03390_000_010The arches and columns of the Alhambra reflect the glory of kingdoms past, kingdoms present, and kingdoms to come
Francisco de Icaza
The poet was right. Granada, the golden city of the northwestern slope of Spain’s snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains, makes you grateful for your eyes. From the tallest tower to the smallest fountain, it is a monument to the precious gift of seeing. In Granada the meanest beggar is wealthy if he owns a good pair of eyes. But what poverty it would be to stand bathing in that marvelous light, so rich that it casts colored shadows, and never see it!
There would be compensations of course—the scent of rose and oleander, the singing of impassioned voices, the sad ecstasy of gypsy guitars. But even these would come edged with pain, like the aroma of a feast to which you were not invited. There is indeed nothing sadder than to be blind in Granada.
Except perhaps one thing. Consider the fate of Boabdil, last Caliph of the Moorish kingdom of Granada. On the second day of the year 1492, he stood looking down on the fair white houses and lofty minarets of his beloved city for the last time. The Christian armies under the banners of Isabel of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon were pouring through the sunny streets, invading the beautiful mosques, schools, and marketplaces, possessing the quiet patios and well-wrought pleasure gardens. Boabdil, a man of culture and learning and taste, looked down on his earthly paradise and wept. He may have thought of Adam looking back on the garden or Abraham turning away from the cool green valleys and deep wells into the desert.
Legend says that Boabdil’s mother looked upon her heartbroken son with contempt and said bitterly, “You do well, my son, to weep as a woman for what you could not defend as a man!” But the citizens of Granada, wiser than that mother, have always felt a deep sympathy for Boabdil. How hard would be the heart that could not weep for Granada!
Boabdil watched as the Christian troops marched through the city to a hill that thrust into the heart of Granada like the prow of a mighty ship. Climbing through groves and gardens, they came to the walls of the royal fortress and palaces. For Boabdil this must have been the bitterest moment of all because this was the symbol of all he was losing, the Alhambra, renowned then and now as one of the chief wonders of the world and one of the most beautiful places on the earth. Built by his ancestors Muhammed Al-Ahmar, Muhammed II, Abul Yusaf I, and Muhammed V, it was a wonderland of courts and patios and airy passageways, fountains and gardens and towers in which an earthly king could anticipate paradise. Turning away, Boabdil and his men continued their retreat out of Spanish history. For the first time in centuries, Spain was once again totally under Christian control.
And so in the city of Granada one kingdom gave way to another. Already Romans and Visigoths had held sway. Now, the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel had created the nation of Spain, and in one fateful year they had launched Columbus on his voyages of discovery and added the magical city and kingdom of Granada to their rising empire.
Centuries passed. They were centuries of both triumph and tragedy for the empire and the people of Spain. Finally the empire dwindled and failed, but the people remained. They suffered, but they endured, and from the suffering and enduring grew a people in whom laughter and tears, bright sunshine and deep shade were equally mixed, a people who were half Sancho Panza and half Don Quixote of La Mancha.
And finally, last of all, another kingdom came to Granada, the last great earthly kingdom that is to consume all others, the kingdom of God on earth. This article is about a few young men and women of that kingdom. They are peculiar young men and women because they have dedicated their entire lives to attaining yet another kingdom, the kingdom of heaven where kings and queens do not die and where royal glory is an eternal and divine right.
The young Latter-day Saints of Granada did not come into their kingdom by easy inheritance but by hard and lonely roads and against opposition. For them there was little social, economic, or political advantage in joining the restored Church. Quite the contrary. Their decision often meant being laughed at, rejected, and labeled “peculiar people” in the worst possible sense. It closed many doors and opened few. There was no motivation for doing such a crazy thing except the simple, irresistible conviction that their Heavenly Father wanted them to.
Like Cervantes’ famous knight from La Mancha, they sometimes appear to be crazy. Each of them knows what it means to be a spiritual Don Quixote, inspired as others see them by an unrealistic ideal, willing to tilt with giants of spiritual darkness where others see only windmills, and perceiving bright castles where others see only inns. And as they go questing, they carry in their hearts a wonderful secret. Every Aldonza is something much better than a Dulcinea, and every Sancho Panza is meant to govern much more than an island. Thoughtless of consequences, these young people have girded themselves in bright armor in an unheroic age, and if some laugh at them, a few must wonder too, because the faces that look out from beneath the visors are the faces of kings and queens.
