by Pat Probst.
How well I remember my first encounter with poustinia, thirty-five years ago.
It was a gray Sunday morning after Mass in Portland, Oregon. I had missed my bus home, and it would be an hour before the next one.
My friend, Connie, a Jesuit volunteer, invited me to spend that time with her on her mission errands.
She and two other friends from that parish had been badgering me to visit Madonna House, which was just a few blocks from the church. But I had been digging in my heels and refusing to go to this little prayer-listening house, and for one over-riding reason: Jean Fox, the director of that house.
I had noticed her at Mass, and one Sunday, she looked deep into my eyes, and I knew that she could see into my heart.
My heart had quailed, and I had a deep sense that, if I were to meet her, my life would be changed forever.
My life, at that time, was in turmoil, but I preferred this turmoil that I knew, to this unknown "changed forever" that was beckoning me. It scared me, and I did not feel safe going to Madonna House on Garfield Street.
Well, on that gray morning, I climbed, an unsuspecting innocent, into Connie’s car. We headed off, and very soon, Connie turned down Garfield Street. She slowed the car, and as we neared Madonna house, she asked, "Do you want to go in?"
I said no.
We continued on to do Connie’s errands.
On the return trip to my bus stop, Connie took a detour which landed us back on Garfield Street. This time, she stopped the car right in front of Madonna House.
"Do you want to go in?" she asked.
I hesitated. Connie reached across me, opened my door, pushed me out, and sped off.
There I stood in the middle of the street facing a decision. To go in or not to go in: that was the question.
My feet made the decision for me. They crested the curb, landed on the sidewalk, and climbed the steps to the front door.
With heart thumping, I knocked, and the door opened. There was Jean, smiling at me, warm and welcoming. I entered the house.
I was amazed to see that the floor was painted red. The white walls added a comforting, vivid contrast. A spider plant hung by a window, and a simple wooden chair was beside it. It was all so essential, so compelling, so beautiful.
Jean gave me a cup of tea and we talked together easily at the kitchen table. After our tea, she led me upstairs to show me the poustinia room.
"Poustinia?" I asked. "What’s that?"
Jean explained that it is the Russian word for "desert,"—a place just to be with God, to bathe in his love, to be silent and to listen for him and to him. "Silence," she said, "is always the act of listening."
I entered the poustinia and saw a red floor, white walls, a crucifix on the wall, a bed, a table, a chair, and a Bible.
Then something strange happened. My heart recognized this place that I had never known existed in the world. Deep, deep down inside me, I "knew" this place.
When I left that poustinia, I knew that my life had indeed changed forever. And I wondered how this would play itself out.
It happened simply. I went to Madonna House in Combermere, and step by step, I ended up staying and joining.
Poustinia was my first love in Madonna House, and thirty-five years later, I still return to it every week—to bathe in God’s love, to plunge into silence, and to pray, pray, pray. It still remains for me essential, compelling, and beautiful.
Through it, God truly changed my life forever. Deo Gratias!
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