The poustinia is a kenotic way of life. The very fact that you are in poustinia means that you are tending toward a complete self–emptying… You gradually realize that if you are going to stay in the poustinia, you will have to empty yourself.
This self–emptying has many strata and many dimensions. Its final goal is a holy indifference. These are just two words, but to reach them will take a lifetime. Emptiness is one aspect of kenosis. It involves the constant struggle with one’s imagination, one’s dreams, plans, desires, needs. St. Therese, the Little Flower, gave an example which comes very close to the Russian idea. She said, “I am a little ball. You throw me someplace in a corner. Maybe ten years later you pick me up again.” A Russian staretz said that one should be like a rag doll which can be picked up by the hand, foot, or head, now thrown in the bushes, now hugged, now thrown in the toy box. Two saints had a similar idea.
What does it mean to be a ball, a rag doll, having no desire to get up, to move, to do anything that one desires to do? It is something similar to what happens to us when we are told that we have a terminal disease and have only a short time to live. Of all the things that we have dreamt about or desired, perhaps 98 percent of them fall away in an instant. When you are face to face with the stark reality of death, your whole life changes in a few minutes. The poustinia is like this. When one is visited by God, a kenosis takes place, and all our plans and projects perish before our eyes.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia
Reflection – I want to spend a few days going through this little section—just a couple of pages, really—of the book Poustinia, the classic work by Catherine on prayer, silence, solitude, and the desert. Poustinia is simply the Russian word for desert, and in Russian spirituality is the place of silence, prayer, fasting—similar to a hermitage but with an accent on hospitality and availability that may or may not be present in a Western-style hermit.
In Madonna House, Catherine introduced the custom of poustinia, the withdrawal into a cabin or a prayer room, bare and stark, for a 24 hour period, with only bread and water to eat, and only the Scriptures to read. This aspect of MH life began around the time of the Vatican II council—her response to this movement of God was to deepen the contemplative prayer life of the community.
Some of our members were called in those years to adopt a poustinik lifestyle—living in poustinia for three, four, or five days a week as a sort of modified hermit in community. This section of the book Poustinia is from a series of talks she gave to these first poustiniks of MH. In these talks she really delves into the depths of spiritual life, not just for poustiniks but for all of us.
Probably I am blogging in this direction for purely selfish reasons: I am going into poustinia on Monday for a five day silent retreat, and blogging about prayer, silence, and kenosis is the only way I can find time to prepare myself for this upcoming adventure with God. Sorry, the truth comes out—this blog is completely self-centred!
Meanwhile we have this beautiful presentation on the heart of the matter, spiritually speaking, which is this holy indifference. Therese of Lisieux put it perfectly: being a little ball that the Child Jesus can throw in a corner, pick up, pull apart. Letting God have his way with us, not because He is God and we are afraid of Him, but because He is Love and we trust Him. He is our King, and our loyalty is to Him in toto.
The trouble is self-will, and this self-will takes the form of all our projects and plans, our ideas and opinions, our agendae and schemes. I suppose we’re allowed to have such things, as long as they are not overtly sinful (e.g.: I am scheming to murder my boss!). But really, if we are serious about God and about being a Christian, all that stuff just gets in the way sooner or later. We have to give it up. ‘When you were a young man you put your own belt around you and went where you pleased. When you are old, someone will put a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21 say it all.
Kenosis: it’s not just for poustiniks. Holy indifference: it’s not just for Carmelites or other monastic types. It’s for you and me, and it is utterly necessary if our lives are going to be at all useful for God in this world. Our own ideas and plans don’t do anything worthwhile, and we have to get that straight. It is God’s ideas and God’s plans that establish his kingdom on earth, and God’s kingdom on earth is the only thing worth giving our lives for.