WANT A FABULOUS BOOK TO READ? TRY THIS ONE…

Doherty, Catherine de Hueck. Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1975.

Revised edition with new subtitle: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer. Combermere, ONT: Madonna House, 2000.

Evaluating the impact of Catherine Doherty (1896-1985) and her idea of poustinia is complicated by the issue of her personality and how she was received and interpreted by the hierarchy and religious of the Catholic Church in her day. Books of her reflections and talks only began to appear late in her life, when a certain degree of co-existence in Church circles appeared to tolerate her and her movement, by then its ideas having been largely absorbed by larger issues championed by more institution-friendly groups.

What was the Anglo-American ecclesiastical establishment to make of this outspoken Russian-born woman, a convert baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, an émigré to Canada and the U.S. who went from rags to riches to rags again, a divorcee who eventually got an annulment (itself controversial) back in the 1940’s, a woman who criticized Church and public policies on race, segregation, poverty, and economic justice long before they were mainstream Catholic issues?

Catherine Doherty remarried in 1943 and moved to Combermere, Ontario, an obscure place where she could work with the local bishop in reconstituting her Friendship House model, renaming it Madonna House. These houses were established as lay communal quarters, renouncing individual ownership, its residents embracing a life of economic and spiritual modesty on the model of traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The effort grew slowly but only thrived with the liberalizing atmosphere of the Vatican Council and its aftermath, intersecting, however, with the already popular vocabulary of ecumenism and — in the case of the poustinia concept — the retreat movement.

But none of this biographical information is told in the book Poustinia. The concept must be evaluated on its own terms.  The first of three sections of the book is about poustinia and clearly are the most original of the sections, apparently composed in the 1960’s. The remaining two sections are primarily talks to staff and visitors.

Poustinia is Russian for “desert,” and represents the path of solitude in searching for meaning. It evokes the long traditional of hermit monks and the figure of the forest-dwelling staretz. But the book never gets too far in explaining this tradition or how it can be presented to the West. Doherty assumes that the force of her personality is sufficient — and, indeed, it may have worked in person. But as a book the treatment is insufficient and lacks depth. For example, here is a concluding comment about poustinia:

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, solitude — in a word, the desert [emphasis in original]. Modern man needs these things more than the hermits of old.

Doherty briefly describes the Russian poustinik: the hermit living on the edge of town, door unlatched, welcoming anyone but seeking out no one. She relates what must have been an impressive childhood memory, that of Peter, a friend of her father who sold all of his considerable property and set out alone and barefoot like a medieval pilgrim or beggar, one of the jurodivia. Years later and in another city, her father recognized his friend’s expressionless face in a crowd of beggars.

He called out his name and intelligence returned to that face. They embraced. They went to Mass together and then had breakfast. My father asked, “Why have you chosen this vocation of idiot or retarded person?” Peter answered, “I am atoning for the men who have called Christ a fool during his lifetime and during all the centuries thereafter.” They kissed each other again, and Peter disappeared. My father never saw him again.

But these are the only anecdotes about hermits and eastern spirituality in the entire book. We are left wanting so much more!

In the remainder of part one Doherty adapts the concept of poustinia for lay people and occasional religious visitors. On the grounds of her House is a smallish house or cottage, furnished with cot, table and chair. The only permitted reading is a Bible, and the only permitted food (supplied) is bread and hot water for tea or coffee. The pousitnikki is to immerse himself or herself in sheer solitude, not reading more than the Bible, not working, no communications, not even praying if the spirit does not persuade. Walks in the woods or puttering in the cottage garden are permitted for the visitor’s weekend stay. Doherty even gives license to just sleep if that is all that the exhausted but honest wayfarer can accomplish. But solitude, sacrifice, silence, self-discipline — all these tools are intended to open the person to finding God experientially. Then the poustinikki can return to the “marketplace” of the world carrying the desert within the self.

Doherty’s book is conversational and informal. There are very few references to other writers or books, and no deep spiritual insights on the topic of solitude and silence. Doherty is eminently practical, like an administrator, though one remembers that Teresa of Avila was both an administrator and a mystic. There is little or no mysticism about Doherty’s style or personality, which would have been a redeeming quality in her lifelong battles with the Church. Instead, the charismatic movement has found room for her, and perhaps that is where her ideas best succeed, for they do not really reproduce the “spirituality of the East” nor did they ever take off in the West.

There is a small group representing Madonna House that is lobbying for Doherty’s canonization. Such efforts on behalf of any number of candidates these days have taken on an embarrassing aura of public relations and fund-raising. Poustinia is a valid concept, but given the many retreat models both Catholic and other in today’s self-help marketplace, one wonders how successfully this fragile plant has fared in being roughly transplanted outside of its native soil.

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