Carmel Hill, where the priests' house is, is also the location of several poustinias. Poustinia is a Russian word that literally means “desert.”
Catherine Doherty has written a book, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer, which is now considered a modern spiritual classic. It explains in detail the concept of making a poustinia, which entails going apart from the community to fast and pray in solitude for 24 hours or more.
Poustinias at Madonna House refer to small, simple cabins or rooms, furnished with a hard bed, small table and chair, the Bible, a plain cross, and perhaps an icon of the Mother of God. It is here that the staff members go to “make a poustinia.”
Scripture is the only book taken to poustinia. Through the praying of Scripture we are immersed in the word of God. To this, fasting on bread and water is added. The intention of poustinia is always for others, for the needs of the Church, the world and those who have asked us to pray for them.
Volunteers and guests who have spent time living and working with the community in Combermere may, under direction, also go into poustinia. Being soundly grounded in community is important for the newcomer.
Catherine said, “No one can tell you what to do in the poustinia. You are there in silence with God so that he can speak to your heart.” From this listening to God, a new depth of inner life is begun. For many of the staff, poustinia has become a permanent part of their lives.
Catherine was to dig deep into her Russian roots to bring first to the staff of Madonna House and then to the world the concept of poustinia. The following is one of her first explanations of poustinia:
The word poustinia is Russian, meaning “desert.” It means, geographically, a place like Sahara, but it also means more. It means the lonely place that souls sometimes have to enter, to find the God who dwells within them. Or it means a wild and lonely place to which a hermit would go to seek God in solitude and silence.
For a long time I have been thinking that we of the Lay Apostolate of Madonna House should have a poustinia — a desert to which we could go, to be in solitude and silence, to pray, and do penance.
Ours is a tragic century when humans are faced with decisions that shake the souls of the strongest. This is also the age of neuroses, of anxiety, of fears, of psychotherapy, tranquilizers, responsibility, decision-making.
This is the age of idol worship — status, wealth and power. And the idols dominate the landscape like idols of old, squatty and fat. The First Commandment once again lies broken in the dust.
We have abandoned God and some have declared war on him. There is no peace in our land, nor is there any peace in our hearts.
What is the answer to all these darknesses that press so heavily on us? What are the answers to all these fears that make darknesses at noon? What is the answer to the loneliness of men without God? What is the answer to the hatred of men toward God?
I have no other answer than my poustinia, which means prayer, penance, mortification, solitude, and silence. These are offered in the spirit of love, atonement, and reparation to God, the spirit of the prophets of old. I make intercession before God, for my fellow men, my brothers and sisters in Christ, whom I love so passionately in him and for him.
Words seem inadequate these days, yet they must be spoken. For at no time, no matter how tragic, how difficult, how terrifying, can one stop from proclaiming the truth.
It is not enough to lead a life of dedication and surrender under the promises of poverty, chastity and obedience. We must do more. Every Christian must do more — with vows or without — wherever they are, whoever they are. We must do more.
That ‘more’ can only be a poustinia, an entry into the desert, a lonely place, a silent place where one can lift the two arms of prayer and penance to God in atonement, intercession, and reparation for one's sins and those of one's brothers.
Poustinia is also the place to which a lay apostle must go in order to gather courage to speak the words of truth, remembering that truth is God, and that we proclaim the Word of God.
The poustinia will cleanse us and prepare us to do so like the burning coal the angel placed on the tongue of the prophet.
So Madonna House has poustinias, in the literal sense of the word. We called our first poustinia ‘Mt. Alvernia.’ The members of Madonna House will go there to pray, to be silent, to fast, to do penances as their spiritual directors will allow them, and to beseech the Lord for peace on earth and for the restoration of his Kingdom to him.
I see no other answer to the tragic affairs of our day than a Russian poustinia on North American soil.
Since this beginning Madonna House has opened a number of poustinia field houses (also knows as prayer-listening houses). Poustinias have multiplied in Combermere and our field houses. The concept of poustinia has spread across the world. The book has been translated into many languages. Poustinias have sprung up in most unlikely places. Monthly we hear of new places where the poustinia has come into being.
Later Catherine wrote:
I think maybe poustinia was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit himself. Though I thought only of our staff, I guess the whole, wide world is hungry for God. For a place without noise. A silent place, for some solitude. Yes, the poustinias will grow in our land — all across its face, because there is within it a limit that man cannot cross. A limit to their ability to go without prayer. A limit to be without God. A limit to their ability to take noise. A limit to their ability to be always in a crowd.
Time in the poustinia will remedy this. I'm glad I thought of the poustinia for our staff who use it constantly, but I am glad that God enlarged my vision, and that we have poustinias to offer others in our field houses.
Bow low before the cross when you enter the poustinia because you're entering an immense mystery, a mystery that has no end except when you will see the Lord who came to you to be consoled. Later, the Lord who came to share your consolation will come to console you. Then the Lord will come just to be silent in solitude with you. If you understand the poustinia a little you understand what it is you are walking into. You will know what mystery you are entering. The poustinia then will welcome you and embrace you and bring you solitude and silence and make you a prayer.
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