aa poustinia on the island in winter

You Used to Be So Active

by Fr. David May

When I’ve told friends and relatives recently that I now live on an island, most of them are, if not horrified, at least taken aback. Why, they wonder, would anyone ever want to do such a thing?

To live on an isolated island in the middle of the eternally frigid and sometimes frozen waters of the Madawaska River in the grim climate of eastern Ontario?

I explain that our island is a 5-minutes’ walk from Madonna House over either a causeway or a footbridge. My cabin is a full 30-45 seconds beyond the bridge entry.


–It must be lonely in the woods all the same.

–Well, not really. Elizabeth Bassarear (the new women’s director general), Réjeanne George and Larry Klein (the men’s DG) are each less than a minute away. In addition, the door of a poustinia is always open to …

–Does it have a bathroom with hot running water?

–Well, no, it has an outdoor jon and …

A look of pity follows.


–How do you keep clean? What if you get diarrhea?

–I …

–How do you keep warm?

–Wood heat.

–Any other options?

–There is also electric heat as a backup.

–Good! Do you need anything: blankets, quilts, duvets, space heaters, flannel pajamas, flannel shirts, flannel underwear, wool socks, wool hats, gloves, electric blankets?

–Well, I …


–But what do you do there? You used to be so active (for a Madonna House priest). Now here you are living in a log cabin in  the wilderness with nothing to do, or very little, other than try to survive, and with so many people in need of spiritual help. Our parish priest is still going strong at 78, and you’re only how old?

–Three days a week I spend all my time in poustinia; the other four days I am out and on the community schedule. Even in the poustinia, people in need come …”


–But what do you eat? Is fasting three days a week good for you? You’re already kind of skinny. You have to take care of yourself, you know. You’re no good to anyone sick. Do you have cough drops, cough syrup and vitamin C? Do poustinias come with vitamin supplements … just in case? After all, this is the 21st century! Do you suffer from anemia?

–I can get what I need…

–But you must be so bored!

–Actually, I’m not…


I’m learning that poustinia just cannot be explained or justified. Either a person has some understanding of it, or they don’t!

I even thought of starting a guest book or a log book to record how many people visit this poustinia in a given month. But then someone reminded me of King David’s fatal census in the Old Testament, so I dropped that idea.

Is St. John XXIII poustinia mainly a place of rest and quiet after 12+ very busy years? Certainly the deep silence of the place is very welcome and even therapeutic to my spirit. Yet there is also a Living Presence in this silence—is it the Lord Jesus, his Mother, the Father … now one, now the other?

In any event, this presence is a purifying one, like a gentle fire burning steadily. It beckons the soul to look long and honestly at its movements and its motives. I realize there is much work to do (or is it more accurate to say to undergo?) at that level.

But this fire also seems to contain a surcharge of compassion for suffering humanity. It is a communicable flame. It beckons, insists, renews and energizes. Where will it lead? And to whom?

Catherine Doherty always insisted that any prayer taking us deeper into God would inevitably lead us to a proportionally greater commitment to suffering humanity, since the Son of God emptied himself to become man for our salvation.

Every “lifting up” into the Blessed Trinity soon leads once again to the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Eternal Son out of love for someone or other, as if God cannot contain himself in glory without extending a solicitous hand in our direction. This adds a whole new meaning to resting in the palm of His hands!

Nature is all around me here, nature in a more or less pristine state: tall, straight-growing pine trees predominate on this island. The Madawaska River is just meters away. We have deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, fox, the occasional fisher and other predators. No doubt I will write about this in future articles.

But true Christian contemplation, while loving creation and seeing divine beauty in it, never stops at what nature has to offer us in itself.

Always we are seeking the face of the Beloved, manifesting himself in discreet but real ways through all things, since all of creation has become his garment, his sacrament since the Incarnation. And his “sign” is always new yet always the same: Love poured out from the Cross.

A little while ago a giant full moon rose over our landscape here, perfect in shape, its radiance lighting up the night. It seemed to sing of a greater light yet (the sun’s, of course), like the soul that is newly lit with the discovery of God’s infinite love.

Even a pale reflection of this love is enough to light up the whole night. What light shall there be when the Risen Christ comes in glory to claim dominion over the whole cosmos?!

In times such as these, it is good to remember such things. Yes, I thank God for this opportunity to follow him to the desert, where he can speak to me anew in silence and in speech.