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
Let peace on earth good will be sung
Through every land by every tongue
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.