by Neil Patterson.
The year was 1999, my last year in high school. There I was, all decked out in my best goth outfit, listening to heavy metal on my discman.
I had never seen the inside of a Catholic Church, and my Anglican Sunday school lessons were long forgotten. The only thing I knew about religion was that Christian Fundamentalists were annoying, and Buddhists seemed like nice, reasonable people. Needless to say, I’d never heard the word, "poustinia."
I had just met a new kid in school, and I was going over to his house to work on an English assignment with him. I took the bus to a poor neighborhood in Ottawa, a place where many immigrants got their first apartments.
I found the place and knocked on the door. My friend opened it with a smile and ushered me inside. Suddenly, I was flooded with peace. Calm. Quiet.
Everything was so clean and orderly, yet so natural and simple. His mother came out of the kitchen and greeted me shyly. She hardly spoke English. She just sort of opened her arms and smiled in a gesture of welcome and acceptance. She didn’t even blink at my outrageous clothing.
Remembering my manners, I told her she had a very nice home. Then my eyes darted around looking for something to compliment, but there wasn’t much there; it was such a poor place.
There was some framed calligraphy on the wall. "That’s very nice. Is it Arabic?"
She said something incomprehensible in broken English, but I caught "holy words" and "Qur’an," then she retreated back into the kitchen.
Muslims, I thought to myself, how very interesting. Of course. My friend’s name is Wissam and he comes from Iraq and his mother wears a hijab. I should have clued in sooner.
These people were really and actually Muslim, in the flesh. They prayed and read the Qur’an. They weren’t Muslims in the way that most Christians I knew were Christians.
This was real religion. Religion was at the centre of this family’s life. I don’t know how I saw that two minutes after walking in the door, but it was really obvious. That home was a sacred space, a place of peace, a place of prayer.
We went into Wissam’s room to work on our English assignment. Walls: blank. Desk: tidy. Bed: made. CD player: non-existent. Dirty clothes on the floor: none. Is this the room of a teenager?
"Wissam, man," I said, "you gotta get yourself some posters on the wall and get some music playing. I mean, where’s all your gear?"
"Oh no," he said, "my room is fine the way it is."
No, "poustinia" was definitely not part of my vocabulary in those days.
Let’s fast-forward a little more than ten years. I am now a Madonna House staff worker assigned to our house in Resteigne, Belgium. I am sitting at my desk looking around at my room. Walls: blank. Floor: tidy. Bed: made. Where’s all your gear, man? Things have changed.
Our whole house is a sacred space, as every family home should be. I try to make my little room a place of quiet and prayer. Yes, we do have special rooms set aside for the poustinia, but even for my bedroom, I want to keep something of the same spirit. So I take some decorating tips from my friend Wissam, the Arab, the desert-dweller.
The practice of poustinia, of going into the desert, of spending a day or more in solitude, silence, prayer, and fasting, has become a very important part of my life at Madonna House. Why? Why did this gothling drop all his gear and head off into the desert?
I’ll tell you, but first I’ll make one thing clear. This is not an article about what happens in the poustinia. I’m the last one who could give a straight answer to that since, compared to many, many people both in and out of Madonna House, I am a total beginner.
What happens to me is that most of the time, nothing happens. Sometimes, a lot happens. Occasionally, nothing and everything are happening at the same time. In any case, it doesn’t much matter.
Most of the time, I’m sitting in that little room, and I find that I don’t have anything to say to God, and he doesn’t have anything to say to me. It’s quite boring, really. In fact, if I had to sum up my poustinia experience so far in one word, "boring" might just be the one I would choose.
That’s all right. It’s not really important. I almost want to be bored. Does that make sense? No, I guess it doesn’t. I’m not making much sense; that’s why this article isn’t about what happens in the poustinia.
This article is about why I go to poustinia. This is somewhat easier to put into words. To explain it, however, I am going to stop talking about poustina and start talking about lies.
In our society, that is, "the world" in St. Paul’s sense of the word, we are lied to every day. Our minds are full of lies, like closets crammed with so much junk they won’t close anymore. Lies that are so often repeated we believe them even when we think we don’t.
Buy this kind of laundry soap, and your children will be clean and happy. Sophisticated and successful people buy this kind of car. Coke and Pepsi taste different. Television is a good, life-giving way to relax at the end of the day.
Everything is for sale. That’s what our society is based on, isn’t it? The free market, the empowered individual. All the most sacred things—beauty, love, sex, family, childhood, happiness, laughter, friendship—are used to sell everything from ice cream to politicians.
I was buried in a mountain of plastic. I bought each piece of that plastic, not because I wanted it, but because I wanted the experience that the commercial told me would go with it.
I grew up in a society where I was taught to look at toilet paper and think "happy family". It didn’t work. Instead I learned to look at family and think "toilet paper".
Yes, everything is for sale. That’s what they told us in school.
"That’s how you make your way in the world; you gotta have something to sell," the enthusiastic guidance counselor told me.
But I don’t have anything to sell…
"Oh yes you do," he said. "You have to sell yourself!"
"Sure, let me show you how to make a resumé that will make you look like the sort of human resource that today’s employer wants to buy. Wouldn’t you like that? Isn’t the future exciting?"
The lies go deeper still. People put on masks, become lies. I know I do. And when I meet someone, do I meet a real person or a mask?
I have several modules. Do you wanna meet them? There’s Neil, the young Catholic intellectual; Neil, the sci-fi nerd; Neil, the silent monk; and Neil the tough, mature Madonna House staff worker, ready for anything… They swarmed round me closer and closer… they swarmed round me like bees! (Ps 117:11)
What do I do in the face of all this? Well, my favorite strategy was (and sometimes still is) to retreat into a fantasy world.
Vampire, dragons and spaceships: that’s where I wanted to be. Who’s to blame me? That world is way better than what I had seen of the real world.
I’ve spent thousands of hours watching Star Trek re-runs. And hundreds of thousands of hours playing video games.
Oh yes, I’ve won many victories despite impossible odds, and I’ve accomplished countless deeds of unparalleled heroism. But they are all virtual, all shadows and flashing lights. I suppose I always knew, or always suspected, that the real dragons were out there, but I never had the courage to face them.
I’ve taken in so many lies. Lies on top of lies.
So why do I go into the desert? It’s dry. It’s so dry that the lies shrivel up like grass sprouting and flowering in the morning. By evening, they wither and fade (Ps 89:5). I see them perish, struck down one by one in some kind of awesome divine judgment.
Why do I go into poustinia? I want God. I want God so badly that I’m willing to run out into the desert and die of thirst. I’d rather die of thirst than drink poison.
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