In the highest district of Paris stands La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre. On the last day, our Paris group traveled up the steep slope to the top, where the basilica overlooked all of Paris, all the places we had spent the last six days exploring. Our itinerary didn’t include exploration inside the basilica, but we unanimously decided to enter, whether that was from the sheer awe of the building’s expanse or the holy feeling lingering in the air. Immediately after passing through the door, we were greeted by silence, a rule set in place to respect worship. It wasn’t the kind of chilled silence that makes your ears ring, but one of warm wicks burning and whispering prayers. I purchased a candle for 10 euros — the lengthy clear ones that have portraits of biblical figures and often reside near altars — and placed it at the feet of the Virgin Mary alongside other candles, some of which had no more wax left to burn. I continued around, viewing the statues and art that ornated the walls, before finding a pew to sit in. When I looked up at the ceiling, I was awestruck. Painted on the arc of the ceiling was Jesus glowing in white, surrounded by angels on either side. His arms were outstretched so far that it seemed as if his hands were reaching out to grab me. Our group all sat and gazed at this sacred place, whether it was holy to some of us or simply comforting to others, it all made us feel a sense of awe and warmth that is very rare to find in the world today. When we walked back out into the hustle and bustle of moving feet, friendly chatter, street merchants and painters, crepe stands and shops, it felt different than before. I think we all felt more at peace, a little bit more calm and appreciative of where we were and where we had yet to go.
For me, my moment of awe also came in the basilica. I wasn’t sure if it was because it had contrasted the rest of our trip (we had constantly been moving quickly, surrounded by noise and energy) or if my limited experience with traveling made this experience so gratifying. Regardless of the reason, I found myself, just like Grace, in awe. I moved through the aortas of the basilica alone, stopping occasionally to read plaques. After being about halfway through, I began to smell soap. Looking to my left, I saw standing an older woman who smelled and looked exactly like my grandmother. My grandmother is from a small town of 2,000 people in rural Iowa. Her house is fixed in my mind as the smell of soap, fresh linens and the unpolluted air that pours through the house’s window screens. Standing in this church thousands of miles from home, I found myself in awe of something that reminded me of home; I pressed by memory and the foundations of my identity. I had never been to Europe before. I came with expectations limited by my experience. But it was in my limited experience that I was able to find an appreciation for all that I was surrounded by. There are many things that I have yet to understand. The admission of that has always been a difficult thing for me. But I found, in my first experiences with awe, that my limited experience is a fundamental part of who I am and where I come from.