by Pat Probst
Pat was born in Yakima, WA; the city sits in a desert but turns into "the ‘fruit bowl’ of the nation" via annual melting of snow off the mountains. After university, Pat lived in rainy, green Portland, OR, where she experienced a spiritual desert. She visited Madonna House-Portland and saw their poustinia, the Russian word for ‘desert’. Pat fell in love with it at first sight, and soon made her first poustinia day in that little room with bed, desk, chair, Bible, and an icon with a vigil candle lit in front of it. Pat joined Madonna House in 1990. This is excerpted from a reflection she gave at our Summer Program.
When I read the brochure describing our Summer Program, The Fire of Faith—Encounter with Love, and read the topics for each week: ‘The Fire Within,’ ‘The Fire Grows,’ ‘Guarding the Fire,’ ‘Spreading the Fire,’ I got worried because I don’t see myself as a fiery person at all.
So I went to my spiritual director and said, "I’m really worried because I don’t see how I have any fire in me and it’s been 25 years, you know." And he said, "Now, now! Let’s talk about the different kinds of fire. You know the vigil light? It’s one little flame. I think of you as being a ‘vigil light-y’ kind of person." I realized that I am that kind of person and I actually do have something to share with you.
First, about the little flame of the vigil light. I’ve been going into poustinia once a week for 25 years, and that’s 24 hours every week. So I have a lot of experience sitting in front of a vigil light placed before the icon of Our Lady of Tenderness who is holding her Son, Jesus, the Light of the World. That little flame helps me to be silent. It brings a light, a silence and a presence into poustinia. It’s constant, peaceful and gentle.
I want to use the atmosphere that it creates—of silence, receptivity, listening with my heart, prayer and intercession—to tell you three stories that led me to believe that prayer really does change things.
The first story takes place in my early years in Madonna House. My spiritual director was Fr. Sharkey [who died in 2009] and I would see him every two weeks. After awhile he said, "You know, your gift is receptivity and intercession. God expects intercession of you." One day before I went into poustinia he said, "I want you to pray for a young woman who’s in real trouble and really needs your prayers." So, in poustinia I prayed with everything that was in me for this unknown girl with the problem that I didn’t know. I prayed from morning until I left at night. I was sure that God would hear my prayer.
Afterwards I went to Fr. Sharkey and asked, "So, what happened?" He said, "Nothing." I said, "Oh! I guess I didn’t pray well enough." He said in a commanding tone: "Never judge your prayer" and added, "You will not know the effect your prayer has had until you get to heaven." So I learned not to look for immediate results of my prayers.
My second story takes place some years later, in 1995. In poustinia I was thinking about the Reformation and the damage that it had caused, not only in England but in my own family. I grew up in the Lutheran Church; my father very vocally expressed his hatred of the Catholic Church. When I decided to become a Catholic and decided to join Madonna House, I told him. He was very upset! You can fill in the blanks. In poustinia it came to me to pray for the healing of the Reformation in my own family.
Then I had a further thought. Helen Hodson had given a talk; being from England, she knows personally of the persecution and martyrdom of the Reformation, and has lived intimately with its long-term results. A phrase—‘the healing of the Reformation in England’—stuck in my heart and it came to me that maybe God wanted me to go to England to pray for the healing of the Reformation there.
I talked with Jean Fox, then Director-General of Women of MH, about it and she said, "Yes, go." So I went for six weeks and stayed at our house in Robin Hood’s Bay, living in one of their poustinias, and praying before the icon. Now that I was there, I wondered what I would do. I heard in my heart, ‘Just walk the land and pray’. So I did; I focused on walking in the footsteps of Blessed Nicholas Postgate, who lived in that part of England and was martyred for being a Catholic priest when he was 84 years old. As I walked, what I prayed was: "Holy God, Holy the Mighty, Holy the Immortal One, have mercy on us, on England." And that was it; that’s what I did for six weeks. Then I returned to Canada.
When Pope Benedict went to England in 2010 at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth, it occurred to me that perhaps my walking the land in Yorkshire, praying for the healing of the Reformation had a little bit to do with this unique invitation—the first time a pope has ever been invited to England, and has gone. Of course I don’t know for sure, but it’s possible.
The third story is about my friend Julia. I was at our house in Washington, DC for seven years and we hosted an open group on Sunday mornings to read and discuss the Scripture readings for the Mass that day. Julia always came. One Sunday she arrived very upset, just beside herself and said, "My little sister Jamie went missing last night and they have not been able to find her." Jamie was about 21 years old, has Down’s Syndrome and is a very pretty girl. They live out in the country. Her family was frantic, knowing how vulnerable she was.
Without thinking I found myself blurting out in a loud voice: "We have to pray the Memorare right now! ‘Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help…" We prayed the whole prayer with great feeling, and concluded, "Please find Jamie." Thirty seconds later Julia’s cell phone rang: they found Jamie. This was the first time I’d had such quick results to prayer, but it really was a desperate situation and Our Lady is a mother, you know.
So I have learned that God hears my prayer even if I do not see the results, and this requires of me faith. And the title of this Summer Program is I Believe—the Fire of Faith, Encounter with Love. Through the 25 years that I have gone to poustinia, I have come to see how God has used my time there to help me grow in faith. I’m really dedicated: poustinia was my first love and has remained that, and I know that I am supposed to be like that little flame—little, no big deal, always burning. Believing, and always interceding for everyone, anyone who asks me, and even those who don’t ask me. That’s what I’m here for, primarily.
Question: Pat, did your prayer touch your father in any way? Did it heal anything within him?
Pat: I had to go through a great trial that took me away from Madonna House for about nine months. It was during that time that my father came to a peace and an acceptance, and so did my mother. My sister insisted that they come here and see Madonna House, and they came for four days the year I made ‘Final Promises’ in 1997. One day my father said to me, "Hey, would you like to sit down and have a beer?" Yes! So we chatted and he said, "You know, I want to tell you I was wrong about Madonna House and about what you were doing. This is really a good place and I can’t think of a better way for you to spend your life. Your mother and I want to give you our blessing."
Well, it had taken many years and it had been such a huge pain for me, but that made it all worthwhile. It freed me deeply when my father said that. This was two years after I made that little pilgrimage to England; I had been praying for my parents all along, but I hadn’t really been expecting this huge change of heart and mind. So I guess I can say there was a healing of the Reformation in my own family.
My father also said, "This is a really good place, and the people are even intelligent!" I was living at St. Mary’s at the time, so my parents and my sister ate with us there. My father got so accustomed to the place that he expected a hug whenever he walked in the door. One day he came in and there was no one around so he came into the kitchen and said, "Okay, where’s my hug?" And my sister told me that that was the biggest, happiest event in our parents’ lives for the past 25 years—those four days. Both of my parents have died, and I am so grateful that they came to peace about my being here.
Early on, when this whole thing was very painful, Fr. Brière had said to our class of Applicants, "You know, if you are doing God’s will, and he wants you to become a staff worker of Madonna House, he will take care of your family. You do not have to worry; he will take care of them." Well, he was right.
Question: "You were talking about how prayer affects someone, or the world, but do you have anything to say about how prayer has changed you, how we are changed by praying?
Pat: I just can’t live without prayer, so I figure God knows what he’s doing and he’s been changing me—but I really can’t tell you how. I’m less shy than I was. I don’t care what people think about me, as I used to; I care what God thinks about me.
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