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LA SAGRADA FAMÍLIA—the Basílica of the Holy Family—occupies an entire city block in central Barcelona. Despite its massive footprint, the church seems to hover almost weightlessly above the earth, a delicate cluster of airy spires that ascend effortlessly into the Spanish sky.

Intricate and porous, the towers have varying heights, giving the shrine the air of a whimsical sand castle erected by mischievous giants. Once completed, the tallest of the eighteen pinnacles will climb a dizzying and unprecedented 560 feet—higher than the Washington Monument—making Sagrada Família the tallest church in the world, eclipsing the Vatican’s own St. Peter’s Basilica by more than a hundred feet.

The body of the church is sheltered by three massive facades. To the east, the colorful Nativity facade climbs like a hanging garden, sprouting polychrome plants, animals, fruits, and people. In stark contrast, the Passion facade to the west is an austere skeleton of harsh stone, hewn to resemble sinews and bone. To the south, the Glory facade twists upward in a chaotic clutter of demons, idols, sins, and vices, eventually giving way to loftier symbols of ascension, virtue, and paradise.

Completing the perimeter are countless smaller facades, buttresses, and towers, most of them sheathed in a mud-like material, giving the effect that the lower half of the building is either melting or has been extruded from the earth. According to one prominent critic, Sagrada Família’s lower half resembles “a rotting tree trunk from which had sprouted a family of intricate mushroom spires.”

In addition to adorning his church with traditional religious iconography, Gaudí included countless startling features that reflected his reverence for nature—turtles supporting columns, trees sprouting from facades, and even giant stone snails and frogs scaling the outside of the building.

Despite its outlandish exterior, the true surprise of Sagrada Família is glimpsed only after stepping through its doorways. Once inside the main sanctuary, visitors invariably stand slack-jawed as their eyes climb the slanting and twisting tree-trunk columns up two hundred feet to a series of hovering vaults, where psychedelic collages of geometric shapes hover like a crystalline canopy in the tree branches. The creation of a “columned forest,” Gaudí claimed, was to encourage the mind to return to thoughts of the earliest spiritual seekers, for whom the forest had served as God’s cathedral.

Not surprisingly, Gaudí’s colossal Art Nouveau opus is both passionately adored and cynically scorned. Hailed by some as “sensual, spiritual, and organic,” it is derided by others as “vulgar, pretentious, and profane.” Author James Michener described it as “one of the strangest-looking serious buildings in the world,” and Architectural Review called it “Gaudí’s sacred monster.”

If its aesthetics are strange, its finances are even stranger. Funded entirely by private donations, Sagrada Família receives no financial support whatsoever from the Vatican or the world Catholic leadership. Despite periods of near bankruptcy and work stoppages, the church exhibits an almost Darwinian will to survive, having tenaciously endured the death of its architect, a violent civil war, terrorist attacks by Catalan anarchists, and even the drilling of a subway tunnel nearby that threatened to destabilize the very ground on which it sits.

In the face of incredible adversity, Sagrada Família still stands, and continues to grow.

Over the past decade, the church’s fortunes have improved considerably, its coffers supplemented by ticket sales to more than four million visitors a year who pay handsomely to tour the partially completed structure. Now, having announced a target completion date of 2026—the centenary of Gaudí’s death—Sagrada Família seems to be infused with a fresh vigor, its spires climbing heavenward with a renewed urgency and hope.

Father Joaquim Beña—Sagrada Família’s oldest priest and presiding clergyman—was a jovial eighty-year-old with round glasses on a round face that was always smiling atop his tiny robe-draped body. Beña’s dream was to live long enough to see the completion of this glorious shrine.

Tonight, however, inside his clerical office, Father Beña was not smiling. He had stayed late on church business, but had ended up riveted to his computer, entirely caught up in the disturbing drama unfolding in Bilbao.

Edmond Kirsch was assassinated.

Over the last three months, Beña had forged a delicate and unlikely friendship with Kirsch. The outspoken atheist had stunned Beña by approaching him personally with an offer to make a huge donation to the church. The amount was unprecedented and would have an enormous positive impact.

Kirsch’s offer makes no sense, Beña had thought, suspecting a catch. Is it a publicity stunt? Perhaps he wants influence over the construction?

In return for his donation, the renowned futurist had made only one request.

Beña had listened, uncertain. That’s all he wants?

“This is a personal matter for me,” Kirsch had said. “And I’m hoping you’ll be willing to honor my request.”

Beña was a trusting man, and yet in that moment he sensed he was dancing with the devil. Beña found himself searching Kirsch’s eyes for some ulterior motive. And then he saw it. Behind Kirsch’s carefree charm there burned a weary desperation, his sunken eyes and thin body reminding Beña of his days in seminary working as a hospice counselor.

