A breath-takingly beautiful temple stood in the city, obviously made as a masterpiece; with gold leaf expertly placed over the doorway, and bas-relief carvings surrounding it. The roof was a marvel, shaped to intrigue the eyes into following its beautiful lines. Stained glass windows sparkled in the light – a gorgeously rich array of colours and tones in intricate and beautiful designs. One could imagine the large, cool interior, with hundreds of reflected shapes of coloured light dappling the walls and floors.
It was built as a temple of the Lord, a Dwelling Place for the Mighty Creator. It had been designed to be a house of prayer; a place of rest, comfort, peace and reconciliation where people who came in would find themselves loved and cared for, their own uniqueness discovered and known, their spirits lightened and inspired. The owner had gladly given the land and magnificent building to the service of the King of Kings, asking the Creator to dwell there and do whatever he wanted to, in it and through it. It had been formally dedicated to the Master’s use in a beautiful ceremony where water, words, song and prayers had all symbolically recognised that the life and light of the Loving Father God would be free to dwell within, as long as the building lasted.
That’s why it was curious the day the owner installed a large screen in the centre of the building, with an aerial stretching up from the exquisite domed roof. Where once the cool interior had been a quiet and peaceful place, with tasteful art works, and gentle music from time to time, now a thousand images a day flickered onto the screen. Mostly they were commonplace – photos of children, animals, families and food – with a few wonderful and only the occasional questionable images. Even so, the pictures did have a habit of drawing the eye, and you couldn’t help but want to read the accompanying text – humorous, angry, sad or banal, it kind of drew you in and before you knew it you’d been staring at that screen for half an hour or more at a time.
After a while, the owner had rearranged the seating to give a better view of the screen; and while there were still open spaces and little nooks and crannies where you could sit and think, it definitely changed the feel of the place.
Then one day, a traveling salesman knocked on the door. No salesperson had ever dared to do that before, knowing it was a sacred space and that they wouldn’t even get a look in. But this guy had seen the aerial, and knew it signified a change within, so he thought he’d try his luck. He couldn’t believe it when the owner actually gave him a smile of welcome, and stood for several minutes listening to his spiel. The next time he was in the area, he knocked again, and this time the owner welcomed him to come in and sit for a while so he could properly explain his products and open his suitcases. Well, before long, he was being invited to put a poster on the wall, and not too long after that, a static display of his wares. Within a few months, he had commandeered a small space against the southern wall where he could stay and demonstrate his various wares, selling bits and pieces to those who wandered in and out of the beautiful, but slightly noisier temple.
It didn’t take long for other sales people to hear about the concession made to their colleague. Being a fair-minded person, the owner couldn’t refuse them the chance to have a go at setting up a little stall or wheeling in a market display. It was a colourful, eclectic hive of activity; you never knew what new wonder would be brought in, and it was quite exciting to find objects and curiosities you didn’t even know existed, sourced from all over the globe, and reasonably priced, too!
The owner wondered from time to time how such a change had come about in the formerly peaceful, open space. Occasionally, he longed for that sense of stillness and rest, that now seemed almost like a dream in this flashy, busy, buzzing place. And when trucks backed up to the double doors to unload their latest goods, it was actually a little jarring to his nerves.
Sporadically, dancers and actors had asked if they could be allowed to present their latest show in the beautiful temple building. At first, the owner pointed to the theatre just down the road, a purpose-built locale for the arts where he himself had enjoyed the creativity of skilled performers. But after a while he thought it was silly to say no – why not enjoy this entertainment right here, relaxing on his favourite chair, and able to share it with whoever else was there at the time.
So, it became quite a regular thing – often just a short performance: a new song, or a compelling short act, even a whirling, scantily-clad dancer might leap onto the stage to show off their latest creation. Occasionally, the shows went for much longer, and everything else shut down for a while, as everyone there was absorbed in the action.
