The Poustinikki

“In another world, in another culture, perhaps even for the greater part, at another time, in sharp contrast to our scrambled existence are some who march to the beat of a different drum. In secluded woods on the outskirts of villages in Russia, live “holy” men known as “Poustinikki” (pou – pronounced as in you; poustinikki – plural for poustinik). With deep roots in the tsarist era, they have survived the scourge of communism and are reportedly still in existence even today.

In this far removed context there are those who, from all levels of the social spectrum, have responded literally to the compelling challenge that Jesus extended to the rich young man in Matthew 19:21: “…go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”

Even Tsar Alexander I is thought by many to have entered a poustinia (home of the poustinik). Great mystery surrounds his many years of absence.
alexander i
Answering the call, a poustinik distributes his earthly wealth to the poor and leaves friends and family to embark on a life of solitude, service and prayer. A simple ankle-length robe tied with a cord at the waist is his usual summertime attire, and he takes only a linen bag containing a loaf of bread, some salt, one book, a Bible, and a gourd of water.
poustinik 1
The poustinik usually occupies a deserted hut on the edge of a village, or one built with the help of villagers who always welcome his presence. He usually plants a vegetable garden, fishes in a river or stream, cuts wood for his stove to keep warm in winter and tries to earn a living. He also does such things as weaving baskets to give to those in need. His door is latched only against the wind. Anyone is welcomed day or night for whatever reason. What food he has is offered to his guests even though it may be only a piece of bread. Those needing help come to the poustinia for prayer, or counseling, or physical assistance, for any contribution he can make to their lives. So metimes a poustinik spends weeks helping to gather in crops or whatever the need of the villagers might be, realizing that to serve his God is to serve his fellow man. The only book in the poustinia is a Bible which the poustinik reads on his knees. Academic questions or profound analysis are of little interest to him. He often reads only a few sentences or a single page in a whole day and in long meditation permits the truth of the Word to take root in his heart.
poustinik 2
Those who have known them say that poustinikki always radiate the quiet joy of the Lord. They maintain that a sad poustinik is not a true poustinik but is a hypocrite and a liar. To them, eyes tell the story. Even though the face may be that of an old man (or woman) they say the eyes of a true poustinik are those of a child.
poustinia 3
In her book, “Poustinia”, Catherine de Hueck Doherty tells about her father’s experience with a close friend. Peter was a member of the nobility, the oldest son of an old Russian family, a millionaire by today’s standards. One day he announced to Catherine’s father, “Theodore, I have been reading the gospels and I have decided, as so many before me, to accept them literally.” He turned over his real estate to his family and proceeded to withdraw his bank accounts in coins of gold and silver. These he stuffed in sacks which he piled into a heavy horse drawn cart about the size of a l to l½ ton truck. In the slums of Petrograd, the two of them distributed his wealth, family by family, house by house. When all was disbursed, Peter said, “And now I must go.”

Mrs. Doherty writes: So they returned to his house where on his bed, there was laid out a linen tunic. He took a linen bag, a loaf of bread and in another little linen bag, he took some salt. He also had a gourd of water and a staff. On foot, my father walking with him, he went through the streets of Petrograd. My father accompanied him to the outskirts of the city and into the country roads. The last he saw of him was just a silhouette against the setting sun, a man in a long garment with a staff in his hand. He had no cash in his pockets (he had no pockets), nor in his bag. He had only some bread, water, salt and a staff. Not even shoes. That was all.

Such complete abandonment of all the things we couldn’t live without is hard for us to fathom. In our culture, such actions would be considered unnecessary, unwise and irrational.

One thing, however, is very clear: the poustinik put his money where his mouth was. What he had of this world’s goods he held loosely. He kept nothing back. He was ready at any time to relinquish anything and everything if he perceived this to be the Lord’s will for him.

It’s true, such a pristine existence does not lend itself to our culture, but is there just a little tug at your heart strings to experience a quiet place to meet with your Lord alone in your own private poustinia? Could it be that in order for us to survive the persistent surge of activity, the increasing wickedness and sensuous materialism, it is becoming ever more urgent for us to make room in our lives for such a place? Is our Lord running after you, longing for the moment when you will slow down long enough to meet with Him in a quiet place?

He has said to us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) Perhaps you’ve tried, but your schedule is so crowded you can’t ever fit it in. Or maybe you’ve experienced erratic success, but haven’t been able to establish a pattern in your life. “ Just how does one establish a ‘calm oasis’ in the midst of a chaotic existence?” you may ask.

Radical change in perspective and lifestyle does not spring tra la from mere desire. Desire is the beginning, but change must grow. And perhaps 21st Century change requires 21st Century perspective.”


“Originally a Russian Orthodox tradition, the poustinia was introduced to Roman Catholic spirituality by the Catholic social activist Catherine Doherty in her best-selling book “Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man” (ISBN 0-87793-084-8), first published in 1975.
Although originating with ancient startsy (wise Russian elders, sg. starets), Catherine’s popular book made the concept of poustinia accessible to modern Western men and women. In it, she describes the poustinia as “an entry into the desert, a lonely place, a silent place, where one can lift the two arms of prayer and penance to God in antonement, intercession, reparation for one’s sins and those of one’s brothers…. To go into the poustinia means to listen to God. It means entering into kenosis — the emptying of oneself.” She promotes the poustinia as a place where anyone — in any walk of life — can go for 24 hours of silence, solitude and prayer. Ultimately, however, the poustinik’s call is to the desert of one’s one’s own heart wherein he dwells with God alone, whether in the workplace or in a solitary locale.”


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