The Poustinia and the Poustinik

I recently read Catherine Doherty's classic book Poustinia.

"Poustinia" is the Russian word for "desert," and in Russian spirituality it refers to a tradition where persons would leave society to go and live a hermetical life of prayer and solitude, building a small hut or finding a cave out in an isolated, secluded place. The person who sought the life of prayer in the poustinia was called a "poustinik."

I've always been interested in the intersection of righteous action with contemplation, the balance between hospitality and solitude. And the Russian tradition of the poustinia is very interesting in this regard.

Specifically, the poustinik isn't a classic hermit, seeking to avoid society. Yes, the day to day life of the poustinik is one of silence, solitude and prayer. But in contrast to the western monastic tradition, the poustinik is also radically available to others. The door of the poustinia is always unlocked and open. The poustinia prizes hospitality and welcomes interruption. In fact, the poustiniki functioned as spiritual directors for the the Russian people. If a person was needing prayer or spiritual guidance they would seek out the local poustinik, who would listen, pray and offer counsel.

Even more, if the town ever needed an extra hand, to care for the sick or harvest the crop, a person would be sent to the local poustinik who would rush to the town to be of assistance. A poustinik might spend weeks and weeks in the town among the people bringing in the harvest. And when the work had been accomplished the poustinik would leave, to return back to the silence and solitude of the poustinia.

In short, because of the poustinik's availability to the people, from spiritual direction to hard labor, when a poustinik arrived in the vicinity of a town that was consider a very good omen for the town. Every town wanted a poustinik living somewhere close by.

I don't know about you, but I just love the balances here, the radical availability to others coupled with a life of radical contemplation, hospitality flowing out of a life of prayer, solitude coupled with sociability.

And wouldn't it be awesome if our neighbors felt about our churches the way the Russians peasants felt when a poustinik moved near?

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply