Friday, December 23, 2011

Excerpts from Poustinia by Catherine DeHueck Doherty:

Definitely worth the read and may it lift and guide your spirit:

The word 'poustinia' is Russian meaning 'desert'. It is an or¬dinary word. If I were a little Russian girl, and a teacher during a geography lesson asked me to name a desert, I might say 'Saharskaya Poustinia' - the Sahara Desert. That's all it really means. It also has another connotation, as so many words have. It also means the desert of the Fathers of the Desert, who in ages past went away from everything and settled there. In the Western sense of the word, it would mean a place to which a hermit goes and, hence, it could be called a hermitage. The word to the Russian means much more than a geographical place. It means a quiet, lonely place that people wish to enter, to find God who dwells within them. It also means truly isolated, lonely places to which specially called people go as hermits, and would seek God in solitude, silence and prayer for the rest of their lives. However, a poustinia was not necessarily completely away from the haunts of men. Some people had reserved, in their homes, a small room to which they went to pray and meditate, which some might call a poustinia. Generally speaking, however, a 'poustinik' (a person dwelling in a poustinia) meant someone in a secluded spot. It was considered a definite vocation, a call from God to go into the 'desert' to pray to God for one's sins and the sins of the world, also to thank Him for the joys and the gladness and all His gifts.

It seems strange to say, but what can help modern man find the answers to his own mystery and the mystery of Him in whose image he is created, is silence, solitude - in a word, the desert. Modern man needs these things more than the hermits of old.

True silence is a key to the immense and flaming heart of God. It is the beginning of a divine courtship that will end only in the immense, creative, fruitful, loving silence of final union with the Beloved. Yes, such silence is holy, a prayer beyond all prayers, leading to the final prayer of constant presence of God, to the heights of contemplation, when the soul, finally at peace, lives by the will of Him whom she loves totally, utterly and completely. This silence, then, will break forth in a charity that overflows in the service of the neighbour without counting the cost. It will witness to Christ anywhere, always. Availability will become delightsome and easy, for in each person the soul will see the face of her Love. Hospitality will be deep and real, for a silent heart is a loving heart, and a loving heart is a hospice to the world.

Who were these men and women of Russia? Why did they go into 'the desert'? Who were they spiritually? They were people who craved in their hearts to be alone with God and His immense silence. The mountain of God's silence - covered with the cloud of HIs mysterious presence - called these future poustinikki in that awesome yet loving way. To go into the poustinia means to listen to God. It means enter¬ing into kenosis - the emptying of oneself. This emptying of one-self, even as Christ emptied Himself for us, is really a climbing of this awesome mountain right to the very top where God abides in His warm silence. It also means to know 'how terrible it is to fall into the hands of the living God' . . . and yet how delightful, how joyful, and how attractive! So attractive, in fact, that the soul cannot resist. That is why the Russians say that he who is called to the poustinia must go there or die because God has called him to this mountain to speak to him in that awesome silence, in that gentle, loving silence. For God has something to say to those whom He calls to the poustinia, and what God says to them the poustinikki must repeat as a prophet does. Humanly and psychologically speaking he is reluctant to speak, as every prophet was reluctant; but to him too comes the angel with the coal of fire, that invisible angel that cleanses his mind, his mouth, and his lips (symbolically speaking) and watches that man or woman arise and start on this awesome pil¬grimage.

Silence is not the exclusive prerogative of monasteries or con¬vents. Simple, prayerful silence is everybody's silence - or if it isn't, it should be. It belongs to every Christian who loves God, to every Jew who has heard the echoes of God's voice in his prophets, to everyone whose soul has risen in search of truth, in search of God. For where noise is - inward noise and confusion -there God is not! Deserts, silence, solitudes are not necessarily places but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in the everyday of our lives. We need only to look for them and realize our tremendous need for them. They will be small solitudes, little deserts, tiny pools of silence, but the experi¬ence they will bring, if we are disposed to enter them, may be as exultant and as holy as all the deserts of the world, even the one God Himself entered. For it is God who makes solitude, deserts, and silences holy.

Into the poustinia the poustiniks brought one book only - the Bible. They read it on their knees, impervious to or even perhaps uninterested in any purely academic question. To them the Bible was the incarnation of the Word and they felt a lifetime wasn't enough in which to read it. Every time they opened it they believed with a tremendous deep faith that they were face to face with the Word. Yes, the poustinik reads the Bible on his knees. He doesn't read it with his head (conceptually, critically) except in the sense that the words pass through his intelligence, but the intelligence of the poustinik is in his heart. The words of the Bible are like honey on his tongue. He reads them in deep faith. He doesn't analyze them; he reads them and allows them to stay in his heart. He may read only one or two sentences or maybe a single page in one day. The point is that he puts them all in his heart like Mary did. He lets them take root in his heart and waits for God to come and explain them which inevitably He will do when He finds such deep and complete faith.

