Houses of the holy: why the best temples aren’t always the grandest

I am not a religious person. I do not like the hypocrisy; the weird uniforms, the commercial element; the fact that I might be put to a grisly death for loving a certain person, and then burn for eternity, etc. (Though I have no qualms with those who are religious. I realise that this is a somewhat inconsistent position. What I’m saying is: I tend to take people as I find them.)

There are two areas in which I am envious of the religious. The first is the strength of will it must take to believe. The second? The architecture. I am most put out that beautiful, stained-glass windows, double-height ceilings, gold and turquoise minarets, majestic domes, and all the rest, are often lacking from the secular world. It’s as though religion snaffled all the good buildings. I remember first thinking this when roaming around Siena Cathedral as a teenager, awed by the black and white humbug interior and huge, arched ceilings.

Since then I have visited many gorgeous buildings, of all denominations, and always marvel at the breathtaking beauty and creativity. (Top tip: Prague.) But even more than the grandiose, I love tiny – almost miniature – chapels. I especially love them when they crop up randomly in out-of-the-way locations, as though they have just grown from the Earth.

These chapels are always open. They fit, at most, four people. Often they are empty. Stepping inside is like entering a small, gold-leafed womb. One of the smallest I ever stumbled across was on the Aegean island of Kalymnos: an Orthodox chapel, inside which, if I stretched my arms out, I could almost touch the opposite walls. The only sounds were the squeak of the door on old hinges; one’s steps and breathing; the creak of a pew. There was an overwhelming feeling of safety.

This is the kind of religious experience I can get down with, rather than ostentatious plumes of white smoke or penetrating 5am calls to prayer. There is something quite wonderful about no community being too small to have its own place of peace. (It’s possible this is why men have sheds.)

I would advise you to seek one out, for this quiet, singular pleasure; but I am not going to. Instead, I am going to wish for you to meet one by chance, when and where you least expect it, and discover, serendipitously, the joy of a small thing.