The Alhambra, in Granada, is one of my favorite places in the world. In fact, I’m sufficiently crazy about it that selecting one picture to accompany this post was quite frustrating. Should it be a long shot of the impressive stone walls? After all, Moorish poets called this hilltop complex of fort, castle, and garden “a pearl amid emeralds” because of the walls rising out of the surrounding forest. Or should it be a shot of the Generalife, or main garden, with its roses and honeysuckle in their sweet-smelling September bloom? Or how about a close-up of some of the elaborate tracery with designs intertwining geometric shapes, stylized stalactites (recalling the cave where Muslims believe the Angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed), and the repeated injunction in swooping Arabic letters that God alone is victorious? What a tough decision!
Ultimately, as you see, I opted for a shot of one of the many interior courtyard gardens. Although the Moors constructed a small fortress on top of Roman ruins in 889 CE, rulers from the Nasrid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries added palaces such as the one you see in the background, interspersed with the sort of walled garden in the picture. Each garden mirrors the Islamic vision of Paradise, with both sunny and shady areas, water that creates a steady, soothing, trickling sound, and flowers and trees to delight the eye and the nose. The Arabs were very aware of the importance of smells. Niches near royal presence chambers in the Alhambra used to hold fine jars of water and perfume for guests to use before approaching the rulers seated inside. And in fact, the Arabs brought the ubiquitous orange trees to Spain for their fragrance, not their fruit. We have a reminder of this fact in the contrast between the bitter taste and the sweet smell of the orange trees that line many Spanish streets.
But beyond the beauty of architecture and flora is the romance of the Alhambra. Even when you’re jostling (or being jostled by) interminable Asian tour groups or are stuck behind large German tourists who can’t figure out their cameras and therefore take forever to get a picture, very little imagination is required to see the romance in the Alhambra. Can’t you see it? Delicate fingers of bored wives or concubines trailed through the waters of the fountains. Small, energetic children of those women played long-ago versions of chase and tag among the columns and shadows, with indulgent but watchful nannies sitting nearby in a knot, gossiping. Surely as you turn around to snap a quick 21st century picture of an especially lovely archway, the sun glints off the brocaded tail of a colorful, gilt-threaded robe which disappears beyond a piece of tracery, and the back of a soft slipper on the pavement is momentarily visible as you hit the button, too late, on your iPhone. And the gentle breezes must carry the remains of the last sigh uttered by Boabdil, the Muslim ruler whose cession of the Alhambra to Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista of Spain. A turn of his head to see one final time the home of his ancestors, now fallen into infidel hands, and a small breath of sadness and remembrance – surely those still waft in this air across the centuries.
So, as I told Mark after last week’s tour of this magical place, we’re incredibly lucky to have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this. We’d come with our old and dear friends, Holly and Ward Cooper, who kindly included us in their itinerary during their trip to Spain. Our amazing travel agent and even more amazing friend, Sally Watkins, had arranged a wonderful tour guide to take us through the Alhambra. Mark mostly agreed with me, but did have one question about my burst of gratitude. “Is it a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he queried, “since this is the second time we’ve been here? We were here in 2012, after all.”
That’s a fair question. And an even better question is, how on earth did we get so lucky to see the Alhambra (twice), to live in the USA and in Spain, to live the life we have? We just celebrated 34 years of incredibly happy marriage and have the two best daughters and the best son-in-law on the planet. Friends abound, here in Spain and in the USA. Books, music, travel, food, and wine are at our fingertips. As I’m writing this post, Mark and I are sitting on our balcony, sipping red wine, chatting, and watching the pinks of sunset soften the achingly blue sky over the Mediterranean. I repeat: How on earth did we get so lucky?
Friends, a trigger warning is appropriate here. Please don’t say we deserve it, because this kind of talk drives me crazy and is clearly not true. Nothing I’ve done, or Mark’s done (and he’s a pretty swell guy), or we’ve done together merits this much good fortune. Please also don’t say God has chosen to bless us. The God I know loves each child with absolute tenderness, ferocity, and generosity. If we deserve this, so does everyone. And yet such a meager few get even a fraction of what we live each day.
The only glimmer of an answer that I have relates to a conversation Mark and I had last night on this selfsame balcony, drinking wine just as we do most evenings. Ingrates that we are, we were noting that our life is, in fact, not perfect. The complaint du jour involved the perception, shared by us both, that our spiritual journeys seem to have stalled. In Austin, our beloved First United Methodist Church provides an abundance of opportunities to grow in spirit. Study groups have challenged us to see the shortcomings in our society and in ourselves. Volunteer opportunities have opened our eyes to injustice in God’s world. Preaching has moved us to take action, to organize, to march. But here, although we’ve found a dear Church of England congregation that has provided a lovely worship experience and much-needed friendships, we’ve not found spiritual challenges of the type we knew in Austin.
So we were talking about this yesterday evening, watching the sunset and being awed by the beauty around us. And I told Mark that the only thing I can see in spiritual growth so far here is that we’re being asked to accept more than we deserve. Both of us were the bright kids in the classroom and in the law firm, and we’ve lived and breathed meritocracy since we were precocious babies that our mothers bragged about. So even though we have paid lip service to the idea of grace for lo these many years, maybe we deep down suspected that we did, in fact, earn what was coming our way. But even I can’t delude myself into thinking that I’ve earned the truly excessive wonderfulness – if that wasn’t a word before, I declare that is now – of our present life. So perhaps the growth that is asked of us is to learn about the ridiculously excessive and abundant and overflowing grace that God gives us. It is preparation for paradise, which I sincerely hope is completely lousy with gardens and fountains and courtyards where we all hang out together through eternity. Talk about wanting more than you deserve! And yet here it is – in the words of Methodist liturgy, “more than we can dare hope or imagine.”
And all I can say to that is, amen and amen. And pass the wine.