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Poustinia: Embracing God’s presence

Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty

The statement, “God exists,” is one of foundational importance in the life of a human person. One’s acceptance – or rejection – of God’s existence shapes all of the beliefs and practices carried out by a person, whether in the “mundane” sip of coffee before heading out to work, or in the extraordinary courage in endangering one’s own life in order to protect another. The individual’s lived answer to this statement not only shapes what they do, but the way in which they do what they do. So, for instance, the coffee-drinker could enjoy his morning occasion of coffee in manner open to eternity: savoring the qualities of each sip, being grateful for a simple pleasure, recognizing in its bitterness the suffering of the world around him and recalling his duty to suffer-with (com-passion) through his prayers and actions; in short, he could be reminded of God’s presence through his appreciation of coffee. (And, as Chesterton says in “On Lying in Bed,” without a pre-meditated reason or justification for any of them.) Or, he could simply drink his coffee in order to get on with the rest of the day.

For those who answer in the affirmative that God exists, Poustinia is a book which (simply by its exposition) invites the reader to live the affirmation. It is one in a series of books in which Catherine de Hueck Doherty introduces the Western mind to the traditions of Russian Christianity. The Russian practice of the poustinia (which means “desert”) is one in which a person is called to live a life of solitude and prayer, usually residing in a small cabin outside of a community and living very simply: bread, water, Bible, prayer, and solidarity with the locals. There is no habit, no rule of life per se, but the habit of life is ordered (as simply as I can put it) to “breathing” God. That is, through whatever the day brings, the “job” of the poustinik is to “practice the presence of God” that he may more fully unite himself to God, that he may be purified by Him, and that he may see the happenings of his interior and exterior life in the light of God…that he may see with God’s eyes, and not his own. In this “practice,” the poustinik is doing nothing other than becoming more Christian – more like Christ, so that Christ may be made Incarnate once more in and through the poustinik.

Likewise, it is the call of every Christian to become (as it is known in the Eastern tradition) “divinized,” that is, to become like God. Catherine argues that it is necessary for every Christian to be a “poustinik,” yet not of necessity the type that lives in solitude. The poustinia to which we are all called, she says, is the poustinia of the heart. The poustinia of the heart

is a place within oneself, a result of Baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity. Within my heart, within me, I am or should be constantly in the presence of God. …. It’s as if I were sitting next to God in complete silence, although there are always many other people around.

In whatever situation any person finds himself in, it is possible to remain with God in the “desert” of his own heart, and listen to Him speak amidst the noise of the world which surrounds him.

The practice of poustinia, the task of every Christian, directs him to the depths of the affirmation, “God exists,” so that it is not merely a statement of belief in an impersonal God, nor an exposition of one’s general philosophical reasoning (for that is not Christianity, but sophistry). God enriches and enlivens the soul with His grace and His life and enables him to see (everything in) life through His eyes, to talk with His words, to act like God would act; to think and reflect, be happy and sad, angry and weak – before Him and with Him. Through embracing this relationship with Him, He enables men to live the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), so that “it is no longer [him] who live[s], but Christ who lives in [him]” (Galatians 2:20).

Now, the coffee cup is not just a coffee cup. One can see God in his coffee cup.

Comments

  1. Very nice review. Thanks for writing and sharing this!

  2. Thank you, Kevin. I now have another book to add to my list to buy. I find it beautiful that this Eastern Catholic woman, whose name is Catherine, mirrors the very spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena in the West. St. Catherine prayed in her “cell of self-knowledge,” where God is and I am not. The comparability between the cell and the cabin is uncanny and awesome. The spirituality of the East and West has much in common, only different language with which to express it.

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