Imperfect Chapels

Imperfect Chapels

«Know you not, that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?»

— 1 Cor 3:16 (DRV)

Midway upon the journey of my life, I found myself within a dark crisis of faith, from whence I thought I would never escape. I had converted some years before to the catholic faith, wherein I found truth and a sense of purpose that the World could not give me. Then, it had been an intellectual breakthrough: suddenly everything made sense! It was indescribably beautiful, this sense of every little piece of the cosmos falling into place, like the cogs of a perfect machine! I started studying my faith and blogging about it… I had become an apologist, eager to share my findings with everybody, just like a child that finds a shell in the beach runs to the adults to show it.

Alas, the years had passed… and with them, the enthusiasm waned. Well, I can’t say that the trouble was in the *amount* of years that had passed, but rather in the *contents* of those years. Suddenly, everything didn’t make sense anymore. Reality had struck down that entire intellectual construct I had built! I could not understand how an all-loving and omnipotent God could’ve behaved in a certain way in my life, my *real* life.

That embittered me. It turned me cynic. Which, in turn, aggravated the vicious cycle: I was scandalized by my own lack of faith, by my weakness… What kind of temple of the Holy Spirit was I? No, I was not a temple anymore – so I thought – unless we were talking about the ruins of a once beautiful and thriving sanctuary, that barbarians had pillaged and ravaged.

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And so, there I was. In the aforementioned crisis of faith. But I was heading somewhere else. It was a cold, grey, winter afternoon. It had been raining all morning. And I was on a road. Driving all alone along a locality named “Batalha”. There stands the greatest gothic monument in Portugal.

Well, I’ve got plenty of time, might as well pay a visit”. Even in my darkest moments, I could find solace in contemplating beauty, namely artistic beauty. And gothic was (and is) my favorite architectural style. Maybe I’d feel better if I went there, at least for a while. And so I did.

Now, the name of this monument is Monastery of Our Lady of the Victory. It is so named, because it was built in the vicinity of a battleground where Portugal fought for (and won) its independence in the XIV century, to honor the divine favor granted by the intercession of the Virgin St. Mary. It is also because of this that the monument is commonly referred to as “Mosteiro da Batalha” i.e. the Monastery of the Battle.

It is no wonder that such a monastery contains a lot of militaristic overtones: from the equestrian statue that stands in the plaza before the monastery, representing the general that won the battle (a general that has been canonized by the Catholic Church in 2009)… to a chapel next to the cloister, where we have a memorial to the Unknown Soldier, perpetually guarded by two live sentinels from the portuguese army.

All of this evoked in me a remembrance of days long past. In those days, I had been exposed to an on-line culture that emphasized the “militant” (i.e. soldier) nature of the Church here on Earth. There were memes all over the place, with over-romanticized views of the crusades, of which we were spiritual successors, by equipping the pauline “Armor of God” and resisting the external enemies of the Church that threatened us, until a miraculous Lepanto would come along and sweep us over to victory. Deus lo vult!

But those images didn’t stir me anymore. I had been a good soldier, but I had been thrown under the bus. Like lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump”, I no longer had legs to stand on! How could I be a soldier? I wasn’t even complete! All I could do was brood my misery until the rest of my soul caught on with the legs it had lost…

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Eschewing all these martial connotations, I entered the central nave of the church, deciding to concentrate on the monument’s fine architectural details instead. It will never cease to amaze me how Man can produce such works of art, as if solid stone was nothing more than strings that can be weaved in beautiful and geometrically patterned embroideries! How medieval people could lift those heavy towers to such altitudes, with their accurately placed pillars and buttresses! How the faithful are bathed with a shower of kaleidoscopic lights being projected from the saints that stand watch on their otherworldly stained glass, just like Alice on the other side of the mirror.

It is said that every single one of these details in medieval churches was made with the express purpose of catechizing the faithful, the bulk of which could not read or understand latin. What catechesis did that monastery teach me? Well, only this: beauty could lift my heart indeed… but it was a short-lived sensation. A mere bandage, a pain-killer, with no lasting effect. That was all the catechesis I was getting from there at the time. Come to think of it: was I really open to be catechized? At that stage of my life, I wasn’t really looking for another sermon, for another moralistic talk about what I should do or not… I was looking for answers!

