Life doesn’t always go as planned, even in the postcard-perfect town of Hallstatt, Austria.
Located between the blue-green Alps and the dark waters of Lake Hallstatt, the Austrian town of 1,200 people couldn’t have picked a more perfect location. Obviously the village founders, who started mining salt in the region back in 1,000 B.C., knew a thing or two about setting up a community.
Perhaps they knew that centuries later people would come from all over the world to gape at the salt mines deep within the earth, snap up pictures of the Lutheran church near the shores of the lake, and wander through the ancient village lanes with mouths open in amazement and admiration.
There is really no question: Hallstatt, the most photographed spot in Austria, really is like walking into a postcard.
But tell that to the village pastor.
At least, I think he was the village pastor. He could have been a visiting reverend for all I knew, and I bumped into him, quite literally, on a recent Sunday morning.
Like most tourists to Austria, I had seen pictures of the town’s EvangelicalChurch, its cozy gray stone walls forming a neat square, and the tall steeple pointed straight into the heavens to God. It was not a big church, but it evoked a true sense of Austrian tradition.
I, for one, wasn’t going to miss it. Having come straight from Vienna, which is blessed with dozens of ornate, albeit chilly cathedrals, I knew that every church had an organ, and most likely, a professional organist. Since I’m a musician, I wasn’t about to miss the chance of attending services at this picturesque little church.
“But you won’t understand anything!” my wife pointed out as I donned my shoes to head out that brisk Sunday morn. True, although all classically-trained musicians can sing a bit of German, I couldn’t understand a bit of the thick dialect they spoke here.
“That’s okay,” I assured her. Having attended church in America since I was a kid, I was pretty sure that I could fumble my way through the service.
My wife shook her head and chose to stay at the hotel and sleep, but I headed out happily on this sunny fall morning.
I made the five-minute walk from our room across the town square to the church where a sign out front indicated that the service would begin at 10:00 am.
“Good!” I thought, enjoying the occasion and the picture-perfect scenery. At a few minutes to 10:00 I proceeded to the door, figuring most of the people had gone inside.
The tall wooden doors were heavy, and I gave them a big push. Unfortunately, at that precise moment, the pastor, who was carrying a huge stack of hymnals, passed by the entrance door.
BAM! The door hit him and hymnals flew in all directions. “Entschuldigung,” I muttered in my very best German.
Flustered, I tried to help him pick up the books, but I only seemed to make the situation worse. The pastor didn’t say a word or acknowledge me. So feeling awkward, I snuck away into the sanctuary.
So much for my entrance.
With the exception of the pastor still scrambling with the hymnals, I was horrified to find that I was the only person in the church. Feeling self -conscious, I wandered around the sanctuary stopping to admire stained-glass windows, Christian books and leaflets in German, and the small organ up front.
Finally, the pastor finished picking up the books and headed to a side door. I watched as he pulled a chord to ring the giant church bell in the steeple. The rich, deep tones rang out across the town, and to my relief, people began to pour into the building, many dressed in traditional Austrian attire. I looked down at my shirt and tie and suddenly felt out of place.
The sanctuary was divided in two sections with a large aisle down the middle, so I quickly found my way down the aisle and sat in the middle of the left section. To my chagrin, the people coming in only sat on the RIGHT side. Not one person joined me on the left.
A few of the church-goers glanced in my direction telling me that I had somehow broken some time-honored tradition. But it was too late for me to change as the pastor began the service right away, speaking from their side of the sanctuary.
Even in this small church, the acoustics were wonderful. The authoritative sounds of the pipe organ and congregational singing reverberated through the building. I desperately wanted to join in on the songs, but I couldn’t figure out which hymn they were on. There was no one for me to ask.
I finally noticed an announcement board up front listing the hymns. (The board, of course, was on the right side of the sanctuary.) There were seven hymns listed and the congregation had already sung five, so I readied myself for hymn number six.
In each of the previous hymns, the organ had played one chord and the congregation jumped in with full voice. Hymn six came and the organ chord rang out. I have a booming voice and had been waiting to use it, so I let my voice echo throughout the room.