However long and hard their quest, they have one great joy. If nothing in life is sadder than to be blind in Granada, what could be more happy than to stand in that beautiful place with eyes and minds and hearts wide open to the vistas of eternity?
One day in May the citizens of that last great earthly kingdom got together to visit their inheritance from the Moslem kingdom of Granada. The young men and women of the Granada Branch went to the Alhambra. They passed through the Pomegranate Gate, the woods, the Gate of Justice, the Court of the Cisterns, the Wine Gate, the Esplanade, and into the Alcazares, the royal palace of the Caliphs of Granada.
They found chamber after chamber of exquisite beauty. The walls and ceilings were decorated in a lacy filigree of plaster, as lovely as ivory. The plaster writhes and vibrates with flowers, leaves, Arabic poetry, Koranic quotations, and interweaving arabesques of pure design. Many walls are also bright with mosaic tile.
They passed through the court of the Myrtals where a long pool reflects a fantasy of arches and pillars and the Court of the Lions where 124 slender pillars surround a fountain supported by 12 stone lions who spurt water from their mouths. Reflected in the fountain, ornate archwork bursts from the tops of the pillars.
The young men and women explored a fairyland of courts, chambers, and patios with such intriguing names as the Hall of Secrets, Hall of the Boat, Hall of Kings, Court of the Cypresses, and the Royal Baths, each a wonderland opening onto other wonderlands.
Decorated as they are in the perishable medium of plaster, these halls were clearly not built as a monument to the ages, but as the tribute to present beauty—beauty that has defied the ravages of time and lingered down the ages as fresh and sweet as when birds first sang outside the windows of Caliph and courtiers.
For a long while the young people wandered through the cool halls and passageways where pillars grow in forests of airy delight, full of sunlight and shadow. Intricately carved stalactites of wood and plaster hang from ceilings as if from some enchanted cavern. Subtle breezes and silvery echoes, the hush of leaves and rippling waves of light eddy about pools of shadow and silence. Through lacy windows in the outside walls could be seen sun-wrapped Granada and the gypsy caves of Sacromonte. From geometric portals cut in domes high overhead, sunlight speared down in shafts of glory.
It was hard to imagine a palace more delightful than this, and yet a splendid melancholy seemed to brood over the whole scene, a delicious yearning for magical times past. There was, as the poet Angel Ganivet once said, a “profound sadness that emanates from a deserted palace, forsaken by its inhabitants, imprisoned in the impalpable thread woven by the spirit of destruction, that invisible spider whose feet are dreams.”
Midway through their journey into history, the young Latter-day Saints stopped in a shady passageway and talked.
José Mesaville told what it was like to be the first convert in Granada. The rest of his family was not at all interested in anything two young North Americans might have to say about religion, but José accepted a strange book called the Book of Mormon and read it. To his amazement he found that he believed what he read. “When I read the part in Third Nephi about the visit of the Savior to America, I knew with a special surety that it had really happened. I decided to be baptized, but I was only 18, and at that time I was still legally a minor. My parents wouldn’t give me permission, so I couldn’t become a member. Shortly after my conversion, the missionaries left Granada. They later came back for a month or two, but for the greater part of three years I lived without the Church. But although I did not have the Church or the gift of the Holy Ghost, I did have the gospel to guide me, and I tried to live as the elders had taught me. When my father found out about the law of tithing, he tore up all my Church books because he thought the principle was a form of thievery. So I had only the Bible and the knowledge I carried in my heart until a returned missionary later sent me more books from the United States. These I had to leave in a hotel where I worked or at the home of a family I had interested in the Church. Finally my father softened his attitude, and I was able to read them at home. I quit smoking and drinking, lived the law of the fast, and did my best to comply with all that I had been taught.
“Before long I came to wonder if I had any friends. Those who had been my best friends made fun of me. I refused to take offense, however, but kept treating them as friends no matter how they treated me. Little by little they began to grow accustomed to my beliefs. Now when we are out together, they ask for beer for themselves and a soft drink for me without my saying anything.”
In 1976 the missionaries returned to Granada to stay. José was now legally an adult, but out of deep respect for his parents, he still asked for their permission to be baptized. “My mother said that I was now an adult and must make my own decisions. She said she thought that this was all youthful foolishness, but that if it wasn’t true, I would grow tired of it with time. I suppose she was right because I certainly haven’t grown tired of it.”
