Tuesday, July 7, 2009


After spending several un-quiet weeks with this profoundly quiet book, I think – hope – it is finally starting to exert a positive influence over my life. A ‘poustinia’, for those who may not be familiar with the term is a Russian word, which literally translates, “desert”, but actually means many different things depending on how it is used. It can describe quiet, lonely places, set apart from the world where special people go to seek God and live out their lives in prayer and solitude. It is also the word used to refer to the Spartan-like hermit huts favored by those who venture into temporary “desert”, or retreat from the hustle of human society. At the very end of the book, the author, Catherine Doherty*, offered a third definition for her title term: ‘…not a place at all—and yet it is. It is a state, a vocation, belonging to all Christians by Baptism. It is the vocation to be a contemplative.’ (page 184)

This book is – or can be – a beautiful, prayerful read. I listened to most of it, read in the soothing voice of Fr. Émile Brière, a poustinik himself and a close friend of the author. I highly recommend that option if it’s available. How many times during this turbulent summer was I able to turn on the CD and tune out so much else, including my own noisy mind.

The book is a collection of explanations, meditations, talks and a brief history of the Madonna House which Doherty has assembled to give the reader the fullest possible experience of the contemplative life –short of a full-fledged pilgrimage. In the first section, she gives her own Russian background and the historical and geographic context of poustinia, as well as the person of the poustinik, himself. Part 2 is devoted to talks she has relied on to inspire a deeper awareness within all of us of the presence of God and His eagerness to speak to us in silence. In the third section, we spend a day inside a poustinia. During this time, we seek a word (insight) which may be shared with others—because the purpose of going into poustinia is not for oneself but to share the gift of received wisdom with others. In conclusion, we learn that ‘poustinia’ isn’t about going away to the mountains or living alone in a little house; it’s really for all of us, wherever we are. Poustinia is about going within and finding God in the heart of our prayer and sharing all we have and are with whoever is in need.

I will want to return to this book again and again and again!

Thanks ever so much for the recommendation Jennifer!

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* Her cause for canonization as a saint is under consideration by the Catholic Church.

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