Going into Poustinia

by Catherine Doherty

Catherine wrote the following before 1975 and what she had to say is even more valid now. One can enter the poustinia, a place where one goes to meet God in silence and solitude, for a lifetime, for just one day, or anywhere in between.

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Ours is a tragic century where people are faced with tremendous decisions that shake the souls of the strongest.

This is also the age of neuroses, of anxiety, of fears, of psychotherapy, tranquilizers, euphoriants. This is the age of idol-worship of status, wealth and power. These idols dominate the landscape like idols of old: they are squatty and fat.

The First Commandment once again lies broken in the dust. The clouds of war, dark and foreboding—an incredible war of annihilation and utter destruction—come nearer. Dirge-like symphonies surround us and will not let us be.

What is the answer to all these darknesses that press so heavily on us? What are the answers to all these fears that make darkness at noon? What is the answer to the loneliness of men and women without God? What is the answer to the hatred of man and woman toward God?

I think I have one answer—the poustinia (pronounced “pou” as in “you”). Poustinia stands for prayer, penance, mortification, solitude, silence, offered in the spirit of love, atonement, and reparation to God. This is the spirit of the prophets of old!

Intercession before God for my fellowmen, my brothers and sisters in Christ, whom I love so passionately in him and for him.

Yes, “doing something more” can be the 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, reparation for one’s sins and those of one’s brothers.

Poustinia is the place where we can 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 lips of the prophet.

The word “poustinia” is Russian, meaning “desert.” It is an ordinary word.

If I were a little Russian girl, and a teacher during a geography lesson asked me to name a desert, I might say, “Saharskaya Poustinia”—the Sahara Desert. That’s what it really means.

It also has another connotation: it means the desert of the “Fathers of the Desert,” who in ages past went away from everything and settled in desolate places. In the Western sense of the word, it would mean a place to which a hermit goes and hence it could be called hermitage.

To a Russian, then, the word can mean a quiet, lonely place that people wish to enter, to find the God who dwells within them. It can also mean truly isolated places to which specially called people go as hermits to seek God in solitude, silence and prayer for the rest of their lives.

However, a poustinia was not necessarily completely away from the haunts of men. Some people had reserved, in their homes, a small room to which they went to pray and meditate, which some might call a poustinia.

Generally speaking, however, a “poustinik” (a person dwelling in a poustinia) meant someone in a secluded spot. A poustinik in pre-Communist Russia could be anyone—a peasant, a duke, a member of the middle class, learned or unlearned, or anyone in between.

It was considered a definite vocation, a call from God to go into the “desert” to pray to God for one’s sins and the sins of the world. Also, to thank him for the joys and gladness and all his gifts.

Excerpted from Poustinia, by Catherine Doherty (5th printing 2016), pp. 13-15, MH Publications