Everyone is a pilgrim on the road of life. Some - and there are more than we know of- are like the poustinikki, truly seeking the Absolute-God! So I think the poustinia will begin slowly to attract many such people who will arise now here, now there ... and go seeking to find a place where they can enter into the silence of God and meet his Word - Christ - in that silence. Thus the hermit, the poustinik, learns to know God. Not learn about Him, but learn of God Himself through God Himself. For in the tremendous silence into which this poustinik entered, God reveals Himself to those who wait for that revelation and who don't try to 'tear at the hem of a mystery' forcing disclosure.

The poustinik also occupied himself with some work, like weav¬ing baskets. People came to visit him, for a Russian hermit has no lock or latch on his door except against the wind. Anyone at any time of day or night can knock at his door. Remember, he is in the poustinia not for himself but for others. He is a connecting bridge between people and God and God and the people, and God speaks through him. The East believes that the poustinik is such a chan¬nel, so they come to him, and he must always be available. He also must share food with anyone that comes. They may refuse, but it must always be offered. He may just have a piece of bread, but he will break it in half or into as many parts as there are people. Thus the second aspect of this strange life is hospitality, the sharing of what he has, the offering of it at any moment. Hospitality above all means that the poustinik is just passing on whatever God has put into his empty hands. He gives all that he has, and is: words, works, himself, and his food.

A poustinik lives not far from a village. It is hay making time, the weather turns stormy, and his help is asked. Immediately the poustinik drops everything or anything he might be in the middle of doing - prayer, garden, reading, whatever it may be - and spends all his time on the hay. For we believe in Russia that if I touch God I must touch humanity, for there is really no distinction. Christ incarnated Himself and became man, so I must, like Christ Himself, be a person of the towel and the water. That is to say, wash other people's feet as Christ did, and washing other people's feet means service. I cannot pray if I don't serve my brother. I cannot pray to the God who incarnated Himself when my brother is in need. It is an impossibility. It would be like the priest, the Levite, who passed the man beset with robbers, and that I cannot do. So sometimes a poustinik might spend a month, six weeks, working for the various needs of the villagers and never think even for one minute about the fact that he is supposed to be in a poustinia, reading the Bible, or praying, because he is in the poustinia of his heart always, especially when serving others.

If you ever see a sad hermit or poustinik, then he is no hermit at all. The most joyous persons in Russia are the ones who have the eyes of a child at 70 and who are filled with the joy of the Lord, for they who have entered the silence of God are filled with God's joy. Yes, the life of a poustinik should be truly joyous with the quiet joy of the Lord and this will be visible. He will have the eyes of a child even if his face is old. You cannot fool people as to such things as the presence of love and joy in a human being.

The poustinia can never simply be a place of rest - sleeping, recreation, a 'change of pace'. The poustinia is a holy place, so holy that one trembles when one enters. It is not an eating place, nor a sleeping place. It is God's place. The desert, of course, is the symbol of austerity, poverty, and utter simplicity. It is God who leads the soul to the desert, and the soul cannot remain in the desert long unless it is nourished by God. Therefore, it is a place where we fast from bodily food and even spiritual food, such as reading all kinds of books, for we enter there to meet our God with the only book in which He is fully accessible: the Bible. Let your poustinia be a quiet, secret garden enclosed, for it is a hallowed place, a holy place where the soul enters to meet its God.

The one who goes to the poustinia for the first time will experi¬ence a certain amount of interior noise. The first time one of the staff went she said to me on returning, 'Boy, that was a terrible experience! You know what happened to me?' I said, 'Yes, I think I do. But tell me anyway.' She said, 'All my thoughts buzzed in me like flies. I was think¬ing that my jeans needed stitching, that the garden needed weed¬ing. I thought about everything except God.' I said, 'Oh, that's perfectly natural.' It takes a long time for the person of today to close the wings of his intellect and to open the door of his heart.

