Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
As part of its airport renovations, the Capitol District Airport Authority wisely included an interfaith prayer room, for which it enlisted the support of the different religious communities. The room is decorated with an understated mural of Ann Lee Pond and the Helderbergs under a nighttime sky, along with two fountains on both sides dribbling water into an artificial stream. Sitting in this stream are well polished stones that shine under dimmed lights while the water gurgles, creating an atmosphere of peace. In one corner of the room are prayer books and other ritual objects, while tucked away in the other corner is an ornate Muslim prayer rug decorated with a picture of Mecca. Simple benches adorn each side of the room, beckoning to travelers to sit and allow themselves a few moments of contemplation. I often use the prayer room prior to catching a flight. Set apart from the coffee bars, intercoms, security guards, and noisy travelers, it is a place where I, a regular worshipper and a somewhat nervous flyer, can connect with God in privacy. Judging by the numerous entries in the room’s sign in book, I am not alone in my appreciation for this bit of sacred space that helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for each trip.
Almost without fail, the first thing that I do when in other airports is ask at the information desk about a similar prayer room or chapel in which I can pray peacefully. Sadly, the American airports that I have been in, most far larger than ours, have no such islands of calm. In the past, this presented me with a big problem, because the occasions on which I fly are in the early morning when there is a limited window of time for me to recite morning prayers according to Jewish religious law. Out of necessity, I have learned to be comfortable praying in public at any airport terminal. I find a quiet spot where few people are sitting, I put on the ritual garb of Jewish prayer, and I try to enter a different world. Each time I do this, with other passengers and airport staff strolling by me, I grow a bit more unselfconscious. Are they curious, put off, or suspicious about me, as I attempt to pray intently while wearing strange clothes that contrast with their capris and business suits? I don’t know, because I’ve trained myself not to care by not looking around to see who, if anyone, is looking at me. For the longest time I shied away from such public displays of religious involvement. I reasoned that they violated the personal space of others and that they could invite trouble from people less tolerant than me. My real concern, the one that none of us shakes off entirely after adolescence, was that I would be laughed at or that someone would think I’m weird. Over time my reasoning has changed. Almost by default, the public places of America are showrooms for multicolored hair, various ethnic dresses and styles, and more body parts prominently displaying piercings and jewelry than one can imagine. I’ve learned to accept my role as another strange note in the music of the diverse American experience, which often sounds more like a tone poem than a symphony.
Notwithstanding my accommodation to the necessity of being religious in public, I would like to require every airport, train station and bus depot in this country to build a chapel similar to the one our region has. Places for public transportation are microcosms of the breathless culture in which we reside, providing a stage for our harried and unreflective races through the day. Stand in a corner of any of these venues and count the cups of coffee, the cell phones, and the business suits zooming by and you are certain to become dizzy or get a headache. Add to this mess the terrifying significance of these places in the back of each traveler’s mind: they are often points of departure from the familiar and the safe, for destinations that often hold out uncertainty. Setting out on a trip should be an opportunity for centered contemplation of one’s life and the meaning of one’s inner and outer journeys. Instead it becomes a chance to get heartburn from overpriced fast food and to feel angry and anxious as we try to beat the clock to leave a terminal or a gate. A chapel or meditation room would reverse so much of this unhealthy living simply by being there as a protective refuge from the headlong rush. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, it could be an island in time and space. Atheists and fundamentalists, sinners and saints, could all sit side by side in this sacred space, sharing the blessings of meditative silence and the pursuit of the inner life. Strengthened and refreshed, we could reenter the terminal, station, or depot feeling better prepared to deal with life’s challenges and more capable of behaving like human beings towards each other.
Governments and industries build amenities that reflect the demands and needs of their customers, making certain to provide the community at large with what it values. Airports in particular resemble mini neighborhoods, hosting business centers, conference rooms, malls, and even hotels that arch gracefully over their grand concourses. The emphasis in American religion is slowly shifting away from formal membership in denominations and towards the private spirituality of the individual. Whether we like it or not, this changed emphasis coupled with geographic mobility is growing a class of Americans who practice a kind of “religion on the go.” They will demand increasingly that the comforts of meditative spaces be included among the options already offered for those in transit, and those who develop our nation’s travel centers would be wise to heed those demands. I look forward to the day when, without violating the separation of church and state, our public places will proudly provide these mini-retreat centers for the private enrichment of our inner lives. Their presence will send the powerful message that the diverse spiritual paths of Americans are of the greatest importance and deserving of support. They will also gently remind people like me that, even when we are on the road, we are never too far away from home.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.