Thursday, 1 December 2016

Critical Distance

When I was in my Canadian theology school, a professor talked about initial enthusiasm about something or someone, then the process of disillusionment, and then acceptance of the thing or person as it or he is. The process of disillusionment--in which the person withdraws--is called "critical distance."

If I remember correctly, one example was that of the child who thinks her parents are demi-gods, is shocked into insolence when as a teenager she perceives that they are barely human, and then as an adult sees and accepts her parents for who they really are. She no longer demands nor expects more than what they are capable or willing to give and, at the same time, she obeys the moral law regarding respect for father and mother.

At the moment, I am entering critical distance from the Polish language or, perhaps more accurately, my ability to function in such a complicated language. I vowed not to quit for five years, and I did not quit for five years, and it turns out that it will takes me longer than five years to have a simple grammatically accurate conversation in Polish about why I know any Polish at all.

To puzzle out why I ought to continue my studies, I wrote this article.  Meanwhile, I admit that what has caused this crisis is my recent trip to Poland. On the one hand, yes, I managed to get myself medical help. On the other hand, the religious foundation I was living in treated me as less than a cherished guest.

Having stayed in "Church" guest rooms before, I assumed that the spartan accommodations, the rickety toilets and the rough grey toilet paper were symptomatic of dire poverty. I also assumed that everyone else in the house, priests and guests, lived in similar circumstances. Thus, I was surprised and delighted when I arrived at such a religious house in Poland and was led to a two-room suite with a modern, tidy bathroom, quilted toilet paper, scented hand soap, a handsome desk, a sofa, a real bed... Fantastic!

Too fantastic. When I came back from a hard day's reporting, I was met by the frantic porter, who told me that I must leave the suite at once. He had made a terrible mistake. I couldn't live in the suite; I must live on the floor below.

Slowly I put together polite, mendacious sentences about how I quite understood, the suite was surely worthy of a bishop and not for mere paying guests. But no, no, no. The porter was insistent that I understand. It wasn't that I was a guest; it was that the floor was cloistered. Women couldn't live on it; I had to be moved because I was a woman. He unlocked the door of the woman-worthy room. It was smaller and even more spartan than other Polish Church guest rooms I've known, and there was my old friend, the rough grey toilet paper.  Strike one to my happiness as a (paying) guest of that foundation.

When I temporarily left those lodgings to travel, I took all my kit with me to make life easier for the cleaner and left the bedding in a pile. When I returned a few days later, I found fresh towels but an uncleaned bathroom, an unswept floor and the dirty bedding untouched. Well, wherever I picked up the germs, it is now certain that by the next day I had infective conjunctivitis. Strike two.

When my eye began to hurt, I was frantic.  Not having made friends with anyone in the house--I ate in a guest refectory far from anyone but the kitchen staff--I called B.A. He suggested I go to a pharmacist. I did this, and the pharmacist advised me to see a doctor at once. To cut a long story short, after asking the new porter (I never saw the first one again) if there was a doctor in the house and then which hospital on the list I had been given was closest, I was given instructions on how to get there by tram.

By then my eye was dripping tears out the wrong corner. One eye closed in pain, I got myself down the street and across two lanes of a four lane highway to catch a streetcar to the distant hospital. It was some time before I found the opthalmology wing, and some time before I saw a doctor although---thank God--the doctor and nurses were kind and competent in their stern, unsmiling way.

While I waited in the Admissions queue, I thought about my old Canadian theology school and its cheerful porter. Had a guest of the college turned up asking about doctors and hospitals, he would have been on the phone to a priest in seconds flat. It would have been all hands on deck as staff, teachers and any student around looked for a translator or volunteered to accompany the guest to the hospital. So ... strike three.

When I returned to the house, a bandage plastered over my eye, I again addressed the porter. This time I told him I wanted to speak to an English-speaking priest. I had briefly met a shy young priest who said (in Polish) that he did speak English. This was the priest I wanted to speak to. The porter did not think much of this suggestion. Instead, he followed what was probably the proper chain of command and summoned the priest in charge of guests, who spoke no English and never consulted anyone who did although he was clearly a take-charge kind of guy. Maybe he was too much of a take-charge kind of guy.

If this were baseball, we'd be all out of strikes.

There were many good things about the trip: the wonderful hospitality of Polish Pretend Daughter, the fascinating places I visited with her, the fun conversations with UK ex-pats in Warsaw, the half-day with Polish Pretend Son, the architecture, the museums, the bookstores, the films and the nerve-soothing inter-doctor cappuccino with a friend-of-a-friend's Bulgarian employee. His compassion and kindness to a stranger was in sharp relief to what I experienced at the religious foundation.

The irony was--and this is tough for a Catholic to admit--that everyone was kinder and more hospitable to me than the Church foundation whose (paying) guest I was. What is a Catholic to make of that?

Currently I have no wish ever again to stay anywhere in Poland that does not also house at least one of my Polish friends. But as my Polish friends all speak excellent English, I have lost one reason to continue studying Polish at all. I am now in a state of critical distance in which I ask myself "What was it all for?"

If I were a Polish Canadian, I would keep on studying just because the scabby Nazis tried to eliminate Polish culture. If I had a Polish sweetheart, I would keep on studying just to please him. If I had a Polish job, I would study so as to thrive in Poland. But none of these things are true, so what am I doing?

Update: Elements of this already strike me as a bit of a teenage tantrum. It is hard to sort out what is bruised ego and what is justified anger on one's own behalf.


  1. I am upset for you that you were treated so inhospitably! I would certainly complain about the experience to someone, although it sounds like it may not have much effect...

    1. Meant to say, someone at the religious house. What do your Polish friends think?

  2. I have been complaining to everyone in earshot! But not to the house. I was waiting on my diagnosis, but as there is no real proof their slipshod housekeeping led to my infection, I really don't think there is anything to say. Nobody invited me, and it is certainly possible my religio-cultural expectations were naive.

  3. I've worked for the Church for nearly 20 years. I recall my first experience of a demanding, unjust, unkind boss. As I was working for a Catholic institution, I was pretty upset that I was being treated so badly by someone in the Church. I would have expected it had I been in a liberal hotbed, but I wasn't. My spiritual director was so good...he affirmed that I was indeed suffering injustice, and also reminded me that the so-called "orthodox" are not immune from original sin. That was helpful, if stripped the rose-colored glasses off.

    Every now and again I get frustrated and saddened to see atheists, unorthodox Catholics, etc. behaving more justly, kindly, generously than "my kind of people," and even better than myself (if I'm honest). You would think that all that sacramental grace would make us better than that. I think it shows how very deep that original wound really goes.

    I'm sorry again about your experience, all the more because it happened at the hands of representatives of the Church. I hope that time heals this wound and you find your passion for Polish restored.

    1. Thank you! As I slowly calm down(sloooooooowly....), I reflect that anyone in vows in the story was merely a bit neglectful and it may have been that they were unusually too busy to chat with a guest, see how she was doing, be summoned to speak English to her, etc. The real "villains" of the story were the porter, the cleaning lady (who might have done something about the germs had I left some money, I now realize) and, very probably, an institutional sexism/clericalism which sees women (or guests in general) as a threat to the religious foundation. However, I never got this impression from priests or nuns but from the porters.

      Today I will write about happy things!