Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Three places of worship

Interfaith Chapel in Terminal E, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

     October was a busy month, bookended by Spain at the beginning and Texas at the end. Looking back, I realize that during October I hit two very different houses of worship: the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the non-denominational chapel at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
     I doubt they've been juxtaposed before. But take a look at each and compare. The Sagrada Familia, designed by the wild genius architect Antoni Gaudi, really defies capture in one photograph, or a dozen. It's enormous and complicated, soaring and sprawling, covered with birds and beasts, human figures and plant life. And the airport chapel, well, it's very small, and has this stained glass triptych at the front in a vague sunbursty pattern. I took a single photo, not entirely sure why.
     I'm going to do an entire post on the Sagrada Familia, part of a Spanish Notes series I plan to run next time I'm on vacation. I'd better get on that. In the meantime, I had to pose the question: what explains the difference in aesthetic achievement in these two sanctified spaces? 
    They have similarities. Both are trying to inject a sense of the spiritual into ordinary life. Both are meant to hold people as they try to commune with God, or their sense of the eternal, or whatever.
     And yet they seem to define the wide span of human achievement. Or do they?
     A number of explanations present themselves. A difference of ambition, certainly. Gaudi wanted a place where not only a community would gather, but pilgrims from across Spain and Europe. Dallas's Interfaith Chapel — actually chapels, plural, since there are five. This is the one at Terminal E. The airport chaplaincy describes itself as a "ministry of presence," meaning its purpose is to be there, "embracing the importance of compassionate and caring help available to all passengers, military troops and employees, 24 hours/day, 365 days/year."
     So something more individualistic, less communal. The airport chapel's modest aims are to be a place where a few individuals can go to meditate, to pray — there are prayer rugs off to the side. It strikes me that another, unspoken purpose is to shield the proceedings. Sort of a spiritual restroom where a person can perform their moral ablutions out of sight, though the chapel at Terminal D is larger, and they do hold regular communal services.
     I'd say that the Sagrada Familia also benefits from being the handiwork of one master architect, the apex of an imagination geysering creativity. Although the DFW airport, which marks its 50th anniversary next year, was designed by Gyo Obata, who was no slouch. He also designed the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, plus the Wrigley Company Global Innovation Center in Chicago, and the Lincoln Library down in Springfield. 
     The era when the two holy places were conceived matters. Gaudi was working in the late 19th century, the Art Nouveau era, already alive with sensual forms and nature intruding upon design. Obata was working in the 1970s, the tail end of modernism, with its spare lines that looked sweeping and clean and futuristic, at the time, and came to seem empty and dead and cavernous, at least to me. 
    Plus scale. As enormous as Sagrada Familia is — it made me think of St. Peter's — DFW covers 27 square miles. That doesn't leave much budget for a lot of elaborate bronze leaves and frogs on the doors. The public spaces swoop and inspire, as if God were replaced with aviation.
     When I mentioned this topic to my wife, she asked her typical penetrating question: which is better for contemplation? The vast sanctuary of the Sagrada Familia invites vertigo more than repose, and reflection proved difficult with platoons of tourists tramping past. The DFW chapel certainly was far quieter, though even lingering briefly in the empty room felt almost like a kind of trespass.  
     I can't overlook the faith differences: Gaudi was a devout Catholic, and say what you will about Catholicism, it is the go-to religion when it comes to inspiring fabulous architecture and timeless art. The melange of beliefs and practices gathered under the banner of interfaith has a less stellar track record.
    Although. If you look at the Baha'i, which are not pure generic interfaith, but do represent a blending of several traditions, they nevertheless have spectacular temples all over the world. The one in Wilmette, now that I think of it, we also visited in October. As I said, a busy month. And we sat in the Baha'i temple for quite a long while in quiet contemplation. So score one for ecumentalism. 


