Experienced travelers know that holy sites can often be found in unexpected places—on the side of a busy highway, for example, or tucked into the shadows of tall skyscrapers in the middle of a city. But while I’ve found many such places around the world, I think the most unusual holy place I’ve visited might well be the meditation room at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
Airports, after all, are hardly conducive to prayer and reflection. They’re loud, bustling, and full of a transient population of people who intersect only briefly. The lighting is harsh and the views monotonous, and when we travel through them we’re often fatigued, stressed, and in a hurry—just the wrong conditions for being open to the Spirit.
And yet the meditation room at one of the world’s largest airports is indeed a holy place, as I discovered on a recent trip that included several hours in its bustling terminal. Bored and needing to stretch my legs, I was wandering its corridors when I saw a sign for “Meditation Centre” that showed the silhouette of a kneeling figure. Intrigued, I followed the arrows to the Centre, which turned out to have three parts: a Quiet Room for individual and group prayer; a Reading Room with materials relating to spirituality; and a Meeting Room where staff members can meet with visitors.
It was the Quiet Room that drew me first—elegantly simple, it featured colored panels with abstract images and fresh flowers on its central table. Not so different, really, from the interfaith spaces that a number of large airports have. What made this Centre unusual is that it isn’t just a place—it’s a community of people, as I discovered when I exited the Quiet Room and met Gerard Timmermans, a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who is one of three full-time chaplains on staff there. Within a few minutes we were joined by Joop Albers, a Dutch Anglican priest (the third clergy member is a Protestant pastor, and there are also volunteers who staff the room on weekends and in the evenings).
“In a sense, we have the biggest flock in the world, for more than 40 million people pass through this airport each year,” said Timmermans. “Our interactions with the 50,000 who visit this room are often very brief but very intense.”
Originally established in 1975 as a Roman Catholic ministry, the Meditation Centre has over the decades become a place where people of all faiths—and those of no faith—are welcomed. Timmermans and Albers told stories of some of their encounters with people who walk through the Centre’s door, from victims of human trafficking (whom they connect with airport police) to family members traveling to retrieve the bodies of dead relatives. Muslims often use the room for daily prayers, they said, and they also have many visitors who are going on pilgrimage to places in Europe or traveling to do missionary work in Africa.
But many times, the person who enters the Centre is simply someone with a heavy heart. “Even if people don’t have faith of any sort, they often have some sense of trust in the church, especially if they’re in need,” said Timmermans.
During my brief time at the Centre I felt a little of its peace seep into my tired body and soul—and I was pleased to see that I was not the only person seeking solace in the Centre that morning. Before I left to catch my flight a Jewish man in prayer shawl and tefillin entered the room and begin to pray, his body swaying back and forth in an ancient rhythm. As he left, a group of African Muslims in brilliantly colored robes took his place, spreading their prayer rugs on the floor in the eastern corner of the room before beginning their service.
It was good to be reminded, there in that busy international airport, that a holy place is not dependent upon natural or architectural beauty—and that God waits patiently for us everywhere, including between Gates E and F at Schiphol.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.