John Barrow. a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article for Science and Theology News, in which he described the feelings of awe he had being in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice with some other scientists. They were there in the evening for an escorted tour after the church was closed. It was almost dark inside and they were asked to sit in the center of the church. This is how he described the experience: “Then very slowly the light level rose above us and around us, and the interior began to be illuminated by a system of hidden sodium lights. The darkness gave way to a fantastic golden light. The arching ceiling above us was covered in a spectacular gleaming mosaic of glass and gold – 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic, which took hundreds of craftsmen 400 years to complete. Not one of those craftsmen had seen the full glory of the golden ceiling… ”
He writes that the discovery of the universe is like a religious experience also. Over the past 75 years astronomers have unveiled the nature of the heavens in an unexpected way. The universe is far bigger than scientists 100 years ago ever imagined and it is getting bigger – it is expanding at a fast rate. John Barrow was clearly overawed by the size of the universe and the principles which govern it. For him scientific discovery is a religious experience. The universe is a reflection of God’s glory.
One of the great moments in the book of Job is where God speaks out of the whirlwind (38:1) and questions Job and his friends about their understanding of the universe. Did you create the mathematical equations, which govern the laws of physics? Do you understand how black holes power the universe? Can you explain the way animals and insects form their own communities for survival? Did you set weather patterns and devise the cycle of the seasons? Where were you when all this was being planned and figured out?
The answer, of course, is that we were nowhere at that time. God’s intent is not to belittle Job and his friends but to remind them that the proper response of humans to their creator is one of awe, humility and trust, particularly awe. What is awe? It’s the sense that overcomes you when you see a newborn baby; it’s the feeling of being swept away when you fall in love for the first time; it’s the stirring in your soul when you climb a mountain and at the top you can see for miles and miles and miles in every direction. It’s the discovery of a huge balancing rock in the middle of the forest, or a 500 year old oak tree, or watching the sun set into the sea. It is a moment in history like Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall… Awe is one of those “you know it when you experience it” things.
Matthew Fox in his book Creation Spirituality writes that healing came to Job when he had a change of perspective, when he saw things for a moment from God’s cosmic perspective. That’s why God spoke out of the whirlwind. Job realized that his world was too small, his soul was too small. That is the experience of awe.
Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus shone on the mountaintop (Matthew 17:1-9). Fra Angelico’s fresco describes it well (see below). The disciples are overcome with awe at the vision and the voice telling them who Jesus is. Imagine waking up as a monk in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, Italy, in the mid 1400s and seeing this fresco on the wall of your room! Awe lies at the heart of Christian worship. Charles Wesley was very familiar with awe: “lost in wonder, love and praise” he called it. His brother, John, had his heart warming experience at a Methodist chapel in East London in 1738. He wrote in his journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed… An assurance was given me that Christ had taken away my sins.” I remember the Palm Sunday I was at chapel in a psychiatric hospital near Southampton, England in 1970, when I saw a vision of Jesus riding towards me on a donkey. During a time I felt completely alone, Jesus came to me. I was overcome with awe. I believe these experiences of awe are happening all the time. It is a question of whether we are aware of them.
They are not something we can make happen, but they are something we can open ourselves to. The more we open ourselves to God, through prayer, meditation, humility and service, the more awesome life becomes. Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle or as though everything is a miracle.” The Transfiguration holds many meanings but a central one is that when God fills a human being with light, everything becomes a miracle, a moment of awe. Too often awe is the missing ingredient in our personal and corporate worship. Yet it is the part which people deeply desire.