For those of you who go into the poustinia, this is the essence of it: to fold the wings of your intellect. In the civilization of the West everything is sifted through your heads. You are so intellectual, so full of knowledge of all kinds. The poustinia brings you into contact first and foremost with soli¬tude. Secondly, it brings you in contact with God. Even if you don't feel anything at all, the fact remains that you have come to have a date with God, a very special rendezvous. You have said to the Lord, 'Lord, I want to take this 24, 36, 48 hours out of my busy life and I want to come to You because I am very tired. The world is not as You want it, and neither am I. I want to come and rest on Your breast as St John the Beloved. That is why I have come to this place.'

The West values itself for its ability to produce things. Priests, nuns and lay people tend to evaluate themselves interiorly by what they produce. Priests especially do not realize that their presence is enough. I often tell priests who work in parishes that one of the best things they can 'do' is simply walk around their neighbourhoods and be present to their people. If they don't do something, they feel that they are wasting their lives away. So it is with the poustinik. There is an inability to realize that the pres¬ence of a person who is in love with God is enough, and that nothing else is needed. That doesn't mean that the poustinik's assistance in definite ways cannot be helpful to the community. But it does mean that one should be perfectly at peace even (should I say especially?) when one hasn't got 'something to do'.

Prayer is the source and the most intimate part of our lives. The life of prayer - its intensity, its depth, its rhythm - is the measure of our spiritual health, and reveals to us ourselves. With the ascetics, the desert is interiorized, and signifies the concentration of a recollected spirit. At this level, where man knows how to be silent, true prayer is found. Here he is mysteriously visited. There should be no break in our prayer. Why should my heart be removed from God just because I am talking to you? When you are in love with someone, it seems the face of the beloved is before you when you drive, when you type,, anything like that. If you fall in love, then it is impossible to escape and you must breath from prayer. Prayer is simply union with God and one does not need words. When people are in love they look into each other's eyes, or a wife simply rests in the embrace of her husband. Neither of them talks. It has reached that intimate realm of silence where it pulsates and reaches proportions unknown to those who haven't entered into it. Such is the life of prayer with God. You enter into God and God enters into you, and the union is constant.

Our house of prayer in the marketplace would continue to intensify its very ordinariness and simplicity, bearing with people who will not understand why they are producing so little. They will have to accept the fact that people will say of them what others said of Jesus: 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' Through their prayerful, hidden and seemingly unproductive life, God will prepare those involved in the house of prayer for new contacts and new works according to His plan and not theirs. Subtle temptations will come as the devil will try to twist the meaning of their vocation. He will suggest how impossible it is to form a community of love, to really become a poustinia in the market place with its door open. The essence of such a house will be that its members really bear with one another, and cover them¬selves with humility, compassion and love toward one another. The devil will attack with all sorts of logical arguments and prove that it is just not possible.

The poustinia in the marketplace begins with prayer, much prayer. It does not mean that you are not doing the work you have been doing. No. But you must understand that the poustinia begins in your heart. It is not a place, a geographical spot. It is not first and foremost a house or a room. It is within your heart. It is imple¬menting the prayer of St Francis. That is the work of the poustinik in the marketplace, to be hidden as Christ was hidden in Nazareth.
When this work of the Holy Spirit is really allowed to take place in a human heart, the person is utterly indifferent as to where geographically he is situated. It is possible to live in a lovely house while inwardly, spiritually, you are clad like John the Baptist in animal skins and eating locusts and wild honey. If this inner poustinia, this stripping of oneself, this kenosis, is begun, it means that you kneel before the Lord and say, 'Here I am, Lord, do with me as You will. Speak for Your ser¬vant is listening. Lord, I thank You for all You have given me, for all You have taken away from me, for all You have left me." When you have done that, you will have begun to understand the poustinia in the marketplace.

Suppose that you were married and became pregnant. Would you stop cooking for your husband? Would you stop doing the laun¬dry, the cleaning, stop going to meetings on racial justice and school affairs? No. You'd go about your daily business. The only difference between you and everyone else would be that you were carrying a child. Your womb is a poustinia for the child, and you carry him wherever you go. Wherever you go you are pregnant with Christ, and you bring His presence as you would bring the presence of a natural child. For when a woman is with child, people give her special attention. They smile, they offer her a comfortable place to sit down. She is a witness to life. She carries life around with her. I don't know if I have succeeded in giving you a clearer idea of what this kind of poustinia of the marketplace is. It is not a matter of retiring to a basement! You live in the marketplace and carry the poustinia within you. That is your vocation. You are pregnant with Christ. You are Christ-bearers. You are poustinia bearers. Where? In the marketplace. To whom? To anyone whom you meet there, but especially to those you are mandated to be with. This eliminates, I hope, all notions of being recluses, of with¬drawing from the marketplace.

We must follow Christ in the rhythm of His own life, the rhythm of solitude and action. What is needed in our days is to retire to solitude and silence, to hear the voice of God, to glorify Him and pray to Him, and then to return to the secular world. Tragically the West keeps brushing this aside and saying, 'Yes, that's basically true - but let's get down to action!'

If a Russian built a poustinia next to the village, he automatically knows that he is part of that village. He doesn't have to be told that he is now part of that community. Being part of the community is not a matter of geography. If your spiritual director says that you should spend three days in the poustinia, you spend three days. If he thinks you should spend four, you spend four. If he thinks you should come out of the poustinia for a while altogether, you come out. Wherever you are in obedience, you are part of the community. It is not a matter of being inside or outside the poustinia.

A room, a bed, two chairs: stark, naked room of pain, a room set all apart for just that pain, in a desert more real than the deserts of sand and heat. Poustinias indeed where man meets his God, face to face, both crucified. Gone are all subterfuges, excuses, rationalizations. Now man enters into the truth of God. All his masks are torn and man becomes what he truly is. Poustinias in a hospital of Golgotha on which the crucified God is planted in the midst of crucified men. Now is the moment of meeting. Now is the moment of speaking. But no words are needed in the poustinia of a hospital room. Only the steps of the Father and the light of the Spirit that comes like a gentle breeze in the spring, consoling, assuaging, making clear all that was unclear so that in a stark, naked room of pain joy enters. The sick arise and dance with Christ.

As I sit here and try to rethink and meditate on what I have writ¬ten about the poustinia, I honestly wonder if I can say 'Amen' just yet. My purpose was to explain the poustinia vocation as found in Russia, in my own life and in the life of the Madonna House. But, when you come right down to it, the poustinia is not a place at all - and yet it is. It is a stage, a vocation, belonging to all Christians by baptism. It is a vocation to be a contemplative. There will always be 'solitaries', or should be. But the essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of bap¬tism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity. Within my heart, within me, I am or should be constantly in the presence of God. This is another way of saying that I live in a garden enclosed where I walk and talk with God (though a Russian would say 'where all in me is silent and where I am immersed in the silence of God'). It's as if I were sitting next to God in complete silence, although there are always many other people around. (Like a hus¬band and wife being in a private silence and solitude even though they are at a party and the room is filled with people.) How stumbling words are! How inadequate the similes! Yet the poustinia is something like this to me: a state of contemplating God in silence.

The poustinia is within, and one is forever immersed in the silence of God, forever listening to the word of God, forever repeating it to others in word and deed. Thus everything that I have said about the physical poustinia, about trying to adapt it to the West, can be said about every Christian. The poustinia is this inner solitude, this inner immersion into the silence of God. It is through this inner, total identification with humanity and with Christ that every Christian should be living in silent contemplation. This is the poustinia within oneself. I don't know if all this makes any sense. It is only in identifying with Christ, it is only by plunging into (In-great silence of God within myself, that I can love others and identify with them. It is by listening to the great silence of God, and having this strange, passive dialogue in which I become aware of the silence which is the speech of God - it is only by listening to this that I am able to speak to my brother. It is only by listening to this silence that I can acquire the ingenuity of love, the delicacy of Christ in my human relationships. In this silence I become identified with Christ, I acquire a listening heart.

The poustinia is a state of constantly being in the presence of God because one desires Him with a great desire, because in Him alone one can rest. The poustinia is walking in this inner solitude, immersed in the silence of God. My life of service and love to my fellowman is simply the echo of this silence and solitude. Inwardly I identify myself with God and with humanity. Jesus Christ Himself conducts me into this inner silence, into that soli¬tude which speaks so loudly to the Father under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now I am immersed in the Trinity, in the fire of the silence of God (for the silence of God is always fire; His speech is fire). Now I become as one on fire with love of Him and of all human¬ity across the world. Now it is not I who speak. I speak what God tells me to speak. When my immersion into this immense silence has finally caught fire from His words, then I am able to speak. I can speak because His voice is sounding loudly and clearly in my ears, which have been emptied of everything except Him. Now only His name is on my heart, constantly; it has become my heartbeat.

These readings are extracted from Poustinia by Catherine dc Hueck Doherty, used with permission of Fr Robert Wild, Madonna House, Combermere, Ontario. Copies of the book may be obtained from that address or from Cloisters, the Northumbria Community's trading company.

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