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« Video Blog: Welcome To The Krakow Variety Hour (Krakow, Poland) | Main | First Impressions Of Krakow (Poland) »

Hallelujah (Krakow, Poland)

I went to church this morning. It's a church we stumbled across on our first day here, and it's just down the way from our apartment. My family has no real need to attend church with me, and I knew that I would be going by myself most Sundays, which is absolutely fine with me. The one thing I crave in life consistently for the last several years is alone time, even if that alone time is spent in the company of others.

It was rainy and a bit chilly this morning, and I dressed conservatively and warmly. As I walked across my courtyard, then out onto the street, my dress shoes clattered loudly on the sidewalk, making me feel conspicuous and foolish. I was nervous, with a million thoughts running through my mind, all of them concerning myself. How to shake the nerves? Look up. The grey morning sky was a beautiful backdrop to the old town skyline.

I got to the church just a bit early and it was still pretty empty. I chose a pew about a third of the way up. I'm sure it's not an especially large church by European standards, but it's certainly bigger by far than the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City California that I call home. Curious, I counted rows. I was sitting in the 34th. Just before the service began someone flipped a switch and the lights started coming on - starting with the illumination of the painting of Christ at the front, and working back through the chandeliers, one by one. This church is a bit modest, yet gaudy, and not cohesively beautiful. It has the feel of a house lived in for a very long time by a spinster with a penchant for shiny souvenirs. Large gilt statues seemed tacked on walls and shoved in corners. Small paintings dwarfed by the scope of the place are everywhere.

I was hoping to lose myself in the crowd to mask my lack of Catholic mass savvy, but when the service started in earnest, there were only 22 people in attendance, 4 of them nuns sitting in the first row. I decided to take my cue from the nearest person, several rows ahead. I stood when she stood. I sat when she sat. When she crossed herself I didn't know what to do.

The service was in Polish and I understood not a word. I sat (and stood), listening to the priest, and wondered why I was there. Why had I been so looking forward to attending churches in the cities in which we'd be "living?" Thinking about it, I realized I've been doing this all my life. When I was a kid my family moved every few years. My sister and I figured out that in small towns in the South, the best way to meet kids was to find the church with the biggest youth group and join. Sometimes we were Baptist, sometimes Methodist, once Presbyterian. Always my parents rolled their eyes and tolerated our "folly". They were intellectuals, and basically of the opinion that faith was the opiate of the masses. 

So on this rainy morning in Poland, had I gotten out of a warm bed and marched across the park, shoes clacking, to meet people? No, that wasn't it. Was it a sense of religious obligation? Not at all. Between my intellectual upbringing and my current Unitarian Universalist leanings, I feel not one iota of need to follow any observance to appease the Lord. I am in attendance of my life, and He is well pleased.

So why? - I wondered as the priest thundered on. He was on a roll, and the echo of his amplified voice in that vast empty space was beautiful to hear. Especially since I couldn't understand his scolding. As I sat, listening to the beautiful sound of vowels and consonants repeating themselves in the corners of the room, I understood. In my church we sing a simple and wonderful Doxology:

From all that dwell below the skies
Let songs of hope and faith arise
Hallelujah Hallelujah
Let peace on earth good will be sung
Through every land by every tongue
Hallelujah Hallelujah

When the service was just over, and the organ still playing, I made my way down the aisle. Before I got to the door the lights were being turned back off, and the priests were folding up and putting away. Outside it had started to rain, and I had forgotten my umbrella. As I walked home my shoes didn't seem nearly so loud.

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Reader Comments (11)

Brenna, this is a beautiful post. Glad you had a good Sunday. (my husband's family is Catholic, so I've been to a few family mass events where I have to decide which family member to follow in standing up and sitting down - can totally relate to that feeling).

Jul 26, 2009 at 7:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterLori

This is a fantastic summary. Brenna, as your writing gets more dramatic, it becomes more beautiful. This is wonderful. I feel myself in it and I know something about showing up as you think you should and trying to find your way. This is a thoughtful character development. I love you sugar!

Jul 26, 2009 at 8:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterKim

Oh, that was just beautiful. I am writing through tears, I want to go to there too. Thanks for the gift of the closest thing to being there.

Umm, you really should call me. I'll wake early, postpone sleep, or pull over in my car. Whatever.

