Prayers rise with the smoke from an open fire inside a Navajo Prayer Hogan. As the smoke exits a hole in the ceiling, a plume of prayers ascend unto the heavens. There are distinctions of religious practice in the world, just as there are striking similarities. In a Christian church, prayer is directed symbolically towards the altar or, in some denominations, the communion table or even the general area around the altar. Devoted Muslims prostrate themselves in a mosque, their heads bowed toward the Kaaba in Mecca.
Church-bells toll, Buddhist prayer-flags flutter, muezzin chant the call to prayer from a minaret. In all this diversity of religious observance, there is yet much in common. Reverence, for example, is often expressed in and by way of silence. “Silence,” Herman Melville wrote, “is the only Voice of our God.” The peaceful stillness experienced in a spiritual sanctuary is not merely the absence of sound, but the presence of communion with the divine. From such quiet reflection and meditation comes self-discovery and the attainment of truth.
For some, silence can be threatening. Mother Teresa once wrote to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet lamenting that “the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” An icon of religious sacrifice and service to others, throughout most of her life Mother Teresa did not feel the presence of God at all.
Although people express and experience spirituality in different ways, spaces in which people gather for prayer have common elements. Along with shared silence, devotional space is frequently elevated above ground level, requiring the supplicant to ascend a physical height even as he or she aspires to a spiritual one. Once inside, places of worship are often open and airy with disproportionately tall ceilings, again accentuating the celestial heights of the heavenly realm. Other architectural devices are similarly used to enhance the religious experience. Stained-glass windows are found not only in Christian cathedrals but in Jewish synagogues, as well.
Then there’s the shape of the building. Mention the word mosque, and most people form a mental picture of a domed building bordered by towering minarets, analogous to the dome of a human head with upraised arms. But central-domed mosques, introduced in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, were derived from Byzantine churches.
The Parthenon, perched atop the Acropolis in Athens, is the most recognizable temple from the ancient world. Built in the 5th century B.C. in honor of Athena, the patron deity of Athens, the Parthenon has survived the vagaries of history. The Romans turned it into a brothel. Christians used it as an Orthodox church and the Turks converted it into a mosque. “Dressed in the majesty of centuries,” wrote Plutarch, “It contains a living and incorruptible breath, a spirit impervious to age.”
Hebron, a Palestinian city in the West Bank south of Jerusalem, boasts the cave that marks the final resting place of Abraham, whose covenant with God led to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Dating from the 1st century B.C., the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a massive stone structure built over the cave by King Herod, later held by Christian Crusaders. Since the 14th century, it’s been the site of a Muslim house of worship, the Ibrahimi Mosque.
In the Baha’i Faith, also regarded as an Abrahamic religion, a House of Worship can take any shape but has one important requirement: It must have nine sides. Why nine? Nine represents the greatest single numerical value. Baha’is therefore regard it as a symbol of unity, the central theme of the Baha’i teachings.
Silence and stillness in a diversity of places, set aside especially for reverence. Humanity aspires to spiritual spaces.