March 21, 2018
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Out in the world, we humans build palatial, splendid places of worship. Notre Dame, the Dome of the Rock, the Abuhav Synagogue in Tzfat; these magnificent structures are tourist attractions in their own right, drawing people who want to experience grandeur and beauty, monuments to the human religious spirit.

Airport chapels are the opposite. These humble oases of calm are like little poems in space. They are easy to miss.

Yes, sometimes they are fancy, light-filled, gleaming, with complimentary yoga mats (I’m looking at you, O’Hare). But more often, they’re simple, even shabby: just a small plain room with some chairs, some prayer books, prayer rugs, and a printed-out announcement for weekly mass taped to the door.

Despite their simplicity, airport chapels are powerful. I love them. They never fail to transform my journey.

Last week, for example, I needed a way to pass a half-hour at the Atlanta airport. Airports are liminal spaces, and layovers doubly so; you’re not home, and you’re not where you’re going, either. You’re just…somewhere in between. And having left Oregon at 5 a.m., I was bleary-eyed and over-caffeinated.

But we humans have other needs, too. The need for ritual, for quiet, for peace, for meaning. And that’s the magic of the airport chapel.

I scanned the building map, hoping I would find one. It turned out to be right there in Terminal E. The door was open and I walked in, past the man bowing on his prayer rug near the entrance. I wriggled my shoulders out of my backpack, sat in the center of a row of empty chairs, and took my first deep breath of the day.

In that small island of sacred space at the center of the Atlanta airport, I whispered my prayers 15 feet away from the stranger who whispered his, touching his forehead to the rug, lifting his body again to stand tall, then bowing again.

It was a small space, but we guarded each other’s privacy. We did not visually acknowledge each other; I don’t know his name and we will never see each other again. And yet there we were, praying in the same small room, whispering beneath our breath as if we were performing a quiet duet in praise of the divine.

In ATL, hanging at the front of the room is an illuminated image of a kneeling stick figure, surrounded by a simple mosaic. It’s sort of a mashup of airport signage and cathedral stained glass. This graphic, in its profound simplicity, seemed to represent the two of us, praying there.

Strip away the particulars of our lives and you are left with the human body, bowing before all that we can never quite comprehend. It is beyond our grasp, yet at the same time, we can go deep inside and find its presence. This extraordinary journey is a gift of being human, and it is free and open to all. All you need is breath, time, and — if you’re lucky — a quiet place to sit, kneel, bow.

Airports are perhaps the most utilitarian of our modern spaces. They take our American mania for productivity to a new level. No one visits airports for beauty, or community, or solace, or meaning. We’re there only in order to get somewhere else. And while we’re there, we need things, so businesses sell them to us. We need food; it’s carted in wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic film. We need bathrooms; they line the halls. And our devices need electric power, so we sit on the floor like penitents, surrounding the outlets that line the bottom of structural columns, tethered by our thin white charging cords.

But we humans have other needs, too. The need for ritual, for quiet, for peace, for meaning. And that’s the magic of the airport chapel.

Here we stop and pause amidst the frantic activity of getting from one place to the next. Here we breathe and give thanks for our functioning bodies, and our miraculous human minds, which invent machines like giant metal birds to carry us to one another through the sky.

Maybe life is a layover between two celestial flights. And if so, maybe airport chapels are here to remind us of that mystery.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

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