A poustinia is a place set apart for God and comes from a tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church. Imagine a small hut in the woods or forest near the village. Someone wishing for a quiet time with God would live in that hut, even for a few days, trusting the community to bring meals and make sure everything was comfortable. All the villagers would be looked after if they stayed in the poustinia – prayer the spiritual bond for the whole village.
The concept came to Western Christianity and to different circumstances, most powerfully the suggestion of a poustinia in every home, a small room that became a chapel, the place to be with God. I have talked about this lovely space over many years. The best comment I ever heard in response was from a nine-year-old boy: “I don’t see any problem. When I want to speak with God I imagine a door in my heart, open the door, invite God in and close the door. Then we talk.” Nine years old and that friendly with God!
Other people have told me about their making spiritual space, and their peaceful and challenging experiences (prayer is not always easy), finding and making time, the duties of everyday life. You and I might say the same.
A widower in his late 60’s pondered the idea of “poustinia”. He lived in a small one-bedroom flat – with living room, kitchen and bathroom. He had no spare room as space for God. Suddenly he found it. After mass one Sunday he asked me to call in the week when I was parish visiting, just to say hello. Gladly, I would, not guessing the surprise he wanted to share.
I walked into his living room and my side-vision caught a lack of symmetry and balance. I looked: a chair was facing the wall. Chairs don’t face walls, they always face into the room. I looked beyond the chair: on the wall were a crucifix and a picture of St Therese of Lisieux. Now he was chuckling – I had discovered his poustinia and I enjoyed the sheer simplicity of it: turn the chair to the wall.
We talked. St Therese was there because she had helped him to find God. The quiet simplicity of her life (fifteen when she entered the convent, twenty-four when she died) had shaken him. He was a man’s man, a karate expert and coach, many years in the army, but an internal silence opened for him: poustinia was an act of thanksgiving – to St Therese and to God.
Would you like a poustinia in your home? You have space to make a space. In our parish and community of those who attend our streamed mass on Sundays – numbering into thousands over the last eighteen months – suppose we all created a poustinia at home and prayed in union with everyone. Perhaps a small table, a beautiful small linen cloth, a crucifix and rosary, to be there always, or to be laid and, after prayer, folded away.
The world is suffering the chaos of climate change, the devastation of the Covid pandemic, the horrors of wars and is crying out to be healed. God leaves us to bring about the healing but offers to be with us as we do. Shall we give God and the saints the invitation to our homes?
We are hoping to design our own small altar cloths, and select small crucifixes and rosaries. They would make a lovely gift. Would you like to be involved, involving others through such a gift. In Italy this little custom is called “chiesa in casa”, meaning the church in the home.
God bless us in our prayer together,
(22nd August 2021)