: are they brothers, fathers and sons, uncle and nephew, all dead in one cataclysm? What then of their Women left behind? Who was left to carry on working the fields? These lists are almost always also to be found on marble tablet in the back of village churches. I have seen none of this in Spain: the closest I have seen in Spain is a marble tablet over the entrance of a church commemorating the fallen in the “crusade against communism” (direct quote) i.e. the Spanish revolution in the 1930’s.

Another very visible difference between the way Christianity is practiced in the two countries can be observed anywhere and everywhere in the Spanish or French countryside:  In Spain every little village or even hamlet has a church and often you can from a hilltop see small clusters of houses spread in the landscape each with a church spire in their midst. This is not so in France where hamlets and smaller villages rarely have a church. On the other hand when walking in Spain – at least the part of Spain traversed by the Camino Frances – there are few wayside shrines or crosses, whereas in France almost every crossroad has a stone or iron cross or little shrine or most often also an effigy of the Virgin. The types of cross their shape and the material they are made of most often reflects local and historical factor (for example the many Celtic stone crosses) and each area has its own aesthetic. At the entrance of most villages in France can be found a large (sometimes very large) cross or shrine to the Virgin or to Bernadette or St. Germaine.

Once in a mountainous region in southern France (on the Via Tolosana /Chemin de Arles) where we stayed the night we noted that we were of the grid with our mobile phones and as it was imperative for  one of us to make a call we “complained” to our hosts. Whereupon they calmly and with only the slightest twinkle in their eyes told us “We always go just outside town up to the Cross on the hill when we want to get in touch”. We tried doing this and instantly got in touch with our telephone.

What I can read from this “topological” manifestation of differences in Christian practice is that in Spain all “contact” with the divine must be(and still is) mediated by the clergy, while in France devotion is more an on the ground communal manifestation …everyone( and anyone … even a non-Christian like me) can get in touch by going to the cross.





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