And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6.
I always used to think there was something suprisingly bourgeois about this Bible verse. How many people have their own room? Even though I live in the prosperous First World, I slept in the same bed as my mother and little brother for most of my childhood. And I don't think there's anything so extraordinary about this.
Then I read a gloss upon this text which explained that Jesus is not necessarily speaking in a literal sense. We can "go to our private room and shut ourselves in" at any time, no matter where we are. Our private room is our soul.
I find this interpretation very pleasing. But then, I've always found the privacy of our thoughts to be a strange and even thrilling idea.
I like films such as Inception which take place, partly or mostly or entirely, inside somebody's imagination. The possibilities are infinite. (Although I've seen that film about four or five times, in whole or in part, and I still don't understand exactly what's happening most of the time.)
I remember in school, when I was cold in the playground, I would imagine I was sitting in a private office which was snug and warm. My body was cold, but the real me was insulated. This notion delighted me no end, though it obviously didn't make me any less cold.
Sometimes we yearn so much to make ourselves known and understood-- to communicate some bewitching experience, for instance-- that this perpetual mental privacy can seem like a prison. All communication and all art is, in a sense, an attempt to break out of it-- or rather, into the mental chamber of somebody else.
But, on the whole, I think this inner sanctum is a priceless gift. Even in a crowd of a hundred thousand people, there is somewhere that is entirely our own. And it is as big as we can make it.
I've always felt that, like Tennyson, "I am a part of all that I have met"-- or rather, that all that I have met is a part of me. I'm still sitting in a kitchen on a Winter's morning, as my little brother is persuaded to go to school for the first time, and looking at scones baking in the oven, the orange flames burning beneath the grille. I'm still reading David Copperfield, lying awake in bed on the first night of Operation Desert Storm. I'm still sitting in the cinema, watching every movie I've ever seen. It's all going on, over and over again, forever, in the kingdom of my mind. Nothing is ever really gone, in that sense.
I could never finish Clive Barker's thumpingly long fantasy novel, Weaveworld, but I've always been haunted by the inscription that one character finds written on a book of fairy tales: "That which can be imagined need never be lost."
All of this to say, I have been giving some thought recently to building my own private chapel. Money is no object, but I don't think I'm going to make it very lavish.
I think it might resemble the shrine of John Neumann in Philadelphia. I've never been there (the shrine, I mean-- I've been in Philadelphia airport several times, and enjoyed a couple of cheese pretzels there). But I do like the photographs, and this three-hundred-and-sixty degree panorama.
Most of all, it would be bright and colourful, not dark and grey. I don't know why God should only be found in gloomy places. We are told he dwells in unapproachable light. Floodlighting my little chapel might be going too far, but I would like it to at least look awake.
The ceiling would be low. I can't explain why a low ceiling has always seemed exciting to me. I suspect that, like Isaac Asimov, I am a claustrophile.
There would be a great deal of polished, varnished wood, preferably with an amber-coloured tinge to it.
There would be no stained glass. I don't like stained glass. There would be paintings and framed Scriptural quotations instead.
There would be no windows. I like indoors to be indoors, without any reminder of the outdoors.
On one side wall, there would be a picture of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the figures fairly stiff and stylized, the emphasis very much upon the tongues of fire that leap towards everybody gathered in the upper room.
One the other wall, there would be a framed text, Luke 12:49: "I have come to bring fire to the Earth".
Underfoot, there would be crests or insignias of some sort-- possibly the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the Chi-Ro symbol, and the ichthys fish. (I went to a school run by Dominican nuns and I always loved the Dominician crest worked into the floor-tiles.)
There would be a heavy curtain behind the tabernacle, preferably wine-red or navy-blue. I find heavy curtains tremendously exciting.
There would be always be soft music filling the air. Some might see this as crass, and as a violation of the silence that should reign in a place or worship, the silence about which Pope Benedict wrote so eloquently.
But what can I say? To me, soft music seems to deepen and heighten the silence, to give a place a sense of presence. It would be Gregorian chant and various hymns most of the time, with Christmas carols through Advent.
That seems like a very cosy, reverential, joyous chapel to me.
But if I don't like it I can redesign pretty cheaply.