Reflection: A Quiet Place?
The human current carries me towards the exit barriers. ‘Where are all these people going and what do they do when they get there?’ I am irritated to be hemmed in, unable to walk at my own pace and not to be in complete control. It is not even peak hour.
Like water spurting out of a broken water main, the commuter current flows upwards and out of the subway, spilling us onto George Street. I am surrounded by indifference and haste. Many seem spiritually attached to their mobile phones and/or morning coffees. I see them but they don’t see me. Our eyes never meet. I feel obliged to fall into step and keep to the left. Except for one coming towards me. His shoulder and upper arm collide with mine. ‘Sorry.’ It is a mechanical formality delivered from behind a retreating back. It is like the one that tells me that my call is important to them. I am hurt and annoyed but given the right circumstances, I know that I can make my own equally unhelpful contribution to this cold and impersonal city. A pedestrian crossing blocks our path. The lights are against us. I can sense the impatience as the crowd grows around me. People stare at the opposite side, anxious to be moving. One or two defy the little red man and stride across weaving their way between stationary vehicles. Those who wait, stare self-righteously after them but nobody speaks. Half a minute passes. The green man appears, and we surge forward. A stranded car becomes a rock and the flow of humanity parts around it merging again on the other side. A homeless person sits by his collection of plastic bags and soiled bedding. On a scrap of cardboard, he has written that he needs ‘loose change’ in order to receive ‘urgent medical attention’.
I have half a second in which to make up my mind. ‘Is it to be a coin, folding currency or nothing?’ I am past him before I can decide. Perhaps I should go back and have a conversation with him. I pass the Apple Store. It has iPhones and MackBook Pros and a sign which reads that there is ‘a new Retina display for an immersive viewing experience’ available. The energy among the pedestrians around me intensifies. There is blood in the water. The blood could be technology. It might also be JB Hi-Fi or Louis Vuitton’s handbags or Swarovski’s crystals or Calvin Klein’s shirts or Revlon’s fragrances. It is difficult to tell. Ahead is Myers Department Store. Westfield and David Jones lie in wait temporarily hidden. ‘Could these be the new cathedrals of the twenty-first century?’ The faithful break off in order to pass through the entrance to the Vatican. I follow them inside. There is air-conditioning, music, artificial light and coordinated colour schemes. With strategically placed mirrors and clean, bright, reflective surfaces, a whole floor of cosmetics glitters seductively.
There is an urgency to buy now because the discounts can’t last, and the sales will end soon. It stimulates a clamour at the counters, a desire to participate and FOMO. The feeding frenzy is almost palatable. ‘Is this the new religion? Where is the established church or any church in all of this?’ I know there are real churches still around, but they are not popular places to visit except if you are a member or a tourist. Sydney has its St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, The Great Synagogue, St Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral. Many more lie scattered in the suburbs and on the perimeters of human activity. Rarely are they where there are lots of people and never within a Westfield or a Mall or a shopping complex. For anyone unaccustomed to institutional religion, these can be intimidating places to enter.
Helsinki is a city that wears its prosperity on its sleeve, where there is a level of retail activity that even rivals our own. Apple, Aldi, Zara, H & M, Levi’s, Rebel and a host of others are all there just like Sydney. There is one difference. Amid all the turmoil and located in one of the busiest squares in Finland, is the ‘Kamppi Chapel’ or the ‘Chapel of Silence’. The building has a warm, natural wood exterior and a smooth, sculptured shape that calls out to you to come over, have a look and maybe even step inside. There is no hidden agenda and no entrance fee. Nobody wants to sell you something or to evangelise or promote a product, cause or religion. There are staff but they are discreet. And so, I went inside. The walls curved around and upwards. Like arms, they seemed to embrace me. There were no pictures or windows. There was no music. Timber pews and a simple table at the front were the only furniture. The natural timber surfaces and the simplicity of the architecture gave a sense of warmth and peace. Others were sitting quietly in the pews. Nobody was talking. There seemed no need for conversation.
The thought came, ‘Could they be experiencing the same thing as I?’. I am uncertain what difference the action of sitting and being silent for fifteen minutes made. Did the impact of an indifferent and opulent city return after I left? Probably it did. Was I better equipped to deal with the chaos that surrounded me? I am not sure I was. But what I do know is that those fifteen minutes were good. And so here is a challenge: Take a second look at the Chapel of Silence. Google it if you wish. Observe its features and its contribution and consider whether our church might better serve the needs of our community by going to where the people go. Why not set up shop beside a Westfield, a Woolworths, a Target or a David Jones? Create a place amid all the noise and confusion of a shopping mall where someone can go to in order to find quietness, peace and perhaps have a conversation with their God.