Edmond Kirsch is ill.

Beña wondered if the man was dying, and if this donation might be a sudden attempt to make amends with the God whom he had always scorned.

The most self-righteous in life become the most fearful in death.

Beña thought about the earliest Christian evangelist—Saint John—who had dedicated his life to encouraging nonbelievers to experience the glory of Jesus Christ. It seemed that if a nonbeliever like Kirsch wanted to participate in the creation of a shrine to Jesus, then denying him that connection would be both unchristian and cruel.

In addition, there was the matter of Beña’s professional obligation to help raise funds for the church, and he could not imagine informing his colleagues that Kirsch’s giant gift had been rejected because of the man’s history of outspoken atheism.

In the end, Beña accepted Kirsch’s terms, and the men had shaken hands warmly.

That was three months ago.

Tonight, Beña had watched Kirsch’s presentation at the Guggenheim, first feeling troubled by its antireligious tone, then intrigued by Kirsch’s references to a mysterious discovery, and ultimately horrified to see Edmond Kirsch gunned down. In the aftermath, Beña had been unable to leave his computer, riveted by what was quickly becoming a dizzying kaleidoscope of competing conspiracy theories.

Feeling overwhelmed, Beña now sat quietly in the cavernous sanctuary, alone in Gaudí’s “forest” of pillars. The mystical woods, however, did little to calm his racing mind.

What did Kirsch discover? Who wanted him dead?

Father Beña closed his eyes and tried to clear his thoughts, but the questions kept recurring.

Where do we come from? Where are we going?

“We come from God!” Beña declared aloud. “And we go to God!”

As he spoke, he felt the words resonate in his chest with such force that the entire sanctuary seemed to vibrate. Suddenly a bright shaft of light pierced the stained-glass window above the Passion facade and streamed down into the basilica.

Awestruck, Father Beña stood up and staggered toward the window, the entire church now thundering as the beam of celestial light descended along the colored glass. When he burst out of the church’s main doors, Beña found himself assaulted by a deafening windstorm. Above him to the left, a massive helicopter was descending out of the sky, its searchlight strafing the front of the church.

Beña watched in disbelief as the aircraft touched down inside the perimeter of the construction fences on the northwestern corner of the compound and powered down.

As the wind and noise subsided, Father Beña stood in the main doorway of Sagrada Família and watched as four figures descended from the craft and hurried toward him. The two in front were instantly recognizable from tonight’s broadcast—one was the future queen of Spain, and the other was Professor Robert Langdon. They were tailed by two strapping men in monogrammed blazers.

From the look of things, Langdon had not kidnapped Ambra Vidal after all. As the American professor approached, Ms. Vidal appeared to be by his side entirely by her own choice.

“Father!” the woman called with a friendly wave. “Please forgive our noisy intrusion into this sacred space. We need to speak to you right away. It’s very important.”

Beña opened his mouth to reply but could only nod mutely as the unlikely group arrived before him.

“Our apologies, Father,” said Robert Langdon with a disarming smile. “I know this must all seem very strange. Do you know who we are?”

“Of course,” he managed, “but I thought …”

“Bad information,” Ambra said. “Everything is fine, I assure you.”

Just then, two security guards stationed outside the perimeter fence raced in through the security turnstiles, understandably alarmed by the helicopter’s arrival. The guards spotted Beña and dashed toward him.

Instantly, the two men in monogrammed blazers spun and faced them, extending their palms in the universal symbol for “halt.”

The guards stopped dead in their tracks, startled, looking to Beña for guidance.

¡Tot està bé!” Beña shouted in Catalan. “Tornin al seu lloc.All is well! Return to your post.

The guards squinted up at the unlikely assembly, looking uncertain.

Són els meus convidats,” Beña declared, firmly now. They are my guests. Confio en la seva discreció.I will rely on your discretion.

The bewildered guards retreated through the security turnstile to resume their patrol of the perimeter.

“Thank you,” Ambra said. “I appreciate that.”

“I am Father Joaquim Beña,” he said. “Please tell me what this is about.”

Robert Langdon stepped forward and shook Beña’s hand. “Father Beña, we are looking for a rare book owned by the scientist Edmond Kirsch.” Langdon produced an elegant note card and handed it to him. “This card claims the book is on loan to this church.”

Though somewhat dazed by the group’s dramatic arrival, Beña recognized the ivory card at once. An exact copy of this card accompanied the book that Kirsch had given him a few weeks ago.

The Complete Works of William Blake.

The stipulation of Edmond’s large donation to Sagrada Família had been that Blake’s book be placed on display in the basilica crypt.

A strange request, but a small price to pay.

Kirsch’s one additional request—outlined on the back of the linen card—was that the book always remain propped open to page 163.