Prayer in the Inner Desert

A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.


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