The Art of Light: Prayerfully Illuminating Worship Space
Article by Claire Wing

Ministry & Liturgy
February 2006 + Volume 34 Number 1


The Art of Light: Prayerfully Illuminating Worship Space

Not far inland from the eastern shores of Ireland, about an hour to the northwest of Dublin, lay the pristine and graceful Boyne Valley. The surrounding hills ascend in stages from the banks of the meandering River Boyne, whose waters have fed the fertile lands on her edges since ancient times. Throughout the region, for miles around, one can find evidence of the people who long ago inhabited these hills, not in the ruins of dwellings, but in the deceptively unimpressive remains of scattered, earth-covered stone mounds. For scores of centuries these mounds lay undetected, smoothed into the surrounding landscape by elemental forces. But odd, or impractical, or apparently useless as they might appear, these mounds were painstakingly engineered and completely built by hand of materials brought from other regions entirely, dragged for miles to these high, hilly sites.

The largest of these stone monuments is today known as New Grange. Recently reconstructed, it stands impressively atop a summit in the Brú na Bóinne, as the region is called. The stones forming the massive structure are calculated to weigh in the neighborhood of 200,000 tons. Two hundred thousand tons of stones. Hand carried. To the top of an enormously steep hill. Imagine.

The mound is roughly circular, with a surrounding stone wall about 14 feet tall and running not quite the full way around. The circumference is about equal in width to an American football field. The grass covered top forms a shallow dome. The whole structure rises nearly twenty-five feet to the crown. Recessed into the stone wall at the front of the structure is a very simple rectangular entry, a bit over five and a half feet high, and not quite two feet wide. There’s a small open transom above it. The entry introduces a very long passageway, revealing only deepening blackness, and rising about one inch per foot as it goes along. The uneven stone of the walls and ceiling overhead become so narrow and so low in places, that one must sometimes stoop, sometimes angle the shoulders, so as to squeeze through. At roughly half way along the 60 foot passage, it makes a slight bend to the right. The destination of this dark corridor is a totally black inner chamber, not even as large as a modern master bedroom.

So what in the world would compel a simple, Neolithic farming community, living nearly 5200 years ago, with no concept of tools, to commit to a gargantuan building project which would take over twenty years to complete, require a labor force of three hundred strong men, and would ultimately yield a single small room, compressed within piled-up rocks dragged there, load by load, from the lands below?

This is why: so that in the very early morning hours of the Winter Solstice, during the darkest, coldest, bleakest time of the year, the first light breaking over the East horizon might enter through the tiny transom, press past the bend at the midpoint of the corridor, narrow to a paper-thin beam as it penetrates the earthen floor of the inner chamber, and for a fractional life-span of a mere seventeen minutes, set the inner stone chamber ablaze with the powerful force of the new light, before receding once more into total obscurity.

I’m a Westerner. I’m sitting at my laptop typing out these thoughts. I’m asking myself: what does their construction project matter to us today?

In our times, with a world view colored by the achievement of far more impressively engineered construction projects, by wondrous photos sent back to earth from spacecraft traveling amidst the heavens, by astounding pyrotechnics displays that dazzle the senses, when we’ve bent the forces of the atom to our purposes, when even children learn the fundamentals of laser surgery and fiber optics, the impact of why an ancient people buried a small room under 200,000 tons of rocks, so that a tiny ray of light might come in, can easily be lost on us.

Science and technology daily unlock amazing facts about light. We’ve measured it, checked its speed, collected it and converted it into energy that’s for sale. We’ve smashed its particles, discovered that it waves as well. This computer screen is lit up by it. The moon reflects it. We control it at the flip of a switch. It’s available day and night. So what does it matter if it’s electric, if it rises in the east, if its source is atomic or not?

It’s easy for us to think about light largely in practical terms, as a commodity, with little thought to how its physical presence and quality affect us on the spiritual level. Yet in Sacred Scripture we are continually reminded of that connection between ‘light’ and ‘Light’. Were the builders of New Grange brought forward into our life and times they’d have much to remind us about presence and light, about evoking the sacred through light. The subtle mystery connecting life, light, and the divine, often obscured from us in our fast-paced rush from achievement to achievement, was foremost to our ancient ancestors. It was a wondrous gift around which their lives were ordered. Being a simple, unsophisticated people who lived close to the elements, surrendered to the natural and supernatural influences of their existence, their understanding of their place in the scheme of things was neither grand nor exalted. They seemed to understand their purpose as purely to magnify the sacredness of the miracle of light, and to endeavor to remain in the realm of its beneficence.

It’s against this backdrop that I offer some reflections on the prayerful illumination of sacred places of worship, and of the art and wonder that is Light.

