Among the Benedictines
Feb. 26, 2009
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
The key was enormous. We fiddled. We fuddled. We felt entirely kerfuffled by the seemingly simple scrap of metal.
Was someone trying to keep us out of the convent? A resident Benedictine handed us the long, black skeleton key moments before. Finally, after numerous failed attempts, the heavy wooden door relented, allowing my sister and me to push our way in.
Dressed in jeans and lugging backpacks, we didn’t appear candidates for the novitiate. We were weary travelers needing a night’s lodging. Staying at a convent in Warsaw’s Old City fit our finances and came with a few bonus Hail Mary’s offered on our behalf.
Our footsteps echoed along the windowless corridor leading to a guest alcove offering two simple rooms. When travelling on a budget, a convent can be a great place for sleep and introspection.
There was no concierge to greet us, no bellhop in a spiffy uniform with shining brass buttons. We used a second, smaller key to open our room; a twist of the locking mechanism pierced the silence.
Stone cold floors and sparse furnishings prompted us to speak in whispers. Our beds were narrow but the sheets were starchy clean. A crucifix prominently nailed to the wall filled any void created by lack of a television, telephone or mini-bar. A Bible sat quietly on a bedside table. A Lazy Susan was cut neatly into the wall.
My older sister Jane was visiting me halfway into my two-year stint as an American exchange student in communist Poland. Her initial reaction to our parents’ homeland reflected mild discouragement. The shortages, the gray surroundings and the bleak political climate prompted questions about whether the place depressed me. On the contrary, it fascinated this budding social scientist.
Jane dug deeply into linguistic memory to unearth Polish she’d spoken at home as a child. She could order a meal in restaurants and converse with aunts, uncles and cousins she met for the first time. It didn’t matter if her grammar wasn’t perfect. Polish’s declension of nouns adds a layer of grammatical complexity unknown in English.
Our Benedictine hosts were cloistered nuns, women who relinquished all but minimal contact with the outside world to live in contemplative prayer. We’d only met one nun, the public face of the convent, in the formal reception area. She was young, perhaps 30, as she sat in her black habit behind a window. We stated our request for a night’s lodging and she passed us keys beneath the glass. We sealed the deal by sliding a neatly folded American bill back, evoking from her the Polish response, “May God repay you.”
Western currency was a hot commodity in a communist state plagued by shortages. God witnessed the borderline illegal monetary transaction and didn’t strike us dead. Perhaps even He recognized the legitimacy of clergy participating in such dealings in a corrupt political system.
The convent was reduced to rubble during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when members of the Polish Underground launched an ill-fated attempt to retake their capital from German occupiers. They failed. Molotov cocktails and handguns couldn’t stand up to tanks and mortar fire. Warsaw was decimated by war’s end: 70 percent was destroyed. It took decades to meticulously rebuild the city, with care taken to recapture its original architectural splendor.
Dinner arrived magically, from hands we’d never shake, from women we’d never meet. We heard a gentle rapping as our Lazy Susan spun around. I remember slices of rye bread, Polish white cheese, tomatoes, butter and jam offered on a simple tray. A small pot of tea, glasses for drinking and a few cubes of sugar completed the meal. A note affixed to the tray said, “Supper for the ladies.” We ate dinner and discussed plans to catch an early-morning train to Vienna.
A knock at our door startled us. Who could it be in this place of silence and introspection? I cautiously opened the door to find a smiling, 50-something woman standing before me.
“I knocked to see if anyone else was staying here,” the woman in street clothes offered. “My name is Danusia.* I’m visiting my sister.”
We invited Danusia in and shared what was left of our tea. She was intrigued that we were Americans and asked many questions about our impressions of Poland.
Danusia’s sister was one of the Benedictines.
“At night, she sneaks out of her room and whispers to me through the Lazy Susan,” Danusia revealed. “It’s funny she became a nun. When were kids, she was the one always getting in trouble for misbehaving.”
Danusia, a resident of Gdansk on Poland’s Baltic Coast, was in Warsaw on official business. Her husband and daughter emigrated to the West two years before. Danusia would be visiting the West German embassy the next day, standing in line for hours, in an attempt to gain a visa.
The convent evoked a distinct separated-from-the-world quality. Tucked behind an imposing wall, the high ceilinged, stone-floored edifice was a fascinating — but creepy — place to sleep
I put my head to the feather pillow and shut my eyes, only to see images of the Warsaw Uprising. It was as if the space was speaking to me, sharing history of those who came before.
You could almost feel the quiet. Laying in darkness, I’d hear light footsteps of a nun’s sandaled feel passing in the corridor, the gentle jangling of her rosary beads infiltrating the silence.
Breakfast arrived early with a gentle tapping and a swivel of the Lazy Susan. We ate, packed our backpacks and took the train to glittery Vienna. The sudden shift to blinding opulence unsettled me as I thought of Polish friends left behind.
And what of Danusia? We traded a few post cards. She eventually received a visa and moved to West Germany, abandoning her Polish home for freedom in the West.