Needless to say, people who had enjoyed visiting the temple for many years found the gradual change of atmosphere surprising. Where once they had found solace and restoration within the gorgeously designed space, feeling the cool still air bringing its own presence into their souls, they could hardly recognise the new exciting hubbub that seemed to excite all the senses at once! Some people turned around and exited, and never came back. Others were drawn into the colourful array of experiences that were on offer, embracing this new expression of the temple’s life with gusto. Some even brought in their own displays or performances, sharing their own favourite images, shows or purchases with the owner, who was always ready for something new.
It was a day just like any other, when a quiet and thoughtful looking visitor stepped through the ornate doors, which these days were propped open from first light til well after dark, the owner figuring that whilever he was awake he may as well see what new attraction might pop up to pique his interest. (Occasionally, he even got out of bed to answer the ping of the doorbell, and sometimes he was very pleased that he had done so, happy to sacrifice a bit of sleep for something that intriguing!). The owner looked up at the visitor; but since people of all types were constantly coming in and out, he didn’t take much notice of individuals, until they managed to grab his attention.
The stranger gazed intently around the crowded space, and tried to scrape from his shoe the sticky mess he’d accidentally trodden on. There was quite a bit of garbage lying around these days, the inevitable result of so many going in and out, eating and unpackaging their purchases. Sometimes even the shop owners were careless with the wrappings and cast off goods, and the owner occasionally burst out in frustration at all the mess they seemed to leave behind.
With careful steps, the new visitor walked around, taking in the various items for sale, the dancers and clowns and orators all waiting for their turn on the stage. He saw the images on the screen, sometimes held for several minutes, other times flicking through each second. He looked in vain for somewhere to settle quietly to rest his tired feet. All the seats and benches had been commandeered by the salespeople, or dragged up close to the small stage that had been installed. He even bought a brown loaf from one vendor, but after one bite re-wrapped it and looked in vain for a bin. The bread had been a disappointment, somehow looking fresh but with a stale taste and some hidden mould underneath.
After quite some time, he managed to get the owner’s attention. He spoke quietly with him, and in fact the owner had to bend quite close to even hear what he was saying above the crowd and the noisy salespeople, not to mention the blaring music of the dancers. The owner’s face reflected several feelings at once – shock, sorrow, fear, confusion. As the stranger slowly spoke, the owner looked around him, the colours and shadows reflected on his skin. He spread his hands in a gesture of resignation, shrugging his shoulders. He tried to point out some of the more beautiful and useful wares to the stranger, also indicating with despair some of the less savoury sellers whom he’d tried unsuccessfully to evict.
“You know I could help you with all of this, don’t you?”, the stranger finally asked. “I would happily send all these away – back to their own places, so you could still easily get what you needed, but they wouldn’t all have to be right here, crowding you all the time.”
The owner’s shame and regret was evident. He was torn between the man’s offer, and all that surrounded him, that he quite enjoyed and in fact, relied upon. His own repeated efforts to bring a little order to the chaos had never really worked, but the thought of quiet, empty space had become so foreign it was almost frightening.
It seemed an age before he hesitantly turned back to the earnest face of the unusual visitor in front of him. “I’m sorry. I do know you are right, but this…”, gesturing around him, “…This is my life now, and I can’t see how I could be without it. I would still love you to come and see me again though.”
The stranger nodded sadly, and looked around the building again before grasping the man in a strong hug, and then turning to go, after assuring him he would definitely visit again, to see if the owner had changed his mind.
He walked calmly to the doorway and through it, turning as he went to look up at the half broken sign dangling over the entrance: “A House of Prayer”. He himself had lovingly carved those letters, and put the beautiful sign in place, all those years ago.
With a heavy sigh, he pulled at the wood until the only remaining nail gave way. He rubbed the dust away with his craftsman’s hand, and placed the sign carefully behind a column, with the writing up against the wall. With one last longing gaze at the owner, whose back was visible amongst the crowd, the stranger brushed off his hands and slowly walked away.
(Short story, c. Nerida Cuddy 24/11/18 – a few days after my smart phone broke!)