By pure happenstance, I stumbled upon one of several SSP’ers I’ve had the good fortune to “meet”online — his name is Patrick McLauren, and his URL is  Patrick McLauren’s Piping Blog.

He is so gracious and generous; in that he freely offers newbie SSp’ers like mesell tunes (.MP3s) and the .PDF music settings for some of his latest endeavours.  Like Gray West, Julian Goodacre, Nate Banton, Will Woodson and others, Patrick has a huge passion for the pipes — and for conveying his passion to others.

Patrick’s enthusiasm is somehow strangely infectious.  He has helped me — a lone piper from a very small, remote hamlet in Aotearoa (New Zealand) — to stay connected with others of similar ilk.  Residing in such remote locales can be a rather isolating experience… but Patrick’s tunes serve to ease this feeling, through his superb efforts and dedication ot the art of piping.

I’d like to post a heartfelt tribute — one that pays hommage to Patrick, the piper — a talented, incredibly gifted musician and kind soul who brings much joy to the lives of far distant kinsmen.  We salute you!!

Here’s another post I found on Tumblr that says what I couldn’t possibly say:

This is a heartfelt note of thanks from a Canadian of Scottish decent, thanking you for your beautiful bagpipe music which was a great comfort to me recently. At the time I couldn’t see where the music was coming from so later I asked at the cemetery office and was given your name.

…when I came back for the internment, I was alone. It was a sad occasion without any associated ceremony or service and without other members of the family along as witness or support. As I was sitting on the steps by the columbarium after the internment wishing for some better way to have marked this final event of her life, I heard beautiful bagpipe music nearby…it seemed as if it was a tribute to my sister as a member of the Ronald clan, a sect of the MacDonnell clan of Keppoch.

I am glad to know that the art is alive and well in Portland through people such as you…thank you for your dedication on behalf of veterans and their loved ones.

Phyllis T.

Randomly enough I’m also a half Canadian of Scottish and Irish decent, so the note hit a little close to home.  As someone who has witnessed many funerals over the years, I actually see the situation of the one-person-funeral fairly often. A few times I’ve even played for zero-person-funerals, where it’s just me and the funeral director paying our respects with no one else physically there to hear it. I think it shows great stoicism and commitment to be that sole family member present at the funeral, and good on Phyllis for being there.


What is the kenotic path of the desert?

The title question surfaces in the wake of these words from Thomas Merton, “Before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess.”

In truth, this is a terrain that defies definition with words. Still, one can make an attempt by speaking from the murky misty intersection of experience and teaching.  According to contemplative wisdom teacher and Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault explains the word “kenosis” is derived from the Greek verb kenosein, which means “to empty oneself.” It’s important to notice that from the start, we’re speaking of an action rather than an object.

On the Christian contemplative path, mensch’s like Rev. Bourgeault, Father Thomas Keating, Father Richard Rohr and others, draw our attention to Saint Paul’s use of this word in describing Jesus (Philippians 2:9-16), “Though his state was that of God, yet he did not deem equality with God something that he should cling to. Rather, he emptied himself and assuming the state of a slave he was born in human likeness.”

Rev. Bourgeault writes, “self-emptying is the touchstone, the core reality underlying every moment of Jesus’ human journey… the full realization of his divine selfhood comes not through the concentration of being, but through a voluntary divestment of it…” and references Logion 21 in the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus describes his students as small children living in a field not their own. When the landlords return and demand it back, the children return it by “...simply stripping themselves and standing naked before them.” (taken from “The Luminous Gospels” by Bourgeault, Bauman and Bauman).  Lest this kenotic “self-emptying” sound a bit too willful, Rev. Bourgeault clarifies that the movement is more of a “letting go” – a small, gentle motion that, for me, might be visualized as the way in which one releases a feather that’s been lightly held between two fingers.


In my experience, this gentle self-emptying process can cost us, as T.S. Eliot states, “no less than everything.”  What a gospel truth that, in losing my life, I found a life wholly dependent on God with freedom to love God and neighbourI found that the kenotic path of the desert is not about running away.  It’s about discovering a life that matters.  It’s not about condemning the world. It’s simply about letting go of what is false — destructive habits, false selves and false relations.  It’s not about exile, but finding freedom to claim our dependence on God.  It is about losing a life to gain one, a life alive to God

The invitation of kenosis, I believe, is to enter the desert of our hearts; that fierce landscape found in silence and solitude we where we are stripped down and laid bare to God’s merciful forgiveness and healing.  The desert of the heart is our training ground for ultimate surrender of the self we never really owned; finding our True self more and more, and aligning it with the life of Christ.


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.

Solitude – The Way of the Heart by HJM Nouwen

Only in the context of the great encounter with Jesus Christ himself can a real authentic struggle take place.  The encounter with Christ does not take place before, after, or beyond the struggle with our false self and its ‘demons’.  No, it is precisely in the midst of this struggle that our Lord comes to us and says, ‘As soon as you turned to my again, you see I was beside you.’

We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with Him and Him alone.  Our primary task therefore in solitude, is not to pay undue attention to the many faces which assail us, but to keep the eyes of our heart on Him who is our divine Saviour.  Only in the context of such grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature.  As we come to realise that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that He is our true self, we can slowly let our compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God.

What does all of this mean for us in our daily life?  Even when we are not called to the monastic life, or do not have the physical constitution to survive the rigors of the desert, we are still responsible for our own solitude.  Precisely because of our secular milieu which offers us so few spiritual disciplines, we much set out to develop our own.  We must indeed, fashion our own desert where we can withdraw everyday, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.  Without such a desert we will ose our own soul while preaching the gospel to others.  The very first thing we need to do is set apart a time and a place to be with god and Him alone.