Before I found the book, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer, I confess that I had never heard of Catherine Doherty. She was a remarkable lady who sought to translate Eastern Christian insights (sometimes called “desert spirituality”) into the context of Western life. More than a half century ago Catherine arrived in Canada as a Russian refugee. She used her background in Russian Christianity to give her a matrix for responding to the needs of Christian life and work in the busy, modern West. Catherine became “poor to serve with the poor Christ” among the poorest people in Toronto and Harlem. But the work that led to my finding her moving book was the establishment of a spiritual lay center, the Madonna House Apostolate, in rural Ontario.
The title of this book bears the Russian word for “desert.” At the center of Catherine’s lifelong journey was her experience of the desert. She writes, in the opening chapter, “For the mystery of men in the midst of the world, nature, technology, and urbanization, is intrinsically a Divine Mystery” (Poustinia, 4). But, this great mystery is not to be found in the world as such. “It seems strange to say, but what can help modern man find the answers to his own mystery and the mystery of him in whose image he is created, is silence and solitude—in a word, the desert. Modern man needs these things more than hermits of old” (Poustinia, 4, italics are in the text).
If we are to effectively bear witness in today’s busy marketplaces, where we are continually bombarded with ideas that challenge our whole person, we need “silence.” If I have discovered anything that sustains me, and I am a novice at the practice really, it is this hunger for silence and the need to make it a regular part of my pilgrimage. She writes, “If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, body and soul, we need silence” (Poustinia, 4).
True silence is man’s search for God. True silence is “a suspension bridge that a soul in love with God builds to cross the dark, frightening gullies of its own mind, the strange chasms of temptation, the depthless precipices of its own fears that impede its way to God” (Poustinia, 4-5). In silence the speech of true lovers happens. In silence the soul can meet with God. And true silence is the key to a burning heart that stays alive to God and grace.
Silence does not call for special places, though I’ve found several that help me. Catherine Doherty is right when she concludes that deserts, silence and solitude are “not necessarily places but states of mind and heart” (Poustinia, 5). Such deserts can be found in busy cities as well as in places where we live each day of our lives. These can be “tiny pools of silence” (Poustinia, 6). The prophet says, “I will lead you into solitude (the wilderness) and there I will speak to you” (Hosea 2:14). True silence is not always the absence of all speaking but it is always the act of careful listening. The mere absence of noise is not poustinia. Noises can become the echo of God’s presence but if we are filled with ourselves and our agenda we leave true silence aside. In silence we learn to repeat God’s intimate words, often words learned from Scripture that we’ve learned in the desert.
But how do we achieve this silence, this poustinia? Doherty answers, “By standing still!” (Poustinia, 7, italics in text). Stand still and look into the motivations of your soul. We were born to be saints and lovers. The Lord died to make us such and this we must strive for by faith. We must stand still and pray that the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit will clear out “all the cobwebs of fear, selfishness, greed, and narrow-mindedness” (Poustinia, 7-8).
But there is a danger here that is too often missed. We fail to distinguish between prayer and solitude. This is, in my view, the danger to evangelicals in particular but all people in general. I believe Doherty is correct when she writes that prayer and solitude are “two different aspects of the spiritual life” (Poustinia, 10). Prayer is contact with God. Without it life dies. Solitude, on the other hand, is a special vocation. Some can enter it for only brief times. This is my experience. Others are clearly called to it more permanently or as a unique vocation for life.
But prayer is first, like silence, a journey inward, as are all pilgrimages of the Spirit. I must journey inward to meet the Triune God who dwells within me. This is why I do not need a special spot to pray. “Prayer is a contact of love between God and man” (Poustinia, 10).
It is good to have periodic solitude. Indeed, this is what Doherty experienced and called others to as a Christian. But you can have solitude in many places and ways. A quiet room is helpful but might not be accessible. Prayer is a full-time affair but solitude is a temporary thing, unless you are one of those rare people called to it permanently. The desire for solitude is good but it must be understood. Poustinia is one of the best attempts to explain what it is and why it matters that I’ve yet encountered. You might not be ready for a book like this but if you are I encourage you to read it with much care and very slowly.