In 2015 and 2016, I attempted to set up a poustinia in an isolated village in Oklahoma. At that time, I had a generous benefactor, who wanted to help me set up the traditional, isolated, but open shelter for someone who prays.
A poustinia is an ancient form of hermitage, found in Russia commonly before the Communist Revolution. Frequently bare, or at least spare in furnishings, the poustinia was a place desired by people in the area, who wanted a person who was praying for them and for others in the neighbourhood. Sadly, my benefactor become too ill to continue the project, and after setting it up, I had to leave this attempt at an American version of a poustinia.
For those of you not familiar with the term, I suggest reading Servant of God Catherine Doherty’s 1975 book on the subject. She re-invented the ideal and was famous for setting up her poustinia in Canada. Her mission continues with the Madonna House ministry in Ottawa, in Combermere and other places.
Now, my poustinia was in a very, very isolated area, but it was within a half-hour of an abbey. My intention was to do what Catherine Doherty succeeded in doing, and that is have a place of prayer, where a person could come for 24 hours only. In silence and meditation and/or contemplation. Having failed because of circumstances, I asked God why this happened.
It was not the right place nor the right time. This location was not God’s Will and I learned that when I had to close the door and leave, giving almost all of the things which I had gathered to those in the area.
I was, for that short time, a poustinik, the person who prays, fasts and lives alone, but with an open door to others who may be in need. The ancient poustiniks were desired by the communities where the man or woman set up the poustinia. This is a key to the success of the poustinia, as the person praying, interceding, fasting, and serving others needs help with basic things.
The polstnik is also open to questions, discussions with those who need spiritual counselling and advice.
When I was in my twenties, Doherty’s book was popular. However, during the 1970s, I was in a lay community, not thinking about life in the desert, which is what the word poustnia means. My life was communal. Later one, I tried convent living, and it was clear being accepted into a contemplative order, that God wanted me back In the world, being a pray-er, but alone, and “in the world.” The pousinik is not cloistered.
Recently, my thoughts have gone back to my poustinia experience and to Catherine Doherty’s mission. Now, her mission is in the city, as well as in isolated places, and that is what God has taught me since 2016—the new desert is the city, be it Ottawa, New York, London, or Delhi.
Another connection to the poustinia lifestyle is the Jesus Prayer, which I learned in my twenties after seeing the book The Way of the Pilgrim. This Russian classic, followed by a sequel, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, reveal that the desert is one’s heart, and that being a poustinik or any type of contemplative involves going into silence and meeting God there.
Silence makes you strong.
The more silent you are the more you hear.
I still say the Jesus Prayer, especially when I am walking on a busy street, such as Oxford Street in London. Here is the version I learned, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. One can say this all day long.
I would like you all to pray for me as I seek God’s Will as to where He wants me to settle into the next poustinia. Right now, I have one small room in a small village in Britain. It is not my own, as I rent, but the poustinia must be independent and not a shared place with others. The poustinik lives alone on purpose in order to concentrate on God, prayer, being open to whoever comes to the door for help. So please pray for my ability to have my own place, even if it is lent or rented and not owned.
If you are interested in helping me, please let me know. I do ask you all for prayers as I try and find the desert place God intends.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,