Well, if I was looking for answers, I could only find them in one place. So I headed right there. I sat down in front of the Holy Sacrament, asking God for the answers my soul was so arduously craving!

I wasn’t surprised to hear only silence from God. I mean, I hadn’t been hearing anything else on my prayers for years! Why would it be different that day? Little did I know, that God was going to answer my prayer, just not right there… And that it would answer through an architectonic catechesis, even though I wasn’t open to being catechized at all! All I had to do was to get up and start moving!

I guess I didn’t have a choice. I wished to mount camp there and wrestle the blessing out of God just like Jacob did at Peniel… but I couldn’t. Sooner or later I would have to fulfill my duties with my family and workplace. Even if I didn’t, there would come a time when a night guard would come along and kick me out of there.

So, I decided that, since God was giving me the silent treatment, I might as well strip away the christian attire and put on the tourist apparel. Little did I know, that I wasn’t getting into the role of a tourist, but rather that of a pilgrim. Namely, I was setting on a pilgrimage that would take me far away… some hundred of feet from there.

I decided to buy a ticket to visit the other parts of the monument. In the brochure, I noted that the visit included a place named “The Imperfect Chapels”. Why, I never noticed that before! When I was a child, my school’s field trips passed right beside those, since they didn’t teach us much about battles and other historically “relevant” episodes. Just like I was never taught about frailty, defeat and dark nights of the soul in the triumphant sites of militant catholics.

I read the brochure. Apparently, those Imperfect Chapels were built to house the tomb of a portuguese king, named Duarte (Edward), and his queen Leonor (Eleanor). Unfortunately, these were never finished, hence their name.

I was curious. For the first time in weeks, my mind had drifted away from my spiritual concerns into something different. For a while, that childish enthusiasm I had experienced so many years before seemed to come back to life. I rushed my visit through the tombs of other kings and through the cloister into the Imperfect Chapels, which were the last attraction of the visit. Even in that, they seemed to be a perfect catechesis: “the last will be the first”, so says Scripture.

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To access the Imperfect Chapels, I had to exit the monastery and enter it again, through a discreet side door. There are times when life takes us out of the safety of our walled shrines, right there into the uncovered Outside, where monstrous gargoyles mock us, loom over us, even prey upon us. Of course, we are not meant to stay outside… but sometimes, a reboot is necessary. Sometimes, we must unlearn things that were crystallized in our hearts and minds, that we confuse as dogma, in order for us to achieve a new perspective on what the church is, what it *really* is, stripped out of man-made preconceptions and focused on what is truly fundamental, not merely accidental. For the Imperfect Chapels are also a part of the monastery complex, just like the un-walled exterior square.

I confess I was a bit wary. As I said before, the afternoon was very cloudy, it had rained hours before. The atmosphere was creepy. Should I risk going outside? Also, the pillars of the structure, seen from outside, ended abruptly against the sky, apparently decapitated compared to the conical and magnificent pinnacles from the neighboring towers. It didn’t look good. Maybe I should call it a day and just… go away…

However, I forced myself to enter. That was my last chance to obtain answers from there. I could not exit that temple without incorporating it into my being somehow… for if I didn’t, then I would exit the temple for good. But if I succeeded, then I would never exit the temple, for the temple would forever follow me wherever I went, indelibly marked into the story of my life.

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I’m sure glad I entered! For as soon as I entered, my eyes exploded with a spectacle of beauty I didn’t see inside the monastery proper! Within the Imperfect Chapel, the stone was carved with more gracious figures and with more ingenious art than anywhere else… something I didn’t deem possible! So it happens when we judge a building from its exterior, when we condemn an incomplete temple from the outside. This is particularly true for living temples of the Holy Spirit.

A thought crossed my mind immediately: “What a shame that these chapels, so stunning, were never finished”. But soon, another thought rebuked the first. Because what made these chapels gorgeous and special was precisely their incompleteness.

As high as these chapels soared, they, however, had no ceiling. They were open to the sky. The inside was sheltered from the lowly winds that tried to blow their firm foundations out of the ground… but this celestial ceiling meant that these chapels were vulnerable to anything that came down from the sky. Be it the joyful daylight, the scorching midday sun, the heavy rain, or even the pesky droppings from the occasional bird. In fact, my shoes were all wet from the puddles that the rain had produced on the floor. And the decapitated pillars were reflected on those puddles, as an inverted stained glass reflecting heaven on the lowest and dirtiest level of earth.

But isn’t this what a true Christian is? Someone who is vulnerable to everything that comes down from the Most High, be it good or bad? Shouldn’t the temples of the Holy Spirit that we are have heavenly ceilings as well?

Then it hit me: Every single one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, yes… but an incomplete temple. There is not a single one of us that doesn’t sin, one way or the other. There is not one of us that is complete, for we will only attain completeness on That Day. All of us are temples, all of us are incomplete chapels.

That was the catechesis my soul was wanting! It was not true that my temple was in ruins. It was just… unfinished. I was on a journey, and in this I was not alone: there is not one of us that is outside of that journey.

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Another mistery remained, however, yet unsolved. It was true that the structure had no ceiling, it was true that some windows were stripped of glass, it was true that the chapels had no altars or ornaments or statues of saints… Then why? Why didn’t it feel hollow? These chapels were nothing more than a glorified tube! They should feel more… empty!

So our man-made prejudices loudly decree, that the Holy Spirit cannot fill an imperfect chapel. Or can it?

Remember when I said that these chapels were built to harbor the tomb of a king and of a queen? Well, they are indeed buried there, right across from the entrance arch. As it is customary for these medieval sepulchers, above the tomb we see the carven effigies of the deceased. Generally, the king is represented with a sword or a book or some other glorious item, proclaiming the monarch’s attributes.

The king had, indeed, a sword over his body. The queen had, indeed, a book over her lap. But that was not what struck the visitor the most. Rather, it was something I had not seen before, at least not in such a way as to be inescapable… the king and queen were holding hands! Forever! Eternally frozen in an everlasting act of tender love…

Love! Yes, that was the key! For a time, “love” seemed a codeword for a squishy Christianity, for a Church of Nice, a deviation against which orthodox catholics should fight. However, how can a christian worship a God, that is nothing but love? Isn’t love the central tenet of our faith, as declared by that splendid hymn by St. Paul?

Isn’t the love of Jesus, who died on a cross for His love for us all, the most virile act that exists? Isn’t the act of loving someone day after day after day a battle in itself, in which we need the divine favor and the intercession of Our Lady to obtain victory? That was also a lesson to be taught by the Monastery of the Battle! Without me realizing it, I was recovering the true and original sense of the expression “Militant Church”, where the greatest wars a Christian wages are within himself!

Where love is inscribed in stone, there the temple will never be void, no matter how unfinished it is. And there will inhabit the Holy Spirit, for love is one of His fruits. And as if to signify that, there were doves nestling all around, perennial guardians attentively watching over those effigies of Love.

Yes, indeed. There was life flourishing inside those Imperfect Chapels! Baby doves tweeted awkwardly a promise of a new future. And even on the top of the decapitated pillars, there were tufts of grass waving at me with their greenness.

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On my way back to my car, I stumbled upon a garden, a reminder of an edenic perfection and completeness that stood in opposition to the Imperfect Chapels. In that garden was a plaque, where there was inscribed a saying from the great portuguese thinker, writer and physician Miguel Torga:

«The Imperfect Chapels (…) The adverse fates have providentially turned them into the concrete symbol of an abstract homeland in perpetual gestation in the unrest of each son».

That was the perfect summation of the catechesis God taught me that day. A catechesis I would never forget. I think it was thanks to that catechesis that I instinctively understood the teachings of Pope Francis that have scandalized so many of my fellow catholics. So, I would like this to be the main theme of these chronicles which I have started today on this site (although, by no means I wish to limit myself to only one theme): to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical or spiritual. I really hope you enjoy and find these writings helpful for your journey, as they were to mine.

I would like to credit and thank Maria Dília Silva, my colleague and friend, for the photos I’ve used in this post

Pedro Gabriel

Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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2 thoughts on “Imperfect Chapels

  1. Texto corajoso, humano e intimista sobre a imperfeição humana, em paralelo com as Capelas Inacabadas do Mosteiro da Batalha de Portugal. As palavras sensíveis e as fotografias perfeitas expressam uma via sacra desde as cruzes da solidão, do sofrimento, do desespero, do medo , da insegurança e da falta de fé até à compreensão dos outros, ao Amor, a Cristo, à Redenção, à libertação no Altíssimo.

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