Every Christian is called to be a person of prayer. Such a tall order can seem daunting, which is why the spiritual treasury of the Church provides us with various prayer methods. Each method is a help to us. We choose a certain method depending on our personality, temperament, and the particular state-of-affairs in which we find ourselves.
Of the many prayer methods, poustinia (a Russian word meaning “desert”) always seems to stand out on its own. Such a distinction is due in large part because poustinia comes from the more mystical dimension of our faith, and flows principally from the Eastern Christian tradition, which is unknown to many Western Christians.
Poustinia is when we clear our minds and hearts of all images and words. We seek to dwell before the emptiness of God and wait for him to come to us. In such a spiritual posture of receptivity, we allow the love and grace of God to flow through our souls. We seek to encounter the God who loves us. We bring no requests, no expectations. We desire to simply dwell and breathe before the living God.
In many respects, poustinia is the prayer method of the adoration of God. We praise him and extol him. We seek to adore him with our entire being.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about adoration: “Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his Creator. It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Savior who sets us free from evil. Adoration is homage of the spirit to the ‘King of Glory,’ respectful silence in the presence of the ‘ever greater’ God. Adoration of the thrice-holy and sovereign God of love blends with humility and gives assurance to our supplications.”
Poustinia is about adoration. It is a homage of our entire spirit to the ever-living and all-powerful Ancient of Days.
When done well, poustinia causes us to pause and listen. It demands a passive posture and a docile spirit. It leads us to wait and to listen to whatever God wants to say to us.
Traditionally, poustinia is practiced in three ways:
One way is that we ourselves enter into poustinia and we wait for God to speak to us. We ask him to bless us with a word. Such a word can be one simple word or a small expression. When such a word is given it becomes a seed in our souls. It grows and matures within us so that we can grasp and understand what God wants to reveal to us. Sometimes such a word can radically change a person’s entire life and shift their entire understanding of some spiritual reality or truth about God.
Resting in poustinia can last for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or longer. Some mystics have been in poustinia for years.
A second way of doing poustinia is that we bring a word with us into our prayer. Maybe a word has kept coming to mind, or has powerfully stood out in our hearts, and we’re not sure why. We can take the word into poustinia and ask God to teach and instruct us.
The third way of doing poustinia is that we go and ask someone to do a poustinia with us (or we can ask someone to do it for us). This was a very popular practice among the desert fathers and mothers. Believers would walk for days through the desert to find a holy person and ask them for a word. The desert father or mother would pray for them and then give a word. This is a version of poustinia.
Of the three ways of doing poustinia, the first is the most popular and the way that is most preferred by spiritual masters, namely, that we ourselves enter into poustinia and wait for God to speak to us.
Poustinia is a prayer method that can shake our souls. It makes even prayer an act of God and removes any pretense on our part and strips us of any capacity to control anything. In a world that favors self-love and self-interest, poustinia can be a needed medicine. For a culture that rewards control and raw power, poustinia can be a welcomed remedy.
The person in the desert rejoices over an oasis. In the same way, the soul that works to do poustinia will rejoice in the presence of God and the refreshment and rejuvenation that comes from it.