Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder labors in vain. — Psalm 127:1

It sounds like a pious legend from the early Middle Ages: A monastic postulant contracts tuberculosis before taking final vows, and is expelled from the monastery after eight years. On his sickbed, the former monastic takes a vow to the Blessed Virgin, if he is healed, to raise a shrine in her honor. After he recovers, he spends the rest of his life — over half a century — building, by hand and mostly single-handedly, an immense, soaring house of prayer comparable to the grandest medieval cathedrals.

Except it isn’t ancient history. The story is unfolding today. Now 90 years old, former Trappist Justo Galledgo Martínez, also known as Don Justo, labors every day at his still-unfinished cathedral, situated a dozen miles from Madrid in the town of Mejorada del Campo, where Don Justo was born.

Astonishingly, Justo has no architectural training or prior construction experience. Prior to entering the Monastery of Santa María de Huerta in the provice of Soria, he was a farmer. Justo works with mostly recycled or donated material, building on land owned by his family.

He started construction in 1961 on October 12, the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, to whom he had prayed. For at least the first two decades, he did virtually all the work himself. For the last 20 years, Justo has had an assistant, Angel Lopez, along with occasional assistants from Spain and even Germany. 

His vision for the edifice has changed over the years, at times taking inspiration from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the White House, and various Spanish churches and castles. In Justo’s heart his cathedral is dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Pilar, but locals call it la Catedral de Justo, “Justo’s Cathedral.”

A beautiful act or a wasted life? 

Justo’s single-minded dedication are so extraordinary and uncompromising that it can’t help raising profound existential questions about the meaning of life.

On the one hand, Justo has created extraordinary beauty: something beautiful for God. For Justo, his cathedral shows what one man can accomplish who puts his faith in Christ.

On the other hand, it is certainly possible to say that Justo has wasted his life. His cathedral is unfinished, and may never be finished.

What’s more, it may never be put to its intended use. Justo’s cathedral is not affiliated with the diocese of Alcalá de Henares (so it’s not really a cathedral at all, since what makes a church a cathedral is its special association with the diocesan bishop).

“It’s not a cathedral and it never will be,” a diocesan spokesman said 13 years ago. “It’s not necessary and it needs the kind of investment that the diocese just can’t make.”

Justo’s final wish is to be buried in the crypt of his cathedral. But even that, if Church laws are followed, would require that the crypt be consecrated for Catholic burial.

Obviously Justo’s cathedral has great value and meaning to him. He has lived his life, it would seem, exactly as he wanted to. Many solitary artists, writers, and composers have devoted themselves to their work for a lifetime with less to show for it.

Some artists are eventually “discovered,” often after their deaths, and becomes influential; in that case we may say they are “successes,” though they never knew it. Or perhaps their work is never widely appreciated or even widely known. Does that make them “failures,” if their work was rewarding and fulfilling throughout their life?

Madness, genius, and faith

Some would consider Justo mentally ill. The same might be said for many great artists; perhaps even some great saints. He might also be a genius, to have achieved what he has with no training.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell has argued that geniuses are made, not born; for those with natural ability, according to Gladwell, what differentiates the great from the good or the adequate is simply deliberate practice — at least 10,000 hours of it. Justo has certainly invested far more time than that.

The questions raised by Justo’s life are raised to varying extents by others who dedicate themselves wholly to any life’s work.

Jiro Ono, the dedicated sushi master who is the subject of the remarkable documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is also 90 years old, and has devoted himself to his craft with such single-mindedness that I wonder whether even sushi (my favorite food in the world by orders of magnitude) is worth a lifetime of such extreme devotion, to the exclusion of so many other things in life: friends, hobbies, travel, novels, movies.

Justo, of course, has dedicated his life to God, and God is infinitely greater than sushi — even if I will dare to ring a change on a quip ascribed to St. Teresa of Avila, and say that God and sushi is better than just God. (St. Teresa was allegedly talking about chocolate.)

Justo had wanted to be a monk, and those who embrace consecrated religious life pursue God to the exclusion of many things in life. The monastery rejected Justo, but he has lived his life with monastic zeal and ardor.

On the other hand, sushi is for eating, and a cathedral is for God’s people to gather and worship God in the sacred liturgy. People eat Jiro’s sushi; it is renowned and appreciated by patrons the world over. If construction on Justo’s cathedral stops when he dies, and the building is never anything more than a curious tourist attraction that decays and falls into ruin, what was it all for?

It’s worth bearing in mind, perhaps, that all success in this mortal coil is short-term. Many of us, perhaps even most, will be remembered at least a few decades after we are gone; very few much more than that. Successful parents, teachers, scientists, and others will have an effect lasting far longer than their names are remembered. In the long term, though, it’s all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The heat death of the universe claims everything.

Is life a story or a cathedral? 

Any attempt to live deliberately can be seen as an attempt to shape one’s life as a work of art — a poem, a story, or even a cathedral. The story metaphor is particularly useful because we all interpret and make sense of our lives and the wider world through the lens of story.

I often think and speak of my life as a story; more precisely, as a married man I live in a tandem story that Suz and I craft together, and have been doing so for just a few weeks shy of 25 years now.

In the light of faith, though, the cathedral metaphor may be most apt. A cathedral points to heaven, and the meaning of a life of faith can only be understood in view of the hope of heaven.

Perhaps Justo’s cathedral especially points to heaven, precisely because it has no clear earthly function. There is no earthly reason for it to exist, and yet it does.

A monastic life, or a life of clerical celibacy, has in Catholic theology an eschatological sign value — that is, it points toward heaven by bearing witness to the world that there is a greater good for which even marriage and family are worth sacrificing.

Justo’s cathedral has an eschatological sign value of this sort. Only his faith explains it; in a sense, it is his faith, made visible and incarnated in stone, plaster, glass, and whatever rubbish would serve his needs.

A friend writes on Facebook:

An act like this is beautiful in its apparent irrationality, in its defiance of all conventional logic. It is a work of spectacular, breathtaking madness. But, at some point, true love always demands some level of madness, a rejection of simple cost-benefit analysis and our innate survival instinct.

This cathedral is an act of ardor. How could it be anything else? The sheer discipline and patience this must have demanded! And the humility! To devote your life to something that you’ll never see completed, and to accept it with such graciousness, is unfathomable to me.

Of all the glorious cathedrals in all of the magnificent world, this may be the greatest.