Poustinia is a Russian word which literally means “desert.” It is also a Russian tradition brought to us by our foundress, Catherine Doherty. In the pre-communist Russia of her youth and for generations before, poustiniks (those living in poustinia) were a normal part of Russian culture. To live in a poustinia was unusual but in no way extraordinary.
A person who felt called to the poustinia had first, after securing the blessing of his or her spiritual director, to find a village. He generally did this through pilgrimage and prayer. Once having discovered the village to which he felt God drawing him, the poustinik went to the elders and asked permission to live there as a poustinik. Permission was happily given, as Russians were glad to have a poustinik praying for them.
The poustinik was not a hermit. With the help of the villagers, he would build a little hut outside the village and was still very much a part of the village. He lived alone, praying for his own salvation, for the world, and especially for the people of the village. Prayer was his primary bond with all people.
But that was not the end of the poustinik's relationship with the village. The poustinik was also available to the people. When there were special needs, such as a fire to fight or hay to bring in, the poustinik would help. And whenever anyone had something he or she wanted to talk about - a question about prayer, a problem, a special joy or sorrow — he or she could go to the poustinik.
The poustinik welcomed everyone with the words, “Come and share what God in his goodness has given to me.” This meant, first of all, that the poustinik listened. He shared with his guests the silent acceptance he himself received from God in the solitude of the poustinia. It also meant that he would share a cup of tea, bread, or whatever he had.
And it meant that, according to the need of his visitor, the poustinik would share what he himself had learned from God in his life of prayer, because the poustinik was always one who listened to God, as well as one who was aware of God listening to him.
In addition, the poustinik generally grew a garden, living simply from his own produce and whatever gifts the people of the village brought him. The poustinik fasted, again for his own salvation, for the world, and for the needs of the village. And as an extension and consequence of his attempts to limit his own needs, to pray and to listen, he cared deeply for the bit of creation in which he lived. He cherished the earth and all creatures.
Madonna House Ottawa is a poustinia in the marketplace. Ottawa is our “village.” We are here with the approval of Archbishop Marcel Gervais, to pray for our own salvation, for the world, and especially for the people of the Archdiocese of Ottawa. And we are available as all poustiniks are to the needs of people. We listen. We share what God in his goodness has given to us.
Here in Ottawa we are able to share the poustinia itself. We have two rooms where people can spend 24 hours in the poustinia. This is a chance to enter the desert of your heart, to listen to God and allow him to listen to you. In order to create this desert space, there is silence and solitude, a fast of bread and water, makings for coffee and tea and only one book — the Bible.
To learn more, you can read articles about Madonna House in Ottawa.