To my dismay, the congregation did not join in. This was a solo for the pastor. My singing obviously flustered him, and he stumbled through the opening line. I don’t think one person in the room noticed him though, as they all turned to stare at me. I tried hard to look straight ahead and not notice the looks.
The service proceeded, and with my little German, I understood that the pastor was going to introduce a new song to the church. He grabbed his guitar and began to play. As he played, I recognized the music from John Denver’s RockyMountain High. To this day I don’t know what that song was, but I sang along to myself with the famous John Denver lyrics.
Early into the preaching, a moment of decision came. The pastor asked a question to the congregation and two-thirds of them stood up. I had no idea why they were standing, but they all turned and looked at me. So I gently eased out of the pew and stood. This brought smiles of approval, and I hoped that I was beginning to make up for the previous incidents.
A few minutes later the pastor again asked a question, and several people stood up. I was ready this time and quickly stood. However, their reaction this time was different. People began to shake their heads, point, and motion for me to sit down. I can only imagine what sin I had just admitted to committing.
This evidently was the last straw for the poor pastor. He leaned over and whispered to a gentleman in the front row. The man quietly came over and sat down right next to me but said nothing.
The words, “Well, it’s about time!” came to my mind, but I pushed the thoughts away.
The next half hour went by without incident and I actually began to enjoy myself. The pastor preached with passion and the congregation seemed to be responding. I couldn’t get the Rocky Mountain High song out of my brain.
Communion came, and the congregation walked to the front of the church where each person was given a candle to light. There was no way I was going to take a chance on this, so I decided it was just best to sit and observe.
The familiar ceremony was lovely, and then the pastor moved into a time of prayer. The congregation, including those standing in front with the pastor, bowed their heads.
I sneaked a few glances and noticed a little boy up front. His parents were deep in prayer and didn’t notice the child begin to wander behind the people, a lit candle in his tiny hands. The boy noticed a shiny coin on the floor and moved to pick it up. As he bent over, the candle edged toward the pastor’s flowing robe.
I still don’t know how I reacted so quickly, but I jumped up and ran to save the pastor from becoming a flaming torch. My abrupt movement scared the child, and he scurried back to his parents leaving me in the main aisle.
The entire congregation now turned to stare at me again. I wanted to yell, “That kid was gonna light you on fire!” but our language differences stopped me.
Giving up, I returned to my seat. Eventually, the final prayer came and I twisted in my seat with anticipation. Maybe I could talk with someone after the service and FINALLY resolve all the questions that ran through my mind.
But upon “amen,” the congregation stood up and filed out. A few looked at me, shyly, but then scurried away as if running from something alarming. The pastor was busy talking to people, and I took a few steps toward him but then became too timid to approach the group.
Disappointed, I walked out of the church alone. I followed the banks of the lake for awhile, churning the scenes over and over in my mind. The why’s remained unanswered, yet, as I considered the morning’s experience, a few things became clearer.
Hallstatt is a small village where everyone knows each other. Maybe they weren’t used to strangers appearing in their church service, and they weren’t sure how to react to someone like me. (I had, after all, acted a bit erratically.)
And it’s human nature to get into a routine and to find comfort in what you know. I knew this from my own church-going years: You sit in the same pew, talk to the same people, follow the same habits, and then head out for your week. When someone comes along to knock aside those customs it makes everyone a bit uncomfortable.
Travel, on the other hand, takes you from what you know and places you in situations you may not understand. Life outside the fishbowl is not always easy or relaxing. In fact, it can be downright stressful.
Then again, it’s only outside of the fishbowl that we experience new places and people. My church visit in Hallstatt was something no tour guide could ever provide. So what’s a little uneasiness in return for the wonder of stepping into an everyday moment of someone else’s world?
“How was the service?” my wife asked when I returned to our room later that morning.
“You’ll never believe what happened,” I replied, a chagrined look on my face.
Her face immediately took on that “see, I told you so” look that only wives can give, and she shook her head in wonder at her crazy husband.
Okay, I’ll admit she was right: It would have been easier to stay in bed. But I’m really glad I didn’t.
Author bio: Philip Miller is a university music professor. He resides in Oklahoma with his wife, Krista, who is glad she stayed behind that morning.