The cross rises from granite boulders on a protected ridge of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range in central Spain. The largest Latin cross in Europe grasps for the heavens, and on clear days it can be seen in parts of Madrid – more than an hour’s drive away.
Below the cross adorned with disciples, a stone statue of Mary cradling the crucified Jesus represents more than the Catholic faith that became the official religion of Spain under the harsh rule of Francisco Franco, the dictator who became a symbol of oppression in history books and in the lives of those who are still alive to remember the pain. It represents a virgin mother-country Spain mourning her own in concentration camps and prisons and mass executions. Her tearful face seems to still long for a complete resurrection of the liberty of her country – freedom to worship freely, speak freely, and celebrate the diverse heritage of her people.
Both the cross and the basilica below it were built with brawn and blood – no scaffolding or machinery helped hoist the 500-foot cross or carve the deep church and crypt into the mountain below it. Broken boulders became the most dangerous of ladders for workers to climb higher and higher as they polished bannisters and statues of menacing angels and delicate virgins charged with protecting and comforting those who entered.
Commissioned by Franco to honor the Spanish Civil War that lasted three years and took upwards of a million lives through battles and executions and imprisonment, the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen) is his statement of ultimate power, his self-proclaimed highly visible “act of atonement” to reconcile a nation his regime divided.
Communities were set ablaze with hatred.
Marriages were nullified.
Languages were silenced.
Friends became foes.
Family members fought against each other.
It would take 19 years for close to 2500 people to chip away at the mountain and carved stone that would become church and crypt and cross. Some volunteered their time out of loyalty to party and cause. But some were enemies of Franco. He made a deal with those imprisoned for opposing him – they would build his masterpiece in trade for steps toward liberty, a liberty they would never taste.
The crucifix on the altar inside is hand-carved from trees that yielded up their lives on the mountain to make space. Overhead, mosaics tell the Biblical story of invitation to meet the Jesus nailed and bleeding on the cross below. Tribes make their pilgrimage to the One at the center who makes all things new. There are farmers with plowshares and scholars with scrolls and slaves with chains broken. Creeds. Tongues. Tribes. Groups made enemies in life holding all things in common in death.
And behind the walls of the basilica – hidden in the darkness of the mountain – are buried 40,000 who fought in the Spanish civil war.
Not by name.
Not by allegiance.
Not by political party.
Not by town or city.
40,000 simply buried side by side.
While many believe Franco buried them to prove the power of his rule and reign, the decision revealed something far more powerful.
We are buried with our enemies.
Benedictine monks now tend to the cross and the basilica, as thousands visit out of curiosity or in protest of the pain and the lost lives and the ultimate reminder of a tyrant’s power. But the monks can’t keep the walls inside the basilica from weeping. Pails dot the granite floors to catch the tears still falling from the carved granite.
Falling for those denied freedom then, and fighting for freedom now.
Women. Slaves. Foreigners. The young. The old.
With the Valley of the Fallen, Franco attempted to remind all around him who held true power and who was subject to it. His oppressive rule ended with his death some 40 years after the Spanish Civil War, and while he demanded to be buried in Madrid, his remains would instead be placed in a grave in the basilica, under the hand-hewn cross and the countless faces on the dome above.
Buried with the 40,000 side by side. Enemies in life holding all things in common in death.
We are buried with our enemies, you and I. The ones we judge, the ones we oppress, the ones we ignore, the ones we fight. The ones we call an embarrassment. The ones we believe don’t deserve. The ones we believe shouldn’t live. The ones we fear. The ones we hate. The ones who do real harm. And the ones who simply are different.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus said we were to pray rather than curse, love rather than hate, lavish kindness rather than brandish weapons.
Maybe that’s why Micah wrote: The Lord has told you, human what is good; He has told you what He wants from you: to do what is right to other people, love being kind to others, and live humbly, obeying your God.
We are buried with our enemies because indeed we are all the enemy. No matter our lives, we will hold all things in common in death.
“No sacrifice which a lover would make for his beloved is too great for us to make for our enemy.” ~Bonhoeffer
We are all the enemy – and yet not one of us beyond hope.
We can put out the fires.
We can restore families.
We can give voice.
We can lay our weapons down.
We can catch the tears.
We can hold all things common. In life.
“In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.” ~Henri Nouwen
(This was originally published in Bedlam Magazine on November 4, 2015.)