Let There be Light (By Matthew Pirrall)
“Have you ever had an experience of Awe? Real Awe? The kind of experience that casts out all doubt that the action of God is at work in this very moment? It’s unmistakable. Creation is working together to open our eyes to a glory, beauty, and power that was meant for us at this very moment in time and space. To be filled with a wonder beyond words.
Last summer I spent twelve days in Europe, during which I had visited the canals and cathedrals of Bruges, the wine country of Italy, and the Alps over Lake Annecy. I had seen some of the most beautiful things that Europe had to offer, but in the final hours of my final day I had an experience of beauty that was so completely unexpected that it brought me to my knees in awe.
I had an overnight bus back to Paris that got into the city at 5:30am, so I had a few hours to kill before my flight home. I decided to go to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral as an afterthought to my trip, and walked over there in the pre-dawn light as the city was just beginning to wake up. It’s in a bit of a rough part of town but I could see the cathedral through breaks in the graffiti covered buildings as I approached the base of the hill atop which it stands solemn guard over the slums of Paris. Then came the climb as the trams to the top of the hill were not yet running. Three hundred stairs. Graffiti still, most of the way up, becoming sparser as I approached the top. As if the climb was a sort of cleanse. A way to wash frustration, confusion, lust, and calamity of the city away before entering the cathedral.
As I approached the cathedral I saw the sign above the door “For over 125 years, here, night and day, someone has been praying to the Lord.” But the doors were still closed. A solitary nun behind them, fulfilling her duty to keep that same fire burning, until she be relieved for morning vespers.
I turned around and saw the city spread out beneath me and a few people gathering at the railing as the light swelled in the east. I stood with them. Waiting. For the first golden beam to crest over the horizon as it has done since the beginning. That first command repeated over and over and over. “Let there be light.” And there was light. In a matter of minutes from the first sliver of gold, the great waking eye had cast its gaze upon the cathedral of Sacre Coeur and with that the doors opened in song. Literal song. For as I walked through those doors I was struck, no enveloped, embraced by the chords of a harp and the near perfect harmonies of about a dozen nuns at their morning prayers in song.
I was astounded, for as the music led me in, at that moment the sun’s rays poured through the stained glass casting color across the massive stone pillars. And above, a great mosaic of Christ flanked by Mary and the saints, the pope kneeling at his feet offering the prayers of the whole world, and Christ receiving them, receiving me, with open arms outstretched, and on his chest his glittering golden sacred heart. It was truly the most perfect harmony of the works of man and God coming together at that very moment. The beauty of the song, and strength of that cathedral, and the glory of God’s first command casting it’s light upon it all. And at the center, led by the gazes of that angelic choir, the rays of that sudden light, and by the very structure of the church itself, the massive monstrance where lay exposed for the last 125 years the real and true presence of the body of Christ. My gaze lay upon Him as so many thousands at Sacre Coeur, hundreds of thousands probably over the last 125 years — billions even, gazes from around the world, transcending time and space, all looking at the same body under different forms. And Him gazing back at me. I felt it, if only for a moment, like I never have before. Awe.”
As Matt share’s his story, a few things stand out to me. When he was climbing the three hundred stairs the graffiti began to become less and less. He names it as a kind of cleanse. When he reaches the top, he has an experience like no other, one that seems to touch his spirit deeply. Now, we can say that it was a simple sunrise that took place. Yet, through Matt’s depiction we can see that it goes beyond the everyday. His senses were touched by the colors, the light overtaking the darkness, and even the music. It seems to be like a taste of heaven. The climb seems to be an allegory to our own hearts being pruned enough to become open to experience such joy and wonder and to let the light in.
I hear many people I speak with say that they just aren’t so aware of art and beauty in their life. Some may even think that these sort of ‘experiences’ don’t happen to them or that they just don’t understand art enough. I would like to challenge that thought. God works simply and intimately in all our lives. He is speaking to you everyday!! Are we listening? Or maybe we need a simple cleans of all the distractions, anxieties, fears, and mishaps clouding our hearts in order to be open to the gift that lays before us. Let go of control in order to stand in Awe of the heavenly.
Matt Pirrall is a photographer and filmmaker based in West Chester, PA. His photography work has taken him around the world from India to South America, to Israel and Japan. He currently works as a producer for Ascension Press, he’s a founder of Mission First Photography, a media creation and education company for nonprofits, and his personal work can be found at mattpirrall.com