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Posted February 13, 2012:
My First Poustinia

by Paulette Curran.

I was all dressed and ready to go. I was wearing my very best dress—not the one I wore on Sundays but the one I saved for very special occasions.

"Why are you dressed like that?" my housemother asked. She looked astonished.

"I’m going to spend the day with God," I answered.

The year was 1970. I had been a working guest at Madonna House for about two months and was about to make my first poustinia: 24 hours of solitude, prayer, and fasting with only a loaf of bread and a Bible, and my housemother had come to bring me to the cabin where I would be making it.

"But you’re going to a log cabin in the bush," she told me, "and it has a wood stove."

I changed into jeans and a sweat shirt.

After a short car ride, the last part uphill, we stopped in front of a footpath into the bush and walked a short way to a small rough log cabin.

There wasn’t much inside it: a bed, a desk and chair, a crucifix—and the wood-burning stove.

My housemother pointed out a flashlight and a kerosene lamp and a few other necessities. I had never seen a kerosene lamp before except in a museum.

Then she demonstrated lighting the lamp and told me how to make a fire. "You use newspaper, kindling, and a piece of this firewood. You start by lighting the newspaper, then add kindling, and then add a piece of firewood." Then she left.

The day stretched in front of me.

I don’t remember what I did in the morning—maybe read the Bible a little, maybe said a rosary. When lunchtime came, I was probably ready for something to do. Eat.

That’s when I discovered that I had forgotten my bread.

I drank some water and decided to go outside and explore. It was a beautiful, mild sunny day in autumn.

The poustinia was on a hill, and quite close to the tall trees surrounding the cabin was a large meadow overlooking a valley. The view was beautiful, and I could see just a bit of the river that flows past Madonna House.

I walked around the meadow and then sat on a rock. The weather was mild enough for that.

I don’t know how long I stayed there; I just remember being deeply at peace, a quiet peace, the kind that I recognized even then as a sign of the presence of God.

When I returned to the cabin, I decided to make a fire so I could have some tea and warm up the cabin a bit.

I am from New York City; I had never made a fire.

Remembering the house mother’s instructions, I took one piece of newspaper and lit it. I added one piece of kindling, and when it was burning a bit, I added one large piece of firewood. Of course, the log wouldn’t burn, and the flame went out.

I tried this several times, and finally—it took me a whole hour—I figured that maybe using more newspaper and kindling would help.

Continuing to try, I added a bit more each time and when I finally tried several pieces of newspaper and a whole handful of kindling, the log caught fire.

What did I do in that poustinia? I don’t think I said prayers or read the Bible much. Actually, I remember little of the rest of the day except for the peace and a growing sense of gratitude. I must have been hungry, but I don’t remember that either.

When it started to get dark, I managed to get the kerosene lamp lit so that it stayed lit; I had seen that operation done. But it didn’t give a lot of light, and as time went by, eventually everything outside the small radius of the lamp, both inside the cabin and out—became pitch black.

What to do? I put the flashlight within easy reach, blew out the lamp, got into bed, and fell asleep.

The next morning, I got dressed and waited for someone to pick me up. I figured someone would come before Mass, but no one did. When it got close to the end of breakfast time at Madonna House, I finally clued in that probably no one was coming, that probably I was expected to walk home.

I knew it wasn’t far, and I knew which direction to start in. But the car had made a couple of turns coming up, and I wasn’t sure of the whole route.

I started in that right direction, and very soon I passed a house with a small sign, "St. Teresa." I figured that, with a name like that, it must be part of Madonna House. If someone was there, they could give me directions. I went to the door and knocked.

The door was opened by Fr. Briére, a Madonna House priest whom I had heard was away for a rest.

I told him that I had just come out of poustinia and that since it was past breakfast time, I figured I had better walk down. I asked for directions.

We chatted a bit, and he invited me in. He phoned Madonna House to tell them where I was.

I’m not quite sure how it happened (well, I did mention that I had forgotten my poustinia bread) but the next thing I knew, he was making me breakfast. Not the ordinary Madonna House weekday breakfast—oatmeal, yogourt, and brown bread—but bacon and eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee.

"Greater love hath no man than he give his last piece of bacon to a poustinik," Fr. Briére sighed. Then he chuckled.

While I ate, we had a lovely visit. Then I walked back to the main house—a walk of about a half hour to 45 minutes.

Poustinias in Combermere are less rugged now and have been for many years—for women guests, at least. They now have a poustinia in the backyard of their dorm—one with electricity and an electric kettle and heater. And if you forget your bread, you can easily go and get some.

But in its essence a poustinia is a poustinia, however modern or primitive, and whether it is a room in a city or a cabin in the woods.

What did I receive from my first one? Catherine would talk about receiving a "word" from the poustinia, but I didn’t get one. Unless you call "peace" a word.

I had come to Madonna House as a lost "child" of the counter-culture of the ‘60s. Here, just a short time before, I had found God.

I had been feeling peaceful, generally, but during that poustinia, that peace had grown and deepened.

I certainly had personal problems and I did not know what I was going to do with my life when I left Madonna House. But deep down, during that poustinia, I was given a sense that God was with me and that because he was with me, things were going to be all right.

They were. It wasn’t long after that poustinia—maybe three months—when I discovered that my vocation was Madonna House. So here I stayed, and forty one years later, I am still here.

 

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