True light. False light. Today the forces of the secular, the expedient, the pragmatic, lean with an insidious, driving pressure against what is authentically spiritual. Along with the wondrous changes that the scientific and technological community has brought into everyday life, so have these ushered us into an age that can leave us with mixed up ideas about what matters in terms of the spiritual. We sense it without necessarily being able to put it to words. Yet as the dividing line between the secular and the sacred becomes cloudy, the rich spiritual invitation to be absorbed into the great Mystery can become  near meaningless as symbols which are meant to recall us to things sacred are watered-down, blurred, or obliterated. In the extreme, the expressions we use to speak of spiritual truths, expressions like ‘burning fire’, ‘votive offerings’, the 'transparent soul’, or ‘illumination’, can become reduced to so many words when substitutes for the real are used in place of the real: the wonder of a living flame replaced with votives whose electric filaments flicker in imitation, or plastic that’s pressed and colored and guaranteed to look just like the real thing, but obliterates the symbol inherent in light passing through a natural, transparent medium. Such symbols catechize as strongly, but not as we want them to.

The Art of Light. St. John of the Cross, in his mystical writings, shares much about the sacredness of light, of the Dark Night, of being ‘wounded’ by it’s penetrating, about Divine Union with God. In a collection of his writings, I found these thoughts: “…because light is not the proper object of sight, but only the means by which visible things are seen. If there is nothing off of which the ray of light can reflect, nothing will be seen….the spiritual light has a similar relationship to the intellect, the eye of the soul”.

As an artist whose medium is solid yet transparent, and made from elements that have been transformed in fire, I think quite a bit about the spiritual symbolism of light, and how it passes through glass. A beautiful metaphor comes to mind – that just as light passes through the solid yet transparent panes of glass windows in a building, so too the Light of God passes through the soul made transparent as it advances along on the spiritual journey.

Stained glass windows have an extraordinary ability to capture our spiritual sensibilities, our aesthetic imagination, and our natural proclivity for beauty and light. First appearing in the Gothic structure of St. Denis outside of Paris, they have been in our midst for a little over a thousand years. The simple combination of the materials of lead and glass and silver nitrate and solder and cement, blended together in a holy alchemy, rendered an awe inspiring discovery whose whole, for certain, superceded the sum of its parts. I don’t doubt that the Abbot Suger knew that the effects of the enormous windows composed of transparent color would lift the soul to God, but I suspect that he himself had no idea of the grandeur that was in store. In these centuries since we’ve not ceased to be mystified by the marriage of color and light, so much so that it’s come  to be almost synonymous with what a church looks like in our psyche, until today we all but insist on its presence in our sanctuaries.

Many of us have had the opportunity to make pilgrimage to the cathedrals of Europe, or to sacred mosques, magnificent synagogues, basilica shrines. The common denominator in these holy places is the sensitive use of natural things: stone, light, wood, glass metal. These elements remind us, through the gift of the senses, the penetrating effect the real has upon us. Something prayerful happens in the mere experience of walking into an atmosphere created of earthen elements, imbued with clear light, or pure, invisible color. In a moment of unsolicited transformation, we leave a world of contest, and enter a domain of grace. Like a sacred thief, this light takes captive the soul it invisibly stirs. We know we are standing on sacred ground. No one need tell us.

The prayerful illumination of worship space. Like interrupting the quiet with sound, so is the care with which we want to illuminate our sacred spaces. The question has less to do with the light source and more to do with whether that light source speaks to or against the presence of the sacred. Prayerfully illuminating a place designated for worship involves the consideration not merely of the light that will enter through the windows, and how this will affect the interior, but the combination of elements that will speak to the Divine Light within that prayerful space. Stained glass windows, because of their innate quality of transmitting an intangible medium of color, draw us powerfully, and hopefully, to the good. There’s something quite amazing, and symbolically powerful, about a substance that can both be held in one’s hand, yet can be invisible.

To the people who built the mound at New Grange, I would imagine that the life-giving nature of light was understood not only as necessary to the generation of life, but as an integral component of the inner self, perhaps not so unlike the way we think about the soul. I’m reminded of that thought provoking phrase in a prayer from our Catholic liturgy, “…God from God, Light from Light…”. Whether or not those ancient people did indeed believe in God, I can imagine that their Winter Solstice ritual was for them a kind of sacrament, an outward sign attempting to give expression to a truth so profound, so beyond expression, yet by which they were certainly compelled. While in our age it’s neither practical nor necessary to duplicate their extreme effort to honor the presence of the new light, there is nonetheless something to learn from them of their understanding of its significance and power as a symbol to move us.

The sacred is ever present. We need not conjure it, and we cannot create it. It is in our midst as an unsolicited gift. We need only do our best honor it as we grow more attuned to its language. It transforms us as, little by little, we learn to eliminate what detracts from it, in our places of worship, in ourselves and in our lives. Such a growing relationship evokes from within us the Spirit of the Living God, in our hearts, in our communities, in our holy places, in the work of our hands. Not so different, really, from our ancestors back in Neolithic times, who single-mindedly worked to create a place where, for but a brief moment, the living light would softly come and renew itself in their lives, in their midst.