Why Do I Go to Poustinia?

by Loretta Fritz

I have pondered this question now for a few years. Then I began to ponder it more intentionally when I was so sick that I was physically incapable of going to a relatively remote poustinia* cabin in Combermere.

All kinds of ideas, thoughts, impressions came up, but they were all vaguely dissatisfying. Now I see they were all only partial answers—and yet true answers for all that.

Often God works that way, it seems—giving us incomplete or partial reasons or answers to entice us onto a path of discovery of the deeper reasons.

Sometimes in this process, I am surprised to discover deep desires within me that I had not previously been aware of. So—what are those partial reasons God used for years to get me to poustinia?

Initially it was sheer exhaustion—physical, mental, emotional, social, etc.

On my first brief visit to Madonna House Combermere, I just wanted and needed a break from my usual life. Despite reading Catherine’s book Poustinia before my first poustinia, I really had no idea of what I was entering into.

I slept all but two hours of my first twenty-four-hour-long poustinia. I came out physically rested in a way I could not remember ever being before and with a vivid remembrance of a dream (very, very rare for me) that helped me deepen my faith life over the next few years.

During my next two visits to Madonna House, I was also blessed to receive permission to make poustinias.

One of these times I was here for a long stay, and I was an introvert living in a dormitory with ten to twenty women. I just wanted a break from people. People, people everywhere, all the time unless I escaped into the forest for a walk—not an entirely satisfactory solution for this prairie girl!

The fact that God was here in the poustinia and spoke to me was, of course, a huge attraction, too.

Then when I became an applicant (Madonna House’s equivalent of a postulant), my spiritual director told me to make a regular poustinia. This was a very blessed obedience. I continued to need/desire time away from people—and a time alone with God during the intensity of applicancy.

However, other things were happening in me as well. That repeated, regular rhythm of poustinia allowed God to draw me deeper and deeper into communion with him.

This season of poustinia was more painful than my guest experience. God continued to be there, present and communicating, but often it was painful truths about myself that he revealed.

Painful, as I learned about my poverty and brokenness, and perhaps more painful as I realized how wonderfully he made me and how beautiful and desirable I was in his eyes.

I was still sleeping through 2/3 of a typical poustinia. That was sometimes disconcerting as it did not leave much time for conscious communication with my God.

Through that time, and to this day, my usual feeling as I prepare to go to poustinia is excitement—excitement that I am to meet with my Beloved, that we will have time alone together, that this time of withdrawal from daily life will permit me to reconnect and renew my knowledge of my need for him, that I will more easily hear his voice.

When I became a member of Madonna House, my first assignment was to St. Joseph’s House, a house that serves the people of Combermere and the surrounding area. There I learned that regular poustinias were critically important for me to be able to love my fellow staff in the house and to serve our local friends.

During this time, God also drew me deeper into another reason for going to poustinia: to pray for the world and all the people in it.

Step by step over the years, my understanding of and participation in this essential aspect of poustinia deepened as our friends faced incredible difficulties, and the world seemed to be going crazy.

Another painful season of my poustinik life occurred when I was very sick and could not physically go to a poustinia cabin. It was very painful for me to not to “do” poustinia in a cabin as I had learned to do it over the previous six years.

But that’s when I plunged deeper into poustinia. It was very painful to live a type of poustinia day in and day out—mostly in my bed. All I could do for months was rest, pray (very, very simply) and occasionally join my St. Joe’s sisters and brother for a meal or a bit of work.

In some ways it felt like I was in a continuous poustinia. I learned a lot in those months. I had to be, not do.

Despite all the spiritual and emotional pain I experienced during that time, it was an incredibly blessed period of my life.

In a way I did not understand or see before, I discovered that God was always present. I did not need to search or go away to find him. He was there. Always and everywhere, he was there, speaking in silence or in word or with gifts.

The next phase of my poustinia journey started when I was assigned to our Toronto house.

How does one do poustinia in a noisy, crowded city? For me, up until this time, poustinia carried the connotation of a quiet, somewhat secluded, hideaway in nature. And it almost always involved a walk in God’s creation, seeing his wondrous works.

It seemed a contradiction to spend a desert time with God with hundreds or thousands of folks all around me. And seemingly everyone was out for a walk at the same time I was.

To my relief, God still spoke to me through the Scriptures and the change from daily life. He guided me to delightful nature nooks on my walks or bike rides where he continued to speak to me through his creation.

And he showed me, through Toronto geography, architecture and the citizens I saw on my poustinia walks, a new way to “meet” people so I could hold even those individuals I never had and never would meet in person, in my prayers in a deep and concrete way.

So, ultimately, why do I go to poustinia? Because I was created by God for union with him. Because God has planted a deep, deep desire within me for himself that nothing other than he can satisfy.

Because in my flesh and my soul, I know that St. Augustine’s famous quote from the 4th century—”My heart is restless until it rests in you”—is true.

Because this Eastern Christian spiritual discipline allows me to meet him, so I may recognize him when I meet him outside of the poustinia.

Sometimes, with great gratitude, I ponder God’s generosity to me in calling me to this wondrous Madonna House vocation in which regular poustinia days are both possible and encouraged.

I wonder what he will teach me next. I am encouraged by this sentence from Catherine Doherty: “The concept of poustinia has endless depths and endless heights, but you reach them slowly.”

*Poustinia, as the word is used in this article, is a particular kind of 24 hours of prayer in solitude.