by Martha Shepherd.
One of the things that MH Ottawa offers people is a chance to make a poustinia, to have 24 hours of silence and solitude.
But before I tell you about that, let me tell you about the physical setup of our house. It plays an important part in the story.
Our house is tall and narrow. Entering the front door, you see a large library/talking room to the left. Ahead, at the end of the hall, is the kitchen. To the right is a flight of stairs.
These lead to the second floor where there are three rooms: two poustinias with the chapel in between. There is also a bathroom and a little porch. The third floor is our dorm and office. This setup means that the poustinias are right in the middle of the house.
This reflects a deeper reality: they are, literally, right in the heart of the place. And our physical life is largely determined by them.
I sometimes feel like we are running a B & B. That’s because we do what those who run B & Bs do: make beds. With two to eight people a week making poustinias, it means that, two to eight times, we clean the rooms, make the beds, and wash the sheets.
In addition, we bake two to eight loaves of homemade bread. In other words, those two rooms in the middle of our house determine how we spend much of our time.
It also means that, whenever there’s anyone in poustinia, we are, too, in a sense.
If we talk in a normal tone of voice on the first or third floor, it can be heard in the poustinias. So we keep our voices down, talk less, try to walk softly, and in general live more quietly. This takes organization, concentration, and awareness. Arlene is particularly good at this: she even washes dishes quietly.
The people in poustinia also affect our inner life. When they arrive, they may not say much more than "Hello." They may not know us (or want to know us). Fine! They’re coming to pray, not talk. We show them a room and give them a blessing.
Even if we don’t know them, we can’t help having a sense of them. We can pick up how tired they are. Or we can feel anger, confusion, or sadness.
Since we can’t not be aware of them (what with all the whispering and tiptoeing) we silently pray for them, "carrying them" through the day they are there.
Of course, when we do know people (which is often), our prayers become more focused. Sometimes they ask us to pray for a special need. Or we are aware that their marriage just broke up, or that they’re coping with a teenager on drugs.
We pray for them and carry them as we go through our day. The physical setup of the house helps us remember to do this.
Having two poustinias requires a constant presence. Ask anyone who runs a B & B how often they are able to get out. We must be available to let people in and to see them out, not to mention finding time to clean up in between times.
Moreover, those who come to us are a great help to our living the poustinia ourselves. Without them, it’s much harder to live with concentration and awareness, to be faithful in prayer and constant in presence.
Those rooms in the middle of the house give us discipline—reminding us wordlessly and constantly, of who we are and what we’re called to live. In many ways, they make MH Ottawa into a poustinia house.
What I’ve told you so far is the external part, a glimpse into the outer reality of living in a poustina house.
The inner reality is impossible to describe, but two images might give you a glimpse into the inner reality of a poustinia in the marketplace—both for those making a 24-hour poustinia and those of us living in the house.
One image was given to me by a man who came to talk. He was a street person, actually, mostly looking for a cup of coffee. I gave him one, and sat down to chat.
He looked around a while, and then said, "I’ve been thinking. You always go into a little place to get into a big place."
I thought, "Well, that could be true," and nodded.
He said, "For instance, you go into an elevator to get to the penthouse," I thought, "Well, that’s true," and nodded again.
"Or you go into a rocket ship to get into outer space." (True. Nod.) "Or you go into the poustinia to get to God."
What a punch line! That just went into me. You go into the little place of the poustinia to get to God!
The other image is one I discovered in St. John Chrysostom. He wrote: "Find the door to your heart. You will find that it is the door to the Kingdom of God."
So the real "little place" you seek in the poustinia is your heart. That’s why you go into the poustinia: in hopes that it will help you find the door to the chambers of your heart.
I read this when I was 21 years old, long before I knew what a poustinia was. But I said to myself even then: "That’s it! That’s what I want. I want to go into my heart and then into the Kingdom of God." I was set for life, and it all looked clear and simple.
Now, years later, it seems a bit more complicated. I still look for this door much of the time. For the tricky thing is that it has to be found again and again. But when we find it, and every time we find it, we find the door to the Kingdom of God.
—Excerpted and adapted from a four-part series in Restoration, Nov. & Dec. 1999, and Jan.& May-June 2000, a series that was adapted from a talk Martha gave in Combermere
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