Sunday, 4 October 2015

пустынь - The Poustinia

When I had the absolute amazing privilege of going on retreat (which happened to be my first retreat) in the wilds of Northumbria, these were the best things:

1) Being made a special apple pudding because I couldn't eat the one everyone else was having.

2) Being MADE A CUP OF TEA by a complete stranger, just because, when we were living in community; and

3) The Poustinia.

Photo: A poustinia in the winter
One of the Madonna House poustinias

(I may have missed out lots of spiritual stuff, but honestly, these are the things at the forefront of my mind as I type!)

Obviously it wasn't a proper Poustinia, but I had an amazing couple of reflective, contemplative spiritual experiences nevertheless, sat in blankets in a cold garden overlooking the beauty of fields.

It was an extra wonderful space to spend time with God, within a new monastic community that was already a wonderful space to spend time with God. And it led me to research on the desert fathers and the authentic Poustinia tradition, to place the whole experience in context.

The Poustinia is a tradition drawn from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and for those of you who don't know about them, a quick recap. Unsurprisingly, we are talking about a tradition of wandering off by ourselves, meeting with God in contemplation in solitude, and all of those other things as a mother I have got a hope in hell of experiencing (or so I thought before I discovered retreat houses!)

The original Desert Fathers can be found in the Egyptian desert during the 3rd Century AD, perhaps the most famous of whom is now known as St Anthony the Great. As an introvert I can completely empathise with them withdrawing from life and the material world to be by themselves and pray! Over time monastic communities emerged and whenever I think of these I think of what we do in our church, local and mission communities. Men and women lived in these communities; pilgrims visited.

Without the Desert Fathers and Mothers, we wouldn't have monasticism as we know it.

Their ascetic, prayerful, pastoral tradition travelled to the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as influencing the Benedictines and other western monastic settings.

And so to the Poustinia, which is a Russian word meaning - wait for it - desert! (Although it encompasses a dual meaning, of course, because you can find or make a lonely, empty place anywhere.) Modelled after the retreat houses of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Russian Orthodox Church established the practice of small huts where clergy or other spiritually minded persons could withdraw, preferably for twenty-four hours to medidate, contemplate and join with God. (Not that I managed twenty-four hours, was cold, so very slightly after the Russian model!) Without an actual physical desert, one can still practice these elements, as Doherty's 1975 book 'Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man' suggests:
"an entry into the desert, a lonely place, a silent place, where one can lift the two arms of prayer and penance to God in antonement, intercession, reparation for one's sins and those of one's brothers.... To go into the poustinia means to listen to God. It means entering into kenosis — the emptying of oneself."
There are poustinias all over the world. Madonna House community in the USA, founded by Catherine Doherty, has a whole lot of them; I had never experienced one before I went on retreat.

Photo: The interior of a poustinia
Inside a Madonna House poustinia

And so we come back to a little wooden hut, in a new monastic community in the very north of England. Surrounded by plants, fruit and vegetables grown by people who lived and visited there. Not far away from an outdoor chapel. The hut contained a couple of chairs, blankets, a Bible, a cross, candles and matches in a tin to keep them dry from the damp air. I visited in winter so it was chilly outside and cold within, but I snuggled in a blanket and had some much-needed time in conversation with God, often silent, often listening. How fitting that the Northumbria Community, providing sanctuary, silence, retreat and respite for its visitors, continues a tradition from those Desert Fathers of centuries ago.

(NB - I spent the first draft of this talking about a Pushkinya! And while Pushkin is definitely also Russian, it is not the same thing at all. Just, ahem, keeping it real!)

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