Airports and God

I’m not going to apologise for the delay in transmission or explain why this is the topic upon which I choose break my silence.

Pope Benedict XVI on Monday met with airport chaplains on the first day of the XV World Seminar for Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members.

No kidding. Here’s a bit of what he said:

Dear friends, always be conscious that you are called to embody in the world’s airports the Church’s mission of bringing God to man and leading man to the encounter with God. Airports are places that increasingly reflect the globalized reality of our time. Here one finds people of a wide variety of nationalities, cultures, religions, social status and age. One also comes across all manner of difficult human situations that demand increasing attention. I think, for example, of people waiting anxiously as they seek to pass through border controls without the necessary documentation, either as immigrants or asylum seekers. I think of the inconvenience caused by anti-terrorism security measures…

I know that I have often experienced a degree of existential angst in airports out of all proportion to my normal levels of anxiety when juggling hand luggage, passport, wallet, laptop and shoes at the security checks. And there have certainly been times – such as when stuck in an international stopover for twelve hours 6 hours out of whack with one’s own personal timezone – when a friendly chaplain would have been appreciated.

One thinks too of the literary and film references to airports. Douglas Adams once wrote that it was hardly surprising that no language on earth had ever coined the proverb “as pretty as an airport”. There was the Steve Martin classic “Trains Planes and Automobiles”. And then there was of course the Tom Hanks 2004 film “The Terminal” – perhaps that was what the Holy Father was thinking of on this occasion.

In any event, which it is reassuring that in this increasingly confusing world, there are actually people who give of themselves to alleviate such suffering. And that the Holy Father would take the time to encourage them in their ministry. Yes, the New Evangelisation is all about proclaiming the Gospel in the new situations of the modern millennium.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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12 Responses to Airports and God

  1. Josha says:

    Too true, David, too true – I write this at Fiumicino airport waiting to fly to Dubai, on my way home to Australia!

    Memo to self: remember to get iPhone unlocked *before* departing for Europe…

  2. Matthias says:

    Schutz I know that there is a chapel at Heathrow-or there use to be- but why not one at Tullamarine. If it was good enough for Fr Kevin Dillon when at mitcham to set up the st francis Chapel at Eastland shopping Centre,surely an enterprising parish or parishes could see about setting up a Chapel .

  3. Peregrinus says:

    No explanation needed, David. But good to see you back.

    In many ways airport chaplains are not really new. We’ve had railway chaplaincies since the nineteenth century, and of course port chaplaincies from long before that.

    Nowadays travel is – for us privileged westerners, at any rate – pretty safe, but it can still be emotionally and spiritually wearing. And it’s interesting to contrast the the exhaustion, the stress, the alienation, the dislocation of modern travel with the practice of pilgrimage – embarking on a journey with the explicit intention of fostering openness to the Spirit. When we travel we separate ourselves from our place, our community and our familiar comforts and supports, and make ourselves vulnerable. But as Christians we’re called to embrace vulnerability – what is the cross, if not the embrace of vulnerability? – and look to the Spirit to transform it into growth. And I suspect the role of the airport chaplain is to stand with travellers in their vulnerability, and to share in their growth.

    (Or, in short, even your holiday or your tedious business travel can be a pilgrimage.)

    (Matthias – there’s still an interdenominational chapel – with daily Mass – at Heathrow, plus an adjacent but distinct multi-faith prayer room. Despite that, I have to confess that when I try to visualise Hell, what I come up with is Terminal 1 at Heathrow Airport at 4:30 am, only extended into infinity.)

  4. Matthias says:

    I have heard that before to Peregrinus .

  5. Gareth says:

    Pere: Despite that, I have to confess that when I try to visualise Hell

    Gareth: One really shouldnt joke about that, even as an innocent joke.

    • Catherine says:

      Where is written that one shouldn’t visualize hell? Just worry about yourself Gareth

      • Gareth says:

        Its part of the Devils plan to desensitise eternal damnation and sins that lead to it.

        Comparing it to any state in life, even as an innocent joke, should be avoided at all costs by serious Christians.

        • Schütz says:

          Both Luther and CS Lewis taught that the best way to infuriate and disarm the Ddvil was to laugh at him. I’m inclined to agree. Altho as far as airports go, I’m more inclined to see them as a foretaste of purgatory – not a permanent state but a necessary place to pass thru on the way to paradise….

    • Peregrinus says:

      It may (or may not) be amusing, Gareth, but I honestly didn’t intend it as a joke.

      I conceive of hell as the condition of being irrevocably cut off from – of having irrevocably cut yourself off from – God. A place of isolation, alienation and despair, where we can now longer see God but we can see the idols that we put in his place as the empty, useless, meretricious things they are.

      Lakes of fire and constantly smouldering rubbish tips don’t evoke that for me. But in an airport we have huge crowds of people making minimal personal connection with each other – loneliness without solitude, the very definition of alienation – and endless rows of glitzy shops selling trashy, overpriced and ephemeral merchandise, the embodiment of the materialism and consumerism that is the dominant contemporary idol. Add to that the feeling of dislocation you get from being 25,000 miles from home, stuck in a place devoid of any character or local connection, not having slept for 24 hours, and being awake at 4:30 am. And now just add the idea of eternity – there is no prospect that this will ever end, no sense that you are on any kind of journey or that your presence here has any purpose or meaning.

