Book Review: Poustinia

Book Review: Poustinia By: Catherine Doherty

Publisher: Madonna House Publications

ISBN: 97809214440543

Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer

Poustinia is not a familiar word to Westerners; at least it was not familiar to me and I don’t think I am alone. My first encounter with Poustinia was from a recommended reading list for an assignment in a School for Spiritual Direction. I’m thankful for the recommendation; there is no doubt that my life has been enriched by the gift of what I have found in this book by Catherine Doherty.

So, what is poustinia? Definitions online provide the following explanation for this word:

A poustinia (Russian: пустынь) is a small sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone in the presence of God. The word poustinia has its origin in the Russian word for desert (пустыня). One called to live permanently in a poustinia is called a poustinik (plural: poustiniki).

When I first read the definition for poustinia, I thought of a hermitage and the experience that comes with a spiritual retreat to a hermitage. Now that I have read this book and the philosophy behind poustinia, I think the poustinia experience and vocation encompass so much more.

Catherine divides the book into four main sections while gently walking the reader through understanding the basic tenets and history of poustinia (part one) from the east to the west. Part two explains the poustinik, the person called to experience poustinia or to live vocationally the poustinia. Personally, I found this (and part three) to be my favorite parts of the book. I learned some things and I identified myself in some ways. I found elements of freedom and liberation directly related to the poustinia life. While I would explain the teaching about the poustinik (part two) to be more about inner expression of the poustinia experience, I would explain part three as the practical and outward expression of poustinia; perhaps better said, (Loving) Touching God and (Loving) Touching Neighbor. The final section of the book, part four, and the closing chapters are Catherine Doherty’s summary thoughts and experience (which I believe are also interwoven throughout the book).

While this was not a difficult