/Users/wendy/Pictures/iPhoto Library/Originals/2009/spring summer 2009/IMG_3768.JPG
(hope you can see this, never posted a pic in a blog response b4)

Armfuls of hugs, wh

Jul 26, 2009 at 8:27 PM | Unregistered Commenternoho1960


Love you and your family. Love the blog. It's always exciting to see what is happening in your world. I have very similar feelings regarding church. I grew up Catholic but it's been awhile and I find I have forgotten what to do, no matter. I find myself drawn to church occasionally but haven't really found what I'm looking for there. My relationship with God exists in everyday moments. I wish I could join you, walking down country roads in Poland. Sounds like a dream. Thanks again for the blog. Be safe. Love Mary

Jul 26, 2009 at 10:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterMary Veenstra

I was in that Unitarian Universalist Church yesterday morning, wondering what if anything my hard-of-hearing mother-in-law could grasp of the lyrics in that little doxology. As an ex-Catholic, she probably got the Hallelujahs and that's about it, which probably made her wonder about us Unitarian liberals. Are atheists allowed to sing Hallelujah? (Darn tootin'!)
In college I dated an episcopal with leanings toward seminary, so while we were separated during the summer, I would visit episcopal churches in my hometown just to see if God was there. Which is silly, as my hometown is in Hawai'i and when you're in Hawai'i, who in their right mind would hang out in a building when you could be outside in Paradise? Surely not God.
Such wonderful musings.
Thank you, Brenna.

Jul 27, 2009 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicole

Knowing you is a blessing and living vicariously through you is fantastic. I can't wait to read more!

Jul 27, 2009 at 10:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris Aud

Great post Brenna ...
Even though I am Catholic, (albeit with serious Buddhist leanings) and attend regularly, I find that the sense of community and local flavor (wherever I am) far outweigh the 'Stand Up, Sit Down, Pray Pray Pray' of Catholic ritual.

I think it is AWESOME to experience local culture in this way. I'd be curious to know if the church is progressing in Europe the same as it is here. (Maybe even better? .. Hopeful)

Drink it in ... what an unbelievably good example you're setting for the kids ... NOT because you're attending church, but because you're experiencing EVERYTHING around you. You are (all) my heroes.


Jul 27, 2009 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterYo Lama

Reading all these posts is quite a trip. I can't put into words what it feels like to share a moment, and have others reflect moments back. What a wonderful world!

Jul 27, 2009 at 10:45 AM | Registered CommenterBrenna Gibson Redpath

Hi Brenna
Your very well discribed moment in a strange church in a foreign country reminded me immediately of something semilar I experienced. I went to a church in Greece. It was burning hot, so I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. A nun or someone in church explained to me through gestures that I couldn't possibly enter the church with shorts and that I had to cover my legs passed the knees. Fortunately I wore a wide, thin, cotton shawl, always handy as sunprotection, and I wrapped it all around me. I felt really stupid, not because of my outfit, but more because of my thoughtlessness, thinking I can walk in, as a tourist walks on a beach. There was no mass, we just wanted to look at the church. At a wall hang all these embossed thin metal, copper or tin, parts of bodies: arms, legs, eyes etc. Much later I heard from someone that these are the parts people pray for a healing.
I became a Catholic only a couple years ago and love the faith. I can imagine that all the rituals are intimidating, when you attend for the first time a mass. The cool thing is it doesn't matter where you attend mass, the part of scripture the sermons are based on and the liturgy are worldwide the same.
I always enjoyed the visits to a church on all my travels. Besides being out in nature it's a great spot to communicate with God.

Jul 27, 2009 at 10:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

I cried when I read your writing about the church. It was truly beautiful. I guess I never really knew that your dad and I came off the way we did about organized religon. Sense I had no say so in the type of church I went to and because I had to go every time the doors opened, I just wanted you and Cynthia to make up your own minds.
Churches in Europe are such beautiful and serene places. I can well understand you wanting to attend the service. What a wonderful way to intergrate yourself into the culture and also have a period of meditation.
Your dad and I were in France when we found out that your first child was a boy so the first beautiful Cathedral I saw I went in and lit a candel for the baby and you. It made me feel very blessed to be able to do that. I remember lighting candels for both you and Cynthia and your families in Notre Dame, St Francis Basilica in Umbria and also in Winchester Cathedral as I was on my way to Stone Henge. (Old Seals and Croft song).Just being in those great churches with all their history and serinity is a very special thing to do.
As always I enjoy wyour writing, you are very gifted. (No prejudice or anything) As usual you are experiencing everything around without hang up or self caution. Wondeeful you!!!! Wonderful everyone of you.
Much love............

Jul 27, 2009 at 3:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterMOM

Brenna, you are such a beautiful writer. i truly adore how you pull us into the church (or anywhere you are), and pull us along for the ride. What inspirations lie before you and what wonderful literary creations will come of them!?! I can't wait to see!

Sep 9, 2009 at 9:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

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