      • Gareth says:

        I see the point you are trying to make now, but I think words of caution are still valid.

        People’s ‘perceptions’ of the afterlife are just that.

        The hard truth is that the Lord himself made constant reference to the subject at hand and described it at all times as a horrible place of torment. Our Lord wouldnt lie or sugercoat.

        For that reason when mentioning the subject, we should always aim to be extremly cautious and place our trust rather in perceptions, but God’s truth.

        • Peregrinus says:

          Hi Gareth

          Couple of thoughts.

          1. I take your point. According to Matthew, Jesus does frequently refer to Hell – about ten times, from memory.

          2. But it’s a bit of stretch to say that he “described it at all times” as anything. Most of the times he mentions hell, he doesn’t describe it at all. On two occasions, I think, he associates it with fire, and on one with destruction (of both body and soul) by unspecified means.

          3. He didn’t come up with the imagery of fire himself; it was well-established in Jewish culture. As no doubt you know, Matthew’s references to “hell” in fact employ the Hebrew name “Gehenna” rather than the Greek “Hades” (even though the Gospel is written in Greek). Gehenna is an actual place near Jerusalem where at one time human sacrifice had been practiced. Because of this Jews regarded the place as unclean and it was used a rubbish dump. Sanitary engineering at the time not being what it is now, attempts to burn the rubbish led to Gehenna being associated with constant, foul-smelling fires. They smouldered constantly, since as yesterday’s rubbish was consumed by fire and ash it was replaced with today’s.

          4. Because of its (spiritually) evil associations and its (aesthetically) evil appearance, Gehanna was adopted as an image of the afterlife which awaited the wicked, when Judaism developed the concept of an afterlife. It was well-established in this role by the time of Jesus.

          5. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, therefore, he was speaking of a place which his audience knew to be a real place; it would have been a familiar place to many of them, at any rate when he preached in or near Jerusalem. They knew, of course, that he was referring to the afterlife of the wicked, but they also knew that he was using it metaphorically. They did not imagine that the shades of the damned actually hung around this particular place just south of Jerusalem. They understood that they were to imagine the condition of the damned as being comparable with or analogous to living in Gehenna.

          6. All of these means that we are entirely orthodox if we treat Jesus’s references to fire, etc, as metaphorical, and we are free to consider other metaphors which might illuminate (bad choice of word, but you know what I mean) what Hell means in the light of Christian belief. So Dante, for instance, is entirely orthodox in imagining hell as a place not of fire, but of cold and darkness, centred on an eternally frozen lake.

          7. Heathrow Terminal 1 may seem mild by comparison with eternally burning fires or perpetually frozen lakes, but as a metaphor it has one advantage over them; it’s something that we really can experience in our current condition of existence, and many of us have. Gehenna nowadays is (I’m told) quite a pleasant public park; if we want a metaphor which has the power for us that Gehenna had for those who heard Jesus preach, Gehenna cannot be that metaphor.

          8. We could imagine Hell as Auschwitz, or as the Rwandan genocide, but that requires (to put it no higher) enormous care and sensitivity. Auschwitz and Rwanda are not our stories; they are other people’s stories, other people’s pain, other people’s grief, and perhaps they are not for us to exploit in this way, however good and respectful our intentions. Plus, most of us have never experienced Auschwitz or Rwanda, and cannot truly imagine doing so. (And there are other objections to using these images; mainly that they present God as a kind of celestial Hitler, which is plainly blasphemous.)

          9. So, I accept that my Heathrow analogy may be feeble, but not that it’s a joke. And Heathrow does have one important characteristic that many other analogies may lack. Practically everyone who is in Heathrow Airport is there because of their own free choice. And isn’t that an important feature of the Christian understanding of Hell?

  6. Joshua says:

    I am the above “Josha” – too tired and exasperated by travel to even spell my own name!

    Gareth – don’t be too uptight.

    In any case, recall the advice of many saints (I think Aquinas among them; google it to check) that “One should frequently descend to hell in spirit [i.e. visualize hell] in this life, lest in the next life one should descend there in body and soul [never to return]”.

    St Teresa of Avila reports that in a vision she was shown the place prepared for her in hell, which would have been hers in reality had she not persevered to the end of her life.

    In contrast, recall that cheerful Franciscan tale (depicted in the frescoes in the Upper Basilica of St Francis in Assisi) which declares that “St Francis sits on the throne of Lucifer” – I suspect you haven’t heard this one in a homily! – since one of his brethren, praying with the saint, had a vision of heaven, in which he was shown the vacant seats that would have been those of the angels who fell, and, amongst them, the grand throne that would have been Lucifer’s, which he lost through pride: and which therefore by a pleasing contrast was soon to be given to St Francis, for his humility. Yes, St Francis sits on the throne of Lucifer.

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