Thursday, 26 April 2012

Heathrow's sacred broom-cupboard

Among the glitz and glamor (and tat) of the Terminal 5 departure lounge, a "multi-faith room" is carefully hidden away. With time to spare before my flight I decided to go and take a look, wondering how architects and airport management would cope with a place of spiritual meaning for peoples of varied beliefs looking for something of the numinous amongst the loud shouts of travel and commerce.

Their answer is both simple and ingenious. They have produced a room that contrasts with both the cutting edge and ultra-modern architecture of the Terminal building, and challenges the overwhelming consumerism of the duty free shopping area. The approach itself leads you to suspect you are departing from the public areas of the Terminal and entering a service area (no, not that kind of service). This "suggestion" is enhanced as you enter the actual multi-faith room itself. I nearly backed out, assuming I had just opened the door of a broom cupboard ( albeit a generously proportioned one), for the walls were a tatty white, and apart from a few Islamic prayer mats in the corner, devoid of fixture, fitting or facilities of any kind.

What did keep me there though was the invitation to talk from the only other occupant of the room, a Moslem, also waiting for his flight. For him this was his mosque where he had just met with fellow Moslems to pray at one of their set times. He passed through Heathrow frequently, popping into the mosque if the timing was right to pray with any fellow Moslems present and who he would probably not see again. I liked his attitude. Yes, this was a most unimpressive mosque/church/place of prayer, call it what you will; but it became a holy place through the faithful action of a group who chose it to pray in; and they were united, not through the place, but through their shared prayer.

I'm going to visit some impressive and historical mosques, synagogues and churches. I'm looking forward to it. But the continuance of these places, as something more than museums, depends not on their architectural merit or historical significance, but on people, pilgrims on a journey, making of them a simple place of prayer.

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