Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me a sinner. Those are the words I said to myself, silently, over and over again during my two-day Poustinia (пустыня) at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure I was up to the task. Anyone who knows me, knows that it is impossible for me to be still, let alone be silent. I need to be doing something. It is how I am wired. I get enjoyment out of doing things, starting on and working on projects, and finding solutions to problems. My coworkers even joked that this experience was going to kill me, and in a way it did. It killed me to self. It killed me in the sense that it forced me to stop and disconnect from the everyday hustle and bustle of life and to just be.
For those of you reading who are not sure what a Poustinia is, it is a retreat of sorts. It is a Russian term that simply means desert. In her book, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer, Catherine Doherty says that, “Poustinia stands for prayer, penance, mortification, solitude, silence, offered in the spirit of love, atonement, and reparation to God.” It is a way to for us to encounter God in a most authentic way: standing before him completely stripped of the things which we find comfort in. But Poustinia is not only a state of mind, it is a place. Doherty says, “Poustinia is the place where we can go in order to gather the courage to speak the words of truth, remembering the truth is God, and that we proclaim the Word of God.” For me, my poustina was dedicated to Saint Zosimas. It would be my place of solitude where I set out on this two-day journey to have an encounter with God. But I was going to need help doing this, so I used Catherine Doherty’s book as my companion on this journey.
The first thing I needed to do was to be able to clear my mind of all of the distractions with work and school, and for a mind that is constantly racing… this was not going to be an easy task. I didn’t know what or who to pray for, so I just began to pray the Jesus Prayer as I mentioned above, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me a sinner” over and over as I began walking the property of the monastery and the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariapoch. While walking, I encountered a large crucified Christ. It not only reminded me that I must die to self during this journey, but that I must put others before me. I used this opportunity to pray for those around me: my family, my friends and coworkers, the nuns, anyone that God brought to mind to pray for.
I continued to walk the grounds throughout the day in prayer for those around me. Doherty tells us that the purpose of the poustinia allows that, “he is in the poustinia not for himself but for others. He is a connecting bridge between men and God and God and men.” While I was here to allow myself to encounter God in the silence, I was serving another purpose, one that would allow me to put others before myself through prayer. This was the first realization that I had. I am not just here for me, but I am here to be used by God on behalf of others.
Before long several hours had passed. It seemed like I had only just arrived on the monastery grounds. I realized that it was easy to lose track of time and get lost in the silence and solitude of my poustinia. I followed the daily schedule of the sisters, with lunch and work being used to read, and free time used for prayer and reflection on what was read, as well as praying the Divine Office.
By the end of the first night I felt exhausted, but I had some of the best sleep that I have ever had because of the peace that came with a day full of prayer and listening to God. The second day was structured the same, however, instead of spending time outside on the grounds, I spent my morning reflecting on the icons in my poustinia, particularly of Christ the Bridegroom. After lunch, I ventured to the chapel to pray and be in the presence of God. I was happy to discover an icon of my personal patron: the Blessed Theodore Romzha. But what was truly a highlight of the poustinia was being able to break from my solitude and join the sisters for Vespers and Compline.
This poustinia allowed me to spend time with God away from the distractions of school and work, and focus my whole-self on listening and talking to Him. I highly recommend a poustina at Christ the Bridegroom Monastery to you if you are reading this. I trust that you will be as blessed as I was to be on these holy grounds. If you would like to learn more about the Poustina, please watch the video below!