José was baptized in a nearby lake. There was no chapel in those days, and Church meetings were held in the elders’ living quarters. “At first the meetings consisted of two elders and me. The services didn’t last long because we only had one speaker. Later we moved to our present location, and more members began to join the Church. It causes me pain to say that some of them have left the Church already. They didn’t give enough of themselves, and the only way to stay strong is to give of ourselves.”
María Ferrer also told of her conversion. “The first thing that attracted me to the Church was the fact that it was led by a living prophet. Learning that there is contact between our Father in Heaven and the earth, that someone is authorized to receive revelation, filled me with confidence and hope. It was something I had never heard of before. The plan of salvation was also new for me, and I liked it very much. I know without a doubt that the Church is true. It has helped me form my personality. I have discovered good things in myself that I didn’t even know I possessed. I have also discovered defects that I had never faced up to before. I have come to recognize that María Ferrer has her faults. It is important to know one’s faults so that they can be corrected. Without this knowledge of myself that the gospel and the Spirit have brought to me, I could never really improve. I would just be content to be forever mediocre.
“Prayer is also a very important thing in my life. Even though we have help from friends, prayer, that intimate, personal contact with our Father in Heaven, is very important because it leads us to that joy and peace that is what every human creature really wants and needs, even if he doesn’t realize it.
“Frankly, it is sometimes difficult to be a member. There have been times when I was discouraged. But it is also easy, because if you keep trying, you know you can count on the help of the members, the leaders, and above all, of the Lord himself. With that kind of help you can’t fail in the end.”
María spoke warmly of her fellow members. “The support of the other young people in the Church is important, even though there are few of us as yet. We have friends who are not of the Church, of course, but we can’t really share our deepest feelings with them. We can’t share the ideals we have because they don’t understand. They think our standards are chains holding us down. They don’t understand that we can have fun cleanly, without abusing our bodies and our souls. They don’t understand the great confidence and power that come with the knowledge that we have. The greatest challenge in Church membership is to do the things we should continually and thereby set a good example. Everybody knows that we are Mormons, and our example is observed. People take advantage of the smallest slip to criticize the Church. They say, ‘That Mormon! So much for your doctrine!’ But if you keep the standards, they say, ‘This is a real Mormon!’ They admire you. So we must not only continue to be good examples, but we must also avoid all appearance of evil. We must not only strive to be good, but to appear good.”
Like the other young Mormons of Granada, María is realistic about the challenges she faces but idealistic about the outcome. “Being a true Christian may sometimes be difficult,” she said, “but we have support in that effort, and the reward is worth the struggle. Our goals do not end with this life, but we have an objective beyond this existence. That is the most important thing. Also, when we have been rejected and have gone through trials, we have only to go to the Church and we are amply repaid for all we have endured.”
María Josefina added her witness to that of her friends. “I have a strong testimony of the gospel that grows stronger every year. That which most fills me with joy is the atonement of Christ. I can also see and feel the help of the Holy Ghost in my life. I believe that I have come to know Christ more through repentance than any other thing. When I joined the Church, I had to leave behind some of the things I was doing. I repented, and since joining the Church I have come to realize that I must repent of many additional shortcomings and mistakes. Every time my repentance is more contrite and sincere. Through true repentance one can come to know Christ. It is a way of accepting the great gift he gave us. I have a strong testimony of this. I am waiting now for my mission call. I feel it is very important to share with others that which I have received.”
María Angela Rodriguez said, “When I decided to follow Christ and make the covenants of baptism, I left everything (which wasn’t much) and followed. In the Church I have found that which I most lacked, true friendship and love. When I made my decision to follow Christ, problems and adversity did not disappear. Sometimes they seemed to increase, but I always said to myself, ‘There can’t be any halfway disciples. You must either follow Him or turn away from following.’ I am grateful to say that I always chose to follow. Like María Josefina, I, too, am acquainted with repentance. When one comes to truly understand this principle, he feels a great power in his life. The Church has made my life progress. I am progressing in the gospel and feel a very great love for all my fellow Saints everywhere.”
José Ferrer said, “I know the Church is true. I can feel in my heart that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and that President Kimball is a prophet inspired of God. I can feel it. I know that this is Christ’s church. I believe that the youth of the Church are going to change the world. I want to go on a mission. President Kimball has told us that every young man should fulfill a mission, and I feel in my heart that it is true. I have felt a calling almost since I was baptized. These two years I owe to God. It will be beautiful to give two years of my youth so that people can hear the gospel and enjoy the gifts that I enjoy and know what I know.”