  1. Don't know exactly why, Mr. S, but as soon as i saw the image, I knew it what it was...an airport chapel...and I correctly guessed it was the one Dallas, because I knew you had been there. All the big airports have them, in case of sudden and unexpected disasters, or perhaps for the bereaved on their way to a family funeral, or just for the devout to practice their daily rituals. Whatever gets you through the night...or the flight.

    I'm pretty sure I've stuck my head into the one in Cleveland, and the one at O'Hare. Not to pray, just to kiss and hug my beloved, who is now my wife. Hey, I was young and foolish. Seemed like a good (and spontaneous) idea at the time. So I did it.

    As a youngster, I would ride my bike up to the Bahai Temple in Wilmette and stroll around the grounds until I felt at home. They were an escape from suburban culture--and from Judaism. I even went to a Sunday afternoon service there, at fourteen. Seemed like a divine idea at the time. So I did it.

    In the late Seventies, I dated a vapid, promiscuous, and debauched young lady who really didn't care all that much for me, but she strongly resembled Sally Field...and at thirty, that was all that mattered. Arm candy. I took her to Bahai Temple one Sunday, for a guided tour. As we sat silently in the main sanctuary, she suddenly pointed to the ceiling of the dome, and the single Arabic word engraved here. Then she proceeded to inform me that when viewed from upside-down, it looked like a four-letter English word: EVIL.

    Holy crap! I was stunned, and did a double-take, and looked at the word again, as though seeing it for the first time. She was right! It DID look like the word EVIL. Unfortunately, so was she. Takes evil to know evil, I guess. We were not a couple for very long.

  2. This seems like a rather odd post, to me, sorry. Comparing the interfaith chapel at an airport to *any* cathedral seems akin to comparing the AMC Village Crossing 18 theater building to the Nederlander Theater (formerly the Oriental) or even the Music Box on Southport. A small space to sit or kneel quietly that costs as little as possible would seem to sum up the chapels, with a room big enough to hold a big screen and however many seats are desired as cheaply as possible being the goal of the theater.

    Now the juxtaposition of the Gaudi edifice with the Bahai temple seems like a much more rewarding avenue for inquiry. Coincidentally, we just stopped by the Wilmette location on Sunday. The effect of the afternoon light bathing the outside was magnificent. Having been there a number of times before, I find the inside to be wonderfully contemplative, while maintaining a simplicity that most Catholic churches don't even aspire to. I love the inside of a great Catholic church, and there are many in Chicago, but they do tend to be overstuffed with art and sculpture. I'm not saying that the Bahai temple is unadorned -- clearly it's intricately designed and there is much to focus on if one wishes, but the overall effect seems more harmonious, to me. Having been raised Catholic, I'm much more familiar with the cathedral aesthetic, though I appreciate both approaches. I'm sure I would be appropriately awed by the Sagrada Familia, but I doubt that I'll ever see it.

    1. See, I was intensely proud to compare the Sagrada Familia to an airport chapel. Then again, I was delighted at juxtaposing the Lyric's "Aida" to one performed by puppets. Either you get it or you don't. https://www.everygoddamnday.com/2015/01/puppetry-week-3-persistence-of-puppet.html

    2. I'd feel worse about being among those who don't "get" it, had your fondness for puppets not been selected as a validation of the rationale! Strike two... (I hope that cheeky comment will be allowed due to the cheerfully irreverent spirit in which it is intended.) ; )

    3. (BTW, the puppet theatre “Opera in Focus” is still performing shows in Rolling Meadows.)

    4. The joy of the piece was the juxtaposition of the two extremes on a continuum. Examining the connective tissue between extremes can make sentient thought worth the trouble.

  3. I remember an article decades ago that said the chapel at O'Hare was seldom used, it was a great place for a quickie!

    1. I wanted to do that...she didn't. That ship has sailed. Too old for quickies now.

  4. Having those facilities available I'm sure helps many people.
    What used to help many people were the vending machines on the concourses that sold life insurance policies. Not sure why they disappeared. Maybe it instilled fear.
    I imagine the two would go hand in hand. First to the vending machine and then on to the chapel.


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