by Martha Shepherd.
If you go into the poustinia as a way of life, you are either driven by Love or lured by Love.
Arlene Becker (whom we call, "AJ"), with whom I have been living at MH Ottawa for many years, was driven by love. I, on the other hand, was lured.
I come from California. We don’t "do" driven; we’re much too mellow. And, unlike AJ, I wasn’t the second of eight children in a go-getter family, and I didn’t go to school to Irish nuns. (I was a Methodist.)
I went to school in the suburbs of San Francisco. My teachers were some of the first hippies. Well, they weren’t hard core hippies because, if they were, they wouldn’t be teaching school in the suburbs. But they had the mentality, and I thought they were very "cool."
They managed to convince me of many things, of a whole mentality, of a whole world view, and part of that mentality was that there was no God. That was just something your parents believed in.
So there I was, a 14-year old atheist. And I went on my own unmerry way because atheism is not a good way, not a happy way.
I didn’t like California, so I got out as soon as I could—right after high school. I went to the University of Vermont and it was there that God began to introduce himself to me.
(Take heart, you parents whose children are not interested in religion. God is well able to introduce himself to your children, more than able.)
I remember his very first touch. I was backpacking, and everything was very beautiful.
I was going along a path, and I noticed how one clump of grass was slanting in one direction and behind it there was something slanting another way, and then there was a tree that went straight up. The design was incredible. And I thought, "Everything looks designed."
Then spontaneously a thought came into my head that horrified me at the time: "I can see why people used to believe in God."
That was big of me, right? Those poor people back then. I can understand that if you lived in nature, you might believe in God.
But, for me, that was radical, actually. The very idea of God had been suggested to me.
And there were other touches: a passage in Plato, a book here, a person there. Then one day—it was October and the weather was beautiful—a friend suggested we take a drive to a monastery she knew and go to Mass there. She had been brought up Catholic.
The drive was mostly for the leaves, whose colors were at their peak. When we got there, the place was packed, overflowing; the Mass was in a building, but the hillside outside it was full of people.
I watched all these people go to communion—one after another after another.
And while I did, God somehow opened me up to the reality of his presence in the Eucharist. I could see how he was available to everyone; how everyone was welcome, how everyone could come to him. Everyone except me, of course, because I wasn’t Catholic.
That’s the moment that pushed me into the Church—well, invited me. God didn’t push me; he always knows who he’s dealing with.
And as I got to know him better, as he continued to reveal more and more of himself in that kind of way, I fell totally, madly, completely in love with him as only a 20-year-old girl can. I was a bit prone to falling in love—but not with God. This came as a complete surprise.
So now I was in big trouble. I had graduated from college. I had a degree in philosophy—completely useless—and all I cared about was living in the presence of God.
This is really career potential! What to do with myself? I wasn’t interested in doing anything that was open to me. So I stumbled around. It was really very hard. But it was a period of time that was very important, and I can see why in the Providence of God, it happened. But it was not fun. Sometimes the providence of God is not fun at all.
I was like that woman in the Song of Songs in those years. I sought him and I did not find him. Going through the city streets, I sought him and I did not find him (cf. 3:1-2).
How could I live? Where could I go to live in the presence of God?
Everyone I met, I was kind of silently asking, "Have you seen him whom my soul loves?" The answer was always no. They hadn’t.
Until I was back on the West coast, in Portland, Oregon, and I remembered a book I had read four years earlier—Poustinia by Catherine Doherty.
Madonna House had a house in Portland at the time, and I went there and talked with one of the staff, Marie Javora. And, lo and behold, Marie knew all about the presence of God.
It was no big deal to her. She knew the one whom my soul loved, and she highly recommended I go to Combermere where she said, "People listen to God."
They listen to God? People talked like this? As soon as I could, I went to Madonna House Combermere and, sure enough, there were lots of people there who knew about God.
