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Poustinia: Encountering God In Silence, Solitude and Prayer

Friday Book Pick: Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer by Catherine Doherty

This will be a book for you to get, to keep and to reread: Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. With its Russian title, the book is captivating even before the cover is cracked. Poustinia is the Russian word for desert, as in the Sahara Poustinia, and in the sense of a place of prayerful retreat. It is on the topic of prayer but this book is far more than either a dry treatise on prayer of the old sort or a “best practices” manual of the newer sort. It is just different from everything else out there on prayer. There is an authority to the ideas put forth in its pages. Perhaps the authority can be attributed to the culture, the people, and the history living behind these chapters.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a Russian Baroness (born in 1896) who came to North America with her husband Boris after they narrowly escaped death in the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Catherine prayed to survive the ordeal and vowed to give her life to God in exchange if they were spared. The prayers of the Baroness were answered, and the refugee couple escaped first to England and then to Canada in the early 1920’s. Her vow to God would unfold through a lifetime of ever deepening commitment to an uncompromising Gospel life…though not without failures, drama, and romance.

Severe poverty, an unhealthy and unhappy marriage, and a newborn child made for hardship on every level. Her marriage to Boris (her cousin) later fell apart and was annulled by the Church, but Catherine’s pilgrim journey continued through many chapters of inspiration, apostolic fervor and conflict. Her journey brought her on an international speaking circuit, and then, by an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to Harlem, where she opened an apostolate on 135th Street called Friendship House. She married American journalist Eddie Doherty, who later became a priest after the couple made vows of celibacy. Catherine and Eddie ended up settling down on a rural homestead in Cumbermere, Ontario, Canada, that would become both their home and the base for their international apostolate. (The twists and turns of a pilgrim life are more interesting than fiction, and there are several good biographies available on the life of the “Baroness disciple,” if your interest has been piqued.)

Catherine Doherty, as a Russian transplanted in North America, became a living bridge between the East and West. Reared in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, she had the mind and soul that could bring the riches of the Eastern traditions successfully to the West. Visiting her Apostolate, Madonna House, in Cumbermere, Ontario, one readily feels the richness of East and West successfully commingled in the vitality of a truly Catholic Gospel life.

Rather than a manual for prayer or a series of techniques, what Catherine offers the world in Poustinia is a story. She tells the story of the Russian vocation of the Poustinik (a person not entirely unlike the western hermit, yet with differences) called by God into Poustinia—the desert. And in so doing, she appeals to the heart of the reader, who is also created for intimacy with God through prayer. Catherine brings the reader into the Russian wilderness (apparently full of Poustinik, and Poustiniki, even after the Communist revolution), and she describes in interesting detail what such a life consists of: the rustic dwelling place with its latchless door so as to be ever ready to welcome guests; the bookless austerity except the Bible, of course; and the garden-patch for sustenance and for sharing with the poor. It could be easy to romanticize the vocation of the Poustinik and the life lived with God in Poustinia. But Catherine is too forthright and realistic to allow for any such day-dreaming.

The life of prayer, silence and solitude, especially within the Poustinia, is not without its battles. As the lives of the prophets of old and as the life of Jesus Himself have shown us, when one is led by the Spirit into the desert, a battle is sure to ensue. Every warrior is in need of his weapon. King Arthur had Excalibur, Aragorn had Andúril, and the Poustinik has the Word of God as his two-edged sword. The battles waged are not for himself alone. No, the Poustinik goes into the desert for others, and the battles waged have a significance beyond his personal quest for sanctity and conformity with Christ. Profound availability marks the vocation of a Poustinik, and his call is for the broad scope of his family and village, his countrymen and beyond.

The other story that Catherine tells is the story of what she calls the Poustinia in the market place and how she and her companions were led to introduce the Russian concept of this particular brand of contemplative vocation into their own apostolate and further, to make such experiences available to others. Most compelling are her matter-of-fact descriptions of the Poustinia of the heart and how to become more contemplative, silent and receptive while going about your normal life.

She understands modern man and speaks to him. “It takes a long time,” she says, “for modern man to fold the wings of his intellect and open the door of his heart.” And thus this book has become a spiritual classic for the modern age. Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty wrote it to offer an answer to our growing, changing, technological, urban civilization. She is quite sure that we cannot, must not, “reject the new strange, adventuresome, frightening world that is opening before us, and is already within us,” because Jesus Christ became man to insert Himself right into the midst of the world He so loved. And so must we, but to do so we must be anchored to Him through silence, solitude and prayer in the Poustinia of our own heart.

Mother Clare, CFR



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