When asked if he could bear being rejected by people on his mission, he replied, “I have already borne rejection, and I’m not even a missionary yet. While there are few members, there are many young people who are always attacking the Mormons. I had many friends, but most of them rejected me because of the Church. Actually, they weren’t really friends. They were more like acquaintances. If I had not joined the Church, I would never have known the difference. It’s best to know your friends from your acquaintances.”
Rosario Rodriguez said, “I have a testimony that the Church is true and that Joseph Smith is the Prophet who restored the Church here in the world. I also have a testimony that Spencer W. Kimball is a true prophet. I have never met him, but I have seen him on television. Even seeing him on television I felt in my heart that he was a true prophet. He speaks the truth. He is very sweet and kind.”
The young men and women also spoke of activities they enjoy together—excursions to a nearby river, theater productions, costume parties, outings on the snowy slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, and jaunts over the mountains to sunny Mediterranean beaches. Sometimes they also visit the royal chapel of the cathedral where Ferdinand and Isabel lie in sumptuous tombs. Here also repose their daughter Juana the Crazy and her husband Felipe the Handsome. Theirs is one of the saddest and most bizarre tales in Spanish history. When Juana’s unfaithful husband died young, the grief-stricken queen became convinced that she was to be the recipient of a great miracle. If she had enough faith, her husband could be brought back to life. For three years she traveled around Spain with his coffin by her side, trying to find the holy spot where the miracle would happen. From time to time she would have the coffin opened to check Felipe’s progress, and every time the body was more hopelessly decomposed. Finally she allowed it to be buried, but hope was not yet dead in her. She shut herself up in a nearby monastery to await the wonderful event. She was later declared insane by her son Carlos V, who took the reigns of government from her and made her a permanent prisoner in the monastery. She died there many years later. Now Juana and Felipe and Ferdinand and Isabel all lie together in honored splendor under carven stone, enjoying the prerogatives of royalty to whatever extent the dead can enjoy them, while time rots their banners and tarnishes their splendid armor.
But wherever they go or whatever they do, the youth of Granada all agreed that one of their favorite things in life is getting together with one another.
After sharing their testimonies and finishing their visit to the palace complex, the group passed through the palace of Carlos V and then into the military fortifications known as the Alcasabar, which rear their battlements on the brow of the hill. They climbed to the top of the Watchtower, whose bell was rung of old at times of alarm or celebration. Ringed all about by the wild and ancient sky, they gazed southward at the mounting Sierra Nevadas and all around them at the rose and alabaster glory of Granada. Rinsed and burnished and transfigured by the high, fierce Andalusian sun, it seemed to be a glimpse of the afterlife Muhammad had promised the devout.
Next the young men and women passed into the Generalife—the exquisite series of gardens on the slope above the Alhambra, a world of green and shadow rich in roses, oleanders, rhododendrons, and lofty cypresses, and everywhere the song of water.
These lines by Juan Ramón Jimenez capture the beauty and mystery of these beautiful gardens. Among the white buildings, the dignified towers, the hedges, and the flowerbeds are some of the world’s most beautiful fountains. They are not spectacular or large. They are not adorned with beautiful statuary. But in them is perfected the charm of the simple elegance of water, delicate and refreshing and musical, made by a people with a desert heritage who knew how to value water as something precious in its own right.
The youths wandered through a storybook realm of flowers and hedges and pools and pavilions, where caliphs once strolled in the cool of the evening. Symphonies have been written about the Generalife, but none is more beautiful than the place itself. The sun-entangled trees brought to mind the words of Federico García Lorca:
Earthly days pass even more swiftly than earthly kingdoms, and the young people finished their visit to the Alhambra and returned to their homes. But it is hard for people, like sunlight, to leave Granada. Most of the young Latter-day Saints who call it home plan to live out their lives there. They have little prospect of worldly wealth or influence or power. They will probably leave few monuments in stone or wood or plaster, few gardens with flowing fountains, few mighty palaces or tall towers to keep their names alive when they are gone. But while love may seem even less permanent than plaster, it is a cement that can last beyond the end of time. And if the meek are to inherit the earth and the righteous to live in mansions, then these young men and women are building palaces with their lives. If they continue as they have begun, then even the Alhambra will be as nothing beside the homes that will be theirs when worldly palaces are no more and the last great eternal kingdom comes to Granada.