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    Our Tragic Century Calls for More than Dedication

    As clouds of war loom, “doing something more” might include the ancient Russian practice of withdrawing to a poustinia.

    By Catherine de Hueck Doherty

    May 29, 2022

    While firmly believing that silence and solitude are above all else attitudes of the mind and heart, I have for a long time now felt that we should be doing something more. It is not enough to lead a life of dedication and surrender, even as many religious orders do. Every Christian must do more – with vows or without vows – wherever they are, whoever they may be! For ours is a tragic century where men are faced with tremendous decisions that shake the souls of the strongest. This is also the age of neuroses, of anxiety, of fears, of psychotherapy, tranquilizers, euphoriants – all symbols of man’s desire to escape from reality, responsibility and decision-making.

    This is the age of idol-worship of status, wealth, and power. These idols dominate the landscape like idols of old: they are squatty and fat. The First Commandment once again lies broken in the dust. The clouds of war, dark and foreboding – an incredible war of annihilation and utter destruction – come nearer. Dirge-like symphonies surround us and will not let us be.

    What is the answer to all these darknesses that press so heavily on us? What are the answers to all these fears that make darkness at noon? What is the answer to the loneliness of men without God? What is the answer to the hatred of man toward God?

    I think I have one answer – the poustinia (pronounced “pou” as in “you”). Poustinia stands for prayer, penance, mortification, solitude, silence, offered in the spirit of love, atonement, and reparation to God! The spirit of the prophets of old! Intercession before God for my fellowmen, my brothers in Christ, whom I love so passionately in him and for him.

    Catherine Doherty

    Catherine Doherty, ca.1970

    Yes, that “doing something more” can be the poustinia: an entry into the desert, a lonely place, a silent place, where one can lift the two arms of prayer and penance to God in atonement, intercession, reparation for one’s sins and those of one’s brothers. Poustinia is the place where we can go in order to gather courage to speak the words of truth, remembering that truth is God, and that we proclaim the word of God. The poustinia will cleanse us and prepare us to do so, like the burning coal the angel placed on the lips of the prophet.

    The word “poustinia” is Russian, meaning “desert.” It is an ordinary 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 what it really means. It also has another connotation: it means the desert of the “Fathers of the Desert,” who in ages past went away from everything and settled in desolate places. In the Western sense of the word, it would mean a place to which a hermit goes and hence it could be called hermitage.

    To a Russian, then, the word can mean a quiet, lonely place that people wish to enter, to find the God who dwells within them. It can also mean truly isolated places to which specially called people go as hermits to 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. A poustinik could be anyone – a peasant, a duke, a member of the middle class, learned or unlearned, or anyone in between. 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 gladness and all his gifts.

    I got to be very familiar with one poustinik to whom my mother went for advice. I never knew who he was. We used to go there on foot and return on foot. When we arrived my mother knocked on the door and opened it. There was no latch on the door. The poustinik was always there to welcome anyone who came. Mother bowed to the cross that was prominent against the log wall, and to the icon of Our Lady. Then she would bow to the poustinik and say, “Peace be to this house,” and he would say, “May the peace of the Lord be with you.” I did the same. Then he would offer us some tea and some bread, whatever he had, and say, “Come and partake of what God in his mercy has sent me.” Upon doing so, I went to play outside, and my mother talked to him. Then we went back home.

    It is difficult to simply relate this man, and other poustiniks that I came to know through my lifetime, with what is called a “hermit.” There was some kind of difference. The poustinik seemed to be more available. There was a gracious hospitality about him, as if he were never disturbed by anyone who came to visit him. On the contrary, his was a welcoming face. His eyes seemed to sparkle with joy at receiving a guest. He seemed to be a listening person. A person of few words, but his listening was deep, and there was a feeling that he understood. In him Saint Francis’s prayer seemed to become incarnate: he consoled, he understood, and he loved – and he didn’t demand anything from anyone for himself.

    He was available in other ways. If someone from the village was in need (for instance, if a farmer needed his hay in before the rain), he rushed over to the poustinik and asked his help. The poustinik immediately dropped everything and went with the farmer. He was always available.

    Usually the poustinik was a man, though there were women poustiniki also. Sometimes they were single people, sometimes they were widows and widowers. Not all of them were educated in the academic sense of the word. Quite often they were just ordinary peasants, but usually they had what we call “letters,” that is to say, they could read and write. Amongst them could even be found the nobility. It is said that one of the czars, Alexander I, went into a poustinia. There is a mystery about the many years of his absence, so they say.

    There was no big fuss about going into a poustinia. From some village, from some nobleman’s house, from some merchant’s house – from any part of our society in Russia – a man would arise. (Of course, only God knows why he did arise.) He would arise and go into the place (as we Russians called it) “where heaven meets earth.” He departed without any earthly goods, usually dressed in the normal garb of a pilgrim. In summertime this was a simple handwoven shift of linen, of the kind that ladies wear these days, only it came down to his or her ankles. It was tied in the middle with an ordinary cord. He took along a linen bag, a loaf of bread, some salt, a gourd of water.

    Thus he or she departed, after taking leave of everyone in the household or in the village. Some didn’t even do this. They just stole away at dawn or in the dark of the night, leaving a message that they had gone on a pilgrimage and maybe would find a poustinia in which to pray to God for their sins and the sins of the world, to atone, to fast, to live in poverty, and to enter the great silence of God.

    There is another vocation in Russia that is somewhat similar to that of poustiniki: the uródivoi. This word means “fools for Christ.” My father had a friend who was one of these. His name was Peter and he was well-born, of the nobility, the eldest son of an old Russian family. He was what is called in America a millionaire. He had a lot of gold and silver in the bank, and owned real estate.

    One day he came to my father and said, “Theodore, I have been reading the gospels and I have decided, as so many before me, to accept them literally.” My father listened. He continued: “I am going to gather my goods. I am leaving my farms, my real estate to my family, but my money in the bank I am changing literally into silver and gold pieces.” This he did, and my father accompanied him through the whole transaction.

    In those days there were no trucks. There were drays pulled by two horses. My father said that Peter’s was a big dray, perhaps the equivalent of a one or one-and-a-half ton truck. It was filled with sacks, and the sacks contained gold and silver. Peter, with my father accompanying him, went to the poor section, what they now call the slums, of Petrograd. There, family by family, house by house, Peter gave away his pieces of gold and silver. When the dray was empty Peter said: “Now I have in some small measure ransomed the thirty pieces of silver for which God was sold. And now I must go.”

    So they returned to his house where, on his bed, there was laid out a linen tunic. He took a linen bag, a loaf of bread, and in another little linen bag, some salt. He also had a gourd of water and a staff. On foot, my father walking with him, he went through the streets of Petrograd. My father accompanied him to the outskirts of the city and onto a country road. The last he saw of him was just a silhouette against the setting sun – a man in a long garment with a staff in his hand. He had no cash in his pockets (he had no pockets), nor in his bag. He had only some bread, water, salt, and a staff. Not even shoes. That was all.

    Years later, my father chanced to be in Kiev, a large city in the south of Russia. He went to Mass and, as was the custom in those days, all the beggars assembled on the church steps before Mass to beg from the good people who went in. Amongst them was a man with a beard, matted and seemingly uncombed long hair, and tattered garments. He looked like a fool. His eyes were vacant; there was no expression on his face.

    Poustinia is the place where we can go in order to gather courage to speak the words of truth.

    Then a ray of sun came out and fell on his face – and my father recognized his friend Peter! He called out his name and intelligence returned to that face. They embraced. They went to Mass together and then had breakfast. My father asked, “Why have you chosen this vocation of idiot?” Peter answered, “I am atoning for the men who have called Christ a fool during his lifetime and during all the centuries thereafter.” They kissed each other goodbye, and Peter disappeared. My father never saw him again.

    Peter belonged to the uródivoi. These were a group of people who lived with the poor and were totally poor themselves, begging their alms at church doors and street corners. They fasted. One might say that they stood side by side with the poustiniki, for they, too, though living in abject poverty, lived alone, prayed, and listened. But their vocation was that of witnessing to the “folly of the cross.” Because men continue to call God a fool, the uródivoi feel they have a continuous vocation of poverty, atonement, and prayer – like the poustinik, yet different from him.

    Then there were the pilgrims who constantly crisscrossed Russia carrying their poustinias in their hearts, sleeping under trees, in haylofts, wherever they were allowed to. They were poor, alms-begging people, praying for the whole world constantly.

    Perhaps as a nation we Russians have been chosen for these somewhat strange vocations – lest the world forget about the essence of our faith, which is above all to render glory to God. The essence of our faith is to eternally seek to know God better in order to glorify him more and to serve him better in men.

    We Russians tend to identify ourselves especially with the poor, and so to be cold, to be homeless, to be pilgrims for those who have no holy restlessness and who don’t want to arise and seek God. All this seems quite natural to us. So many of us feel that the rest of men are looking for him where he cannot be easily found – in the comfortable life which is in itself not sinful, but which can become a sort of asphyxiation and isolation from the rest of mankind. Comfort can become an idol too.

    From Catherine Doherty, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer, 4th ed. (Madonna House Publications, 2021), 13–20.

    Contributed By CatherineDeHueckDoherty Catherine de Hueck Doherty

    Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896–1985), founded Friendship House, a house of hospitality to the homeless in Toronto, and later Madonna House, a more rural intentional Christian community and international Catholic lay apostolate.

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