by Martha Shepherd.
MH Ottawa, where I live and serve, is a poustinia in the marketplace. What does that mean? I’ll try to explain.
"Poustinia" is the Russian word for desert. It also refers to a Russian desert spirituality, which Catherine Doherty brought to North America in the 1970s.
Poustinia, which originally meant the cabin where the poustinik lived, is any place where you spend time in silence, solitude, prayer, and fasting. You go there to listen to God and to experience him listening to you.
Traditional Russian poustinias were located outside of towns, in solitary spots. It was Catherine’s innovation to create poustinias in the marketplace.
In this article I will talk mainly about the marketplace aspect, the being-in-the-midst-of-the-world part of it.
The poustinik (who lives a life of prayer) is always available to people. People come to us for lots of reasons, but basically, they come in some sort of need.
Sometimes people just want to chat, they really don’t want a heavy talk, but chatting is a need, too—especially if you don’t have anyone to chat with.
People call us up and sometimes they just say, "Can I come and talk to you?" and I’ll say, "Sure, come over." Sometimes they don’t care who we are. Someone they know came and got help for whatever and that’s what they want.
If they don’t want to know about us, about our Madonna House life and spirituality, I don’t tell them about it. I just meet them and we talk and that’s it.
But sometimes people say, "I heard that you people are counsellors," or "Somebody told me you’re social workers. Are you social workers?" Or perhaps they say, "Would you be my spiritual director?"
When they ask me to be something specific like that, I always say no. I’m not a counsellor, I’m not a prayer counsellor, I’m not a spiritual counsellor, I’m not a spiritual director, and I’m not a social worker.
So then comes the big question. What are you? That’s when I tell them that the easiest way for me to tell them what I am is to tell them what a Russian poustinik is.
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, a person who felt called to the poustinia would go to a village and ask the elders there if he or she could be a poustinik in that village.
The elders always said yes because they knew it was in their best interest. They knew that the poustinik would pray for them, and that when they needed him or her in any way—if they had to bring in the hay before the rain, for example, or if there was a fire, the poustinik would certainly help out.
So they’d build the poustinik a little shack outside the village, and he would live there, praying for his own salvation and for the world, but especially he’d pray for their village.
He would also be available to them personally, and they could go and talk with him about anything.
When they came to his cabin, they would be welcomed with the words, "Come in and share what God in his goodness has given me."
That might mean a cup of tea or a piece of bread, but on a deeper level, it would mean a word he had received from God in his own heart, from his life in the poustinia, from his fasting, from his silence, from his own reading of the Scripture.
Whatever he had received, materially or spiritually, was at the service of the person who came to him—according to that person’s need.
When people come to our door, I do not say, "Come in and share what God in his goodness has given me," but that is what I, in fact, do.
This is one of the ways in which a poustinik is totally different than a counsellor or a social worker, or anything like that. A social worker has his or her techniques. I only have what God in his goodness has given me. That’s all I have.
It can be something very simple. Our garden, for example, is something that God in his goodness has given us. A few years ago, the grubs killed off the lawn. So rather than put in a new lawn, which is a lot of work and you have to mow it, which I’m not good at anyhow, I made a garden in the front yard.
That’s a great way to get to know people. When you’re in the front yard, working in a garden, people stop by.
All of a sudden people were coming over. They had plants they wanted to give away, or they wanted a little bit of one of our plants.
And one day, when I was out there, a car came by and a man leapt out with a big kind of "ta-da!" smile and said, "Hi, this is a great yard. Do you want to be in a garden show?"
He was from a group called Lifeline, a support group for families with handicapped children, and they were doing a garden show to raise money. So I said, "Sure, that would be fine."
So suddenly we were involved with Lifeline, and lots of people were coming to look at our garden, asking for plants, and asking why we have the religious statues in the garden, and all because God in his goodness gave us a garden.
But most of the people who come don’t come for the garden. They come into the house, and sometimes they say, "Oh, it’s so quiet here."
I don’t think about it very often, but every once in a while I do, and when I do, I am deeply, deeply grateful that God in his goodness has allowed me to live in a house where there is silence.
Because silence is so rare. If you live with other people, so often they have the television on or the CD player or the radio or something even if you don’t want to put something on yourself.
And if you live alone, the person on the other side of the wall, (unless you happen to be in a house that’s by itself), has the CD on or the television or the radio or whatever on, and so silence is a really hard commodity to come by.
That is another thing that God has given us, that we share. You can see people experiencing it. Even before they start talking, you can see them begin to relax because just to be in a silent place is such a wonderful thing.
Silence is one of the fruits of the poustinia. We get to live in silence and it does something for us.
People come to talk. They talk about all kinds of things, and we share with them what God in his goodness has given us that could be of help.
What do we give? Lots of times, I will have gotten some kind of word inside, or grace, or whatever you want to call it, in my weekly 24-hour poustinia, my time of solitude in a poustinia room.
Let me give you an example. One day in poustinia, it came to me how life is all about carrying something through life.
People talk about life being like a river, and everybody gives their life to something. It’s like a relay race. You carry something for a while, and then you pass it on, and somebody else carries it for a while, and then they pass it on.
Like parents carry their children and then the children grow up and they carry more children. Physical life is passed on that way. Life is really just a choice of what you want to give your life to carrying.
I’ve given my life to carrying the poustinia, and I think its well worth carrying.
That particular poustinia was on Friday and that next Monday somebody came in with the question: What’s it all about anyway? What am I doing with my life?
So I tried out my word from Friday, and it just happened to be precisely what she needed to hear. Because God in his goodness sometimes does that.
It’s God’s economy, really. God gives to me, and that gift is also something he gives to me for others.
But let’s look at it from a deeper level. A Russian poustinia had a low door, which meant that you couldn’t go in without bowing, without bending over, and that was very significant. You weren’t going to get in without a little humility.
Here in MH Ottawa, we have an ordinary door in an ordinary house. But I always feel that anyone who enters our door has been humbled in some way.
Once they get to know us they may lose touch with this, but when they first come, there is some level on which they are feeling their neediness. They have something they need to talk to somebody about.
So I think it’s terribly important that the poustinik, which is me in this case, inwardly bows just as low as the person coming in has to inwardly bow to get in.
In the poustinia, I have learned that however much I feel humbled and needy, however low I have to bow in life or in my relationship to God, God always meets me by going a little lower than I am. In fact, any time any of us gets humbled, he comes to us by getting lower down than we are.
The experience of this is something that God has given me. And because I have received a sense of being accepted and respected by God as I am and a sense that my value comes from him, I am able to give acceptance and respect to everyone who comes in the door.
And the deepest need we have, beneath any kind of specific need that anybody might experience, is always the need to be accepted.
So what’s the relationship between the poustinia and the marketplace? Well, in the poustinia, you receive acceptance and then you pass on that gift to everyone who comes.
I think that this is the deepest thing the poustinia gives us and the deepest thing that we give in listening to people who come.
—Excerpted and adapted from a talk given at MH Combermere, May 15, 2003
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