Nearly a century after Antoni Gaudí’s death, his architectural masterpiece Sagrada Familia is barely half finished, yet millions of people travel from around the world to marvel at Barcelona’s controversial cathedral in progress. Several on-site conversions have taken place over the years, fortifying a Vatican-sanctioned movement to grant sainthood to the reclusive artist. Gazing into Sagrada Familia’s parabolic arched doorways, soaring towers, and other gravity-defying effects, Japanese architect Kenji Imai had a religious experience, eventually converting to Christianity as he studied the work in depth. And it’s no wonder: Gaudí’s neomedieval structures and biomorphic forms combine the highest aspirations of humanity with the flowing artistry of nature. Somehow defying logic, convention, and, at times, the laws of physics, this massive stone basilica has a soft, melting appearance, creating the impression that it’s slowly being molded into existence by God’s own everlasting hand.

For Gaudí, Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) was a mission transcending personal concerns. He worked on it for over four decades, eventually taking up residence on-site and devoting his final years to the project with increasing obsession. “My client is not in a hurry,” he once said, responding to the frustration that workers voiced as he made constant changes to the architectural plans.

Gaudí literally lived the concept of cathedral thinking. This term describes an emerging philosophy of sorts, one that explores the mind-set involved in tackling any long-term vision. It contrasts sharply with our modern, quick-fix mentality, but socially conscious leaders recognize that significant, sustainable change requires generational effort. And so, an increasing number of innovative thinkers — in business, art, politics, and science — are interested in the 150-year process that built Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. They’re even more fascinated with Germany’s Cologne Cathedral, which survived numerous wars, recessions, political movements, and religious reforms during the 632 years of construction before the final stone was set in place.

For cathedral thinkers, Sagrada Familia represents the ultimate, real-time case study of how an ambitious vision persists and evolves over time. Construction started in 1882 and continued uninterrupted after Gaudí’s sudden death in 1926 — that is, until communists in the Spanish Civil War set fire to the architect’s study ten years later, destroying his primary drawings. The project resumed in 1952 with dedicated and imaginative devotees piecing together surviving notes and models. Since then a succession of at least a half-dozen talented architects have immersed themselves in the project, with the son of one of them introducing computers into the design process in the 1980s.

The opportunity provided by Sagrada Familia is far more valuable than the details of its construction. Here we have the chance to interview workers about the human concerns involved. Historical accounts rarely reveal the emotional, organizational, and interpersonal challenges; the daily failures and frustrations no one really wants to talk about; and the vulnerabilities no one wants to admit to, let alone recount in nauseating detail — unless, that is, the subjects are still alive and can somehow be convinced that their personal foibles are as important as their triumphs in assisting others with ambitious, perhaps divinely inspired goals. People who build neogothic basilicas are the most likely candidates, as they’re already psychologically predisposed to support the ongoing education and initiation of future generations.

Whether you’re building a church, a business, or a mandate for social change, cathedral thinking presupposes that the vision you initiate must be handed over to others, that everyone involved will be laboring on faith at times, that people will share their most innovative ideas and tools, that the plans will change, that the blueprints may even be lost, and that the most important part of your job will be to inspire, in every neophyte who joins your team, reverence for a project you will never see completed. This mind-set comes with a host of emotional quagmires, some of which are so existential in nature that they question the very foundations of survival-oriented behavior, challenging us to resist flight-or-fight impulses, urging us to evolve beyond our current obsession with safety, comfort, and predictability, let alone personal gain and recognition. At the same time, multigenerational thinking demands that we use our human resources wisely. We must take care of each other to bring out the best in each other.

In this book — for lack of the funding, connections, and Spanish language skills necessary to travel to Barcelona and talk key members of the Sagrada Familia staff into confessing their deepest, darkest cathedral-building secrets — I will, at times, share a few of the more pertinent, sometimes insightful, sometimes embarrassing details of my own efforts to create something of lasting value.

A brief history: In 1997, Epona Equestrian Services, an equine-facilitated learning program and referral agency, was founded by a group of Tucson-based horse trainers, educators, and counselors. The cathedral we were building had no walls or ceiling, but it did combine humanity’s highest aspirations with nature’s flowing wisdom as we partnered with horses to teach cooperative, nonpredatory forms of empowerment, emotional fitness, social intelligence, and authentic community building. We named it after the Celtic horse goddess associated with healing and transformation, Epona, who seemed a fitting symbol for an organization that employed horses in the work of human development.

In 2001, when my first book was published, the organization suddenly attracted international attention through the force of a vision that I hadn’t realized would move so many people to action. Based on growing demand, we started a multiweek apprenticeship program that qualified talented facilitators to incorporate our principles and techniques into their own programs. Along the way, we found it necessary to distinguish our carefully trained instructors from those in organizations in other states and countries that were also named after the goddess Epona. By 2012, nearly two hundred Eponaquest Instructors were operating on five continents, as Epona Equestrian Services became Eponaquest Worldwide.

The momentum had been building for years. In 2005, for instance, an influx of international students inspired us to establish an equestrian-based retreat and conference center at a historic Arizona ranch. There, a group of adventurous, highly individualistic people put our most ambitious theories to the test, and I was thrust into a leadership role that I struggled to understand and live up to. The daily challenges of running a business based on the concepts of collaboration and authentic community were significant. Our equine-facilitated learning program at Apache Springs Ranch became a living laboratory, complicated by the fact that several of us stayed on-site with clients coming and going seven days a week. Many times, I felt more like a giant lab rat than a researcher or teacher, but the power of what we preached was enhanced by the act of living it, continually working out the kinks along the way.

By 2009, the center had reached a high level of functionality, offering daylong seminars and weeklong residential workshops. Our clients included educators, counselors, clergy, trauma survivors, parents, teens, artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs looking for ways to empower themselves while relating more effectively to others. We also helped returning soldiers and their spouses practice the emotional fitness skills necessary to handle posttraumatic stress and other warrior-reintegration challenges. Even so, the business suffered debilitating financial blows when the economic crisis coincided with a crucial growth stage. By summer, our beautiful ranch had been put up for sale, and we were once again operating as an agency (albeit a more sophisticated, well-connected global one), sending clients to multiple venues.

The dynamics of living and working at Apache Springs accentuated our explorations in leadership, power, creativity, intuition, personal healing, and social transformation. All the while, the horses kept urging clients and staff alike to enjoy the ride — to soar to new heights of inspiration and expanded awareness one moment; to feel the depths of fear, vulnerability, frustration, anger, and sadness the next; to access the wisdom behind our blunders; and then to calmly, reverently go back to grazing.

As nomadic, nonpredatory beings, horses radiate immense trust in the universe. Intelligent and highly adaptable, they embody strength, freedom, spirit, gentleness, beauty, authenticity, loyalty, and grace, fully immersing themselves in the moment and always ready to explore new opportunities and ever wider vistas of experience. Equine “philosophy” values relationship over territory. In their honest, sophisticated interactions, these animals easily navigate the paradox of nourishing individual and group consciousness simultaneously. As we continue to build our cathedrals, launch our space stations, refine our governments, and explore our visions of a peaceful global society, can we, as humans, learn to do the same?


Linda Kohanov speaks and teaches around the world. She founded Epona Equestrian Services to explore the healing potential of working with horses and to offer programs on everything from stress reduction and parenting to consensus building and mindfulness. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

From the book The Power of the Herd. Copyright © 2013 by Linda Kohanov. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

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