Friday, August 4, 2006

puerta del sol

Whenever we have visitors in Spain we always take them to the Puerta del Sol. We do this because Sol (as we call it) is unique in at least two respects:

First, Sol marks the geographic center (quite literally) of the Iberian peninsula, of which Spain occupies the bulk. In fact, there is a plaque embedded in the walkway in Sol that serves as a visual reminder of this. The plaque tells you that from that point the carreteras radiales (translation: “radial highways”) originate. They are six highways that “radiate” out from Madrid to connect the capital to the various corners of Spain. If Madrid is like a spider’s body, these highways are like its legs, or perhaps strings of silk, forming the web that Spaniards (and many others) call home. Now: if you are standing in Sol near this plaque, and if I am with you, I will call your attention to it and ask you to take a close look at it, because when you do so you can see those highways demarcated in thin gold lines on the green and red figure that signifies Spain on the plaque. And, if my friend Kelly Wills is with you, she will probably also point out to you that even the street numbering system in the capital itself is rooted in Sol: the numbers go up as you move away from Sol, and they go down as you move towards Sol. It’s quite amazing when you stop and think about it. To my knowledge, there is no other country in the world where you can stand in the heart of a truly world class city and at the same time say, “Here is the center of the nation.”

Second, Sol is a cultural center for Spain (in general) and for Madrid (in particular). It’s the great gathering point. Throughout the year at various holidays Sol will be transformed into Party Central. After Spain’s terrorist attack in March of 2003, it was a key venue for protesting the senseless violence. Commerce and government hold prominent places in this puerta. And, of course, Sol serves as an important transportation hub for the city.

So, it is no surprise that recently the government decided to expand Sol’s public transport capabilities. Some months ago, I was walking in Sol and noticed that they were tearing up a significant portion of the sidewalk and the street. Corrugated metal walls had been installed by the construction company to prevent pedestrians from entering into the work area, but curious persons like me could look between the cracks to see what was going on. Upon further investigation, I noticed a sign that said a Cercanias train stop was being installed at Sol. This was good news to my ears (or rather eyes), since, until that point, Sol simply provided a major Metro stop, but not a Cercanias stop. The Cercanias train system connects the city to the suburbs of Madrid, while the Metro system simply services the city itself. I was glad to hear that a Cercanias station was being installed soon, since this would make Sol more accessible to the distant ‘burb in which we were living.

But, of course, these things take time, especially in any given Southern European country, including Spain. Setting aside the general cultural attitude of mañana, there will always be other “complications” that arise to serve as delays to any project of this nature.

In this instance, the delay came in a rather surprising form, and that’s what really prompted this short piece of writing: They’ve unearthed a church from the 16th century right there in Puerta del Sol. That’s right: Look in Spain’s heart, and you’ll find belief buried, forgotten by those walking just above it. There, covered by centuries of dust and bustle, an ages-old faith lies dormant and sleeping.

Christianity, very much a part of Spain’s historic identity, has become a relic. To be sure, the antiquation of Spain’s faith has happened slowly, gradually, over countless years, but (let us make no mistake about it) faith has been buried alive by the general populace of the modern era.

And this is what has always mystified me about Spain: you cannot understand this country without understanding its Christian heritage, but at times it seems as if its people are perfectly content to lay God to rest.

On the other hand (and this is what excites me!): I believe there exists even today a glimmer of hope for the church in Spain. See: I’m convinced that faith is, in fact, there. We just need to do a little digging. And when we do, people everywhere will agree: God is a great discovery.

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