We Need Sacred Spaces as much as We Need the Gym
There are just a few things I would like to suggest airports around the world offer in addition to the food and duty free shopping. First of all, I would like a gym. How much happier would passengers be if they could release endorphins and run a few miles during that three hour layover?
I would also like a yoga studio: just imagine dropping your heavy carry-on luggage to stretch your cramped muscles and relax your mind in preparation for the flight. Yes please! Ok, perhaps I’m asking for a lot. I should commend the airports I traveled through this week on one very important amenity they offered: sacred space.
Where Do You Meet God?
People have been building, honoring, and warring over sacred space since the beginning of time. Clearly there is something significant about calling a location, whether it is a sandy beach or a beautiful cathedral, a place of worship. Many religions feel the need to create elaborate structures to create the most glorious house for God, while others may feel the most sacred space is nature as it was made by the creator.
Interestingly enough, both of these kinds of places are really significant to me. You could say I have a very aesthetic and environmental relationship with God. Not that my relationship with God depends on these things, but that I am further able to connect to God through significant environments, so I seek them.
Sacred Spaces in Flight
That is why Thursday afternoon when I ended up in the airport in Newark, NJ, for a fairly long layover (en route to Vietnam), I decided to look for a prayer or meditation room. Many people don’t realize that a lot of airports have these rooms. I walked by the one in Newark three times before finding it.
There was a little door with a small sign above it, very easy to miss. But thankfully a nice officer pointed me in the right direction. I walked into the room, which was warmer than the rest of the airport, and was greeted by the American flag and New Jersey flag, a monument to 9/11, and a large white unadorned alter in front of several rows of chairs.
In one corner there was a small alter dedicated to Jesus, and another corner a small collection of prayer rugs were left for use. The room was no bigger than an average bedroom, but sufficient enough for a quiet escape from this bustling airport. As the sounds of babies crying and security alarms became muffled by distance and separation, I sat in one of the chairs to read and pray.
It’s really remarkable to be in a room that visually and symbolically creates the kind of world that God desires: a world where every person can worship and reach out to God in their own way. A world where different faith traditions are respected, and a world where spirituality is prioritized within our busy days.
The Diversity of Praying Travelers
While in the room, which was empty when I got there, five different people entered so that by the time I left it seemed like a very busy place. As I continue praying, I was moved by the diversity in the room, not only in appearance or ethnicity but in use: one man knelt before Jesus, another woman and I sat and prayed silently, another man lay down behind the chairs, while another bowed repeatedly. I am so happy I was there to witness this room in use.
But then I was back on another plane and made the very long flight from Newark to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I had a five hour layover, so I walked around the very large and interesting airport for a while before I ventured towards my terminal. While looking around I made note that there were several “Prayer and Meditation” rooms throughout the airport.
Once I got to my terminal, I found a nearby sacred space, and decided to check it out. Located close to the bathroom this one had two fire safety doors. I went three steps down, and it was much colder than the rest of the airport. Stepping through the doors it looked like I was going someplace I wasn’t supposed to.
Prayer and a Shower Anyone?
When I opening the final door, I found a small white cube shaped room with a tile floor, 1 bench, 1 shelf and a shower (hmmm?), which was partitioned from the rest of the room. There was also a plaque on the wall which explained the room’s purpose as an interfaith sacred space. In this bubble of a room I couldn’t hear anything else in the airport and felt at peace in a very private place.
The white walls and scarcity of the room reminded me of heaven’s waiting room as I imagined it as a child. As my muscles were very cramped from the 16 hour flight, I did some yoga. I did not take a shower, although it was tempting, sort of. I prayed that the rest of my journey would be safe, as by this time I was really tired and couldn’t think of much else to pray about.
Before returning to my terminal to fly to Vietnam I felt very grateful. I’m grateful that I found sacred spaces in all the airports to refresh my spirit and recompose my energy. Also, witnessing many people sincerely using the interfaith chapels regenerates my faith in the human spirit. I guess I also got my work out after all; as if walking through all the airports was not enough.