A Saint for The Middle of Winter?
An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To find an unorthodox saint to keep us motivated through the winter months.
Preparation and materials
- Find some images of the Sydney Opera House by Danish architect JØrn Utzon and the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí and have the means available to display them during the assembly (see: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Opera_House and www.sagradafamilia.cat/sf-eng/docs_instit/images.php, but check copyright).
- Have available the piece of music ‘Mallorca’ by Isaac Albeniz and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- This is the time of year that footballers think of as a long, dark tunnel. The anticipation and exhilaration of beginning a new season has faded and we're still a long way from the adrenalin-fuelled excitement – either to push on to victory or avoid relegation – that players feel at the end of the season. The only thing to do is slog through one game after another, rainy Saturday after rainy Saturday, knowing that, eventually, hopefully, the effort we are making will be rewarded.
- Things seem much the same at school. Christmas is over. Christmas concerts, which seemed to take so much time and effort to prepare, have long since been forgotten. The holiday is over. Christmas tree decorations have been taken down and put back in the attic. The tree itself, shedding needles, has been taken away to be recycled. The sales are over. There's no money left in the bank. The streets are filled with puddles.
- What makes things even gloomier is that summer seems such a long way off and – this is the final twist – will only be reached after weeks and weeks of work, rounded off by an exhausting final stretch of tests and exams.
- What this season needs is a patron saint of dogged determination, because that's what it's going to take to get through the next few months. Is there a saint who would be suitable?
- When you think about it, most saints are fairly flashy – the sort of holy equivalent of pop stars or sporting heroes. In a way, Francis was the David Beckham of the thirteenth-century Church – his life was dramatic and filled with miraculous incidents.
Who's the equivalent of Victoria? Cecilia . . . Catherine . . . Mother Teresa . . .? OK, that's stretching it a bit, but the point is, those saints also led high-profile and, in their way, glamorous lives.
- We need someone who is holy, but also a bit of a plodder. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, would be one candidate. The person I want to talk about today, though, is probably even less well known than him. He was an architect. Architects need to be really tough, tougher than footballers, because the projects they begin can take years to complete.
- You probably all know what the Sydney Opera House looks like. It's almost the unofficial badge of that city, but the Danish architect who designed it, JØrn Utzon, never finished it off. There were all kinds of timing and budget problems, disagreements and differences, political battles and, eventually, he resigned and returned to Denmark before the interior was completed.
Show images of the Sydney Opera House.
Today, the Sydney Opera House looks dazzling from the outside, but it's less than perfect on the inside as the original design was changed to increase the number of seats, among other things. Being an architect, it seems, can be a really dispiriting career!
- The architect we're talking about today, however, is not the designer of the Sydney Opera House, but Antoni Gaudí. He began a project that was to take even longer than the building of Sydney Opera House.
Gaudí was Spanish, born in 1852. He designed quite a few buildings, all of which, even today, look really weird, like something out of a science fiction film.
In 1883, he was asked to take over the building of a new cathedral in Barcelona – the Sagrada Familia. His vision was fantastical – a crazy structure with four great spires, studded with bizarre decorations. From then on, his life was utterly devoted to the task of building the cathedral. He designed and helped to build every little detail – the ceramic tiles on the roof, the tubular bells that were to hang in the spires – everything.
Show images of the Sagrada Familia.
When he needed to sculpt the donkey that carried the Virgin Mary to Bethlehem, he scoured the streets looking for a real, suitably scraggy animal to act as his model. In the end, he moved into the half-completed crypt of the cathedral to live, so that his whole life could be devoted to the project.
In 1926, aged 74 (35 years after he began work on the Sagrada Familia), he was knocked over by a tram and killed. His building was unfinished. A few years after his death, during the Spanish Civil War, when the Communists held Barcelona and burned most of the churches, Gaudí's cathedral was the only one that was untouched.
Today, over 100 years after he began, the cathedral is still not finished, though work is continuing to complete it. Almost certainly, Gaudí must have known that he would never live to see his vision turned into reality – it was just too big for a single life – but he didn't let this stop him. He just kept pressing on.
There are some people who would like to see Antoni Gaudí recognized as a saint. He certainly was devout. During the fast of Lent, he regularly almost starved himself to death! In the end, what is really impressive about him is his sheer guts. He never let himself be ground down or depressed by the task that faced him. He just got on with the job.
- So, today, as you sit in a classroom, looking out of the window at the drizzle outside, dreaming of the summer that seems impossibly distant, don't feel sorry for yourself! Think of Antoni Gaudí, who had an even greater task in front of him and just kept plodding on, always cheerful, believing that some day, somehow, all would be well.
Time for reflection
Let's be quiet for a moment and think about the term ahead.
There seems to be so much work to do! There's no getting away from the fact that it's going to be hard work.
Gaudí knew that, bit by bit, his cathedral would grow and, one day, it would be complete. It's the same for us. Step by step, we'll reach the end of term. When we arrive there, perhaps we will have achieved something worthwhile, something that at the moment feels too far away to believe we can reach it.
Gaudí also knew that when he was working to create something good, he was, in some way, working with and towards God. This is what he wrote:
Creation continues incessantly through the works of Man. But man does not create: he discovers.
'Mallorca' by Isaac Albeniz