It’s 5:35am when the Dartmouth Coach pulls into the lower level of Terminal A. I step off the bus bleary-eyed and grab my luggage as the driver yanks it out of the bus underbelly. I make a beeline for the next place I need to be, the florescent glow of the airport immediately triggering my travel mode—brisk walk, eyes scanning signs, mind on my possessions. When I arrive at the security checkpoint, I pause and sink into a metal chair in front of signs advertising coffee and croissants. I know airports never really sleep, but there is still an air of morning haziness. The security line is short, a lone person sips coffee at another set of metal table and chairs, and the lights don’t completely mask the pre-dawn shift from darkness to light through the floor to ceiling windows.
I pause because I actually have time. And space. I don’t ever remember having time and space in an airport. Sure, I’ve had long layovers and delays, but they have always been something to endure. They happen when I’m already so strung out from traveling that though I technically have time, I have no space. Today I have time and space. My airplane to New York doesn’t board until 8:30am so there’s no need to rush. (Public transportation time schedules don’t always sync up in a convenient fashion.) And I feel fresh—an alien to this limbo world of over-stimulation and frenzy. I feel immune to it all.
On the 3:30am bus from Lebanon, NH to the airport, I discovered that Logan International Airport has a chapel. In my pause on the cold, black chair with my bags huddled around me I decide a chapel is certainly the sanest place in an airport to wait out the hours. I pull up the airport’s website on my phone, marveling at the speed of the Wi-Fi compared to my usual one-two bar 3G I get at home. A few clicks and I find the airport’s interactive map. So simple, I think. Just need to search for the chapel. I type “chapel” into search bar. Hmm… not recognized. I dig a little deeper, clicking on each terminal and scanning through the legends for each floor. No mention of a chapel. Finally, the third or fourth hit from a general Google search informs me that Our Lady of the Airways Chapel is in Terminal C. Sweet. Progress.
I return to the interactive map of the airport and zoom in as far as I can, digitally moving through Terminal C. Finally, I spot the symbol of a cross on the ground floor in the middle of a long corridor that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The next closest thing to it is “Baggage Claim 9.” I situate my laptop bag across my shoulders, grab my roll-behind luggage with the stuck wheel, and start following signs to Terminal C.
All the moving sidewalks, the quickest way to powerwalk through the inconvenient space between where you are and where you want to be, are all closed down for maintenance. The rubber conveyor belts meant for people are peeled back and basket-ball sized gears are strewn about waiting for the start of another workday. It was at this moment, as my eyes wandered from the guts of the moving sidewalks to the sun rising over the tarmac outside, that I realized I found myself on an unexpected pilgrimage. This day of travel was not just a day to endure, to grin and bear. It was another day to be present to.
I arrive at Terminal C to a much busier scene. My eyes hone-in on my next target—baggage claim—and I dutifully follow their lead down two sets of escalators. On occasion, I’d pass a map of the airport and I’d stop to look for that little black cross, but it was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t worried, however. I know how airports work—once you get close enough to where you need to be, the necessary signs appear. The escalator dumped me out on the ground floor in the middle of the baggage claim carousels. I walk one direction without looking at the signs and soon realize I’m at baggage claim four. I want number nine. Turning the other way, the overhead signs indicate that baggage claim nine is just ahead. Now I get confused. If the chapel is this close to baggage claim nine, where’s the sign? This is not how airports work. Besides, it looks like the room ends after baggage claim nine. I keep walking, doubting my map-reading ability. Just as I arrive at baggage claim nine, I turn a corner—it’s the only option other than turning around—and then, only then, do I see the sign: Chapel ⇑. I walk a few more paces and see another sign: ⇐ Chapel. The only thing in the corridor is a black, unmarked door standing ajar. I peek in, feeling strongly that I’m trespassing into restricted access domain.
It’s the chapel.
I wrangle myself and my luggage through the door and instinctively dip my finger into the tiny bowl on the wall that typically holds holy water to cross myself. My fingertips drag on dry stones. I walk past the electric vigil candles – you can push a button to turn one on by dropping a quarter in the metal slot – and slide my body, backpack, and roll-behind carry-on into the pew. I sink onto the creaky kneeler and sense the emptiness, the forgottenness of this place.
As I kneel to pray I can hear the distant clanging of travel, commerce, and machinery above and around me. I’m in the belly of the beast, yet I feel a sense of protection. This place feels tired, yet it still whispers the sacred. It is buried and neglected, but not crushed.
A few hours later I’m landing at La Guardia International Airport, 184 miles away from Our Lady of the Airways Chapel. My sense of walking as a stranger through a strange land is strengthened as I look up from Ben Falk’s book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead, to look out at New York City with building on top of building for as far as the eye can see. I was just reading about water resiliency and about flood preparation. How will all these people continue to have access to the water that gives life and keep out the water that destroys?
As I carry myself and my belongings from this gate to the next, I pass a scene I have seen before and always gives me chills. Dining tables and bar stools with upright I-pads fixed in front of each seat so that people need to peer over or around them if they want to make eye contact. Ninety-nine in one hundred human beings bow their heads over their personal tiny screens. Finally, to be doubly sure no wandering eye is without stimulus, dozens of TV screens flash overhead.
As I arrive at my gate I think back to that tiny, hidden chapel that was so difficult to find. I look around at the incessant distraction that is impossible to ignore. I reflect on the state of our world and what our hearts so desperately need. And I wish that the metaphor was less clear.