They knew what I was talking about! They all wanted the presence of God. And they believed you could hear him and that he acted and influenced things and that he was around. This was amazing to me, and what was far more amazing—a million times more amazing—was that I myself sensed his presence.
Actually, it was the icons. It was the face of Christ in the icons. That became the window into the heart of Christ for me. It was through the icons that I felt his presence.
I loved all the Eastern Christian elements of Madonna House. I loved the liturgy. I loved the books they had; I loved the chants. I didn’t know anything about East/West. I just loved all these things—especially the icons and poustinia. And Madonna House was a place where all you did was seek the presence of God.
I felt that God was telling me: "If you stick around here, you will become closer to me. I am here." You couldn’t have pried me out of there with a crowbar.
But staying there meant I had to live on Madonna House’s terms. I had studied elementary logic, and I understood about the means to the end.
In this case, the end was the presence of God. Poverty, chastity and obedience were the means to that end, because they were the governing principles of this place. So I had to put up with them. I didn’t like them; I wasn’t not attracted to them, but I decided to put up with them to get where I wanted to go.
I put up with a lot of things.
I heard Catherine Doherty talk about the needs of the world, and the needs of the poor who were hungry. She passionately told us that the world was crying out, and she urged us to go out and help.
That did not light a fire in me. In fact, it was a bucket of cold water. Whoa! Help? I don’t think so. I didn’t like helping. I didn’t think helping was a good idea. I didn’t believe in it.
I thought people who wanted to help were kind of parasitical. I thought: why don’t you get a life instead of trying to help somebody. I mean, are you trying to make yourself feel good, or what?
I didn’t do help, but again, I had to sort of leap over it, because the presence of God was here. I didn’t understand it, but I put up with it.
Time went by, and I actually got quite good at doing things I didn’t like to do. I got a lot of practice because this was a free place. You could leave any time, but as long as you stayed here, you had to do what you were told.
So I did things I really didn’t like. I touched dead fish; I even cleaned dead fish.
And then there was the thing I had dreaded for two years: the chicken bee.
Because we have a farm and we raise our own chickens, once a year, they get slaughtered. And that means you have to gut them. I prayed, "Dear God, spare me the chicken bee," and, for one reason or another, I didn’t get sent there for two years. Then, the third year, I was "invited" to the chicken bee.
I had never fainted in my life so I knew I wasn’t going to faint. And I figured out that "freaking out" wasn’t going to get me anywhere. Throwing up probably wouldn’t help either.
I knew I was doomed, because I knew that I was not going to leave Madonna House.
I could not imagine putting my hand inside a chicken. I was just so horrified at the thought of it. I really did not know what was going to happen.
I didn’t sleep the night before. But I did it. I put my hand inside a chicken, and I gutted the chicken. It was the most horrible thing I had ever done, but I did it.
Some months after that, I took promises, thus becoming a member of MH. Then I was assigned to our house in Ottawa.
I knew that at that house, we listened. I knew that we helped. Helped people! I didn’t like that part. But I was quite happy to go to Ottawa mainly because it was a poustinia house. I also liked the city of Ottawa, where I had spent my vacation a year or so before, and I liked the people in the house.
I could have been very nervous about listening but I wasn’t.
Because by then I was really good at doing what I was told—things I didn’t like and didn’t want to do.
So the first time it was my turn to answer the door and listen to whoever came, I just marched myself to the door and said to myself, "No matter how bad this is, it can’t be as bad as gutting chickens."
That was my beginning in listening. People sometimes ask, "What kind of preparation did you have? Do you have a degree in psychology? Have you studied counseling?"
I have a bit of a mischievous streak. I don’t say anything, but I think to myself, "Should I tell them about the chickens?" Because that was really my preparation for listening. Which is, you don’t hold back. You just take what comes.
And you know what? Not only was listening not as bad as gutting chickens, I discovered that I was probably born to listen, because I find people very interesting. And who doesn’t want to talk to someone who is interested in them?
—Excerpted and adapted from a talk given at the study days of the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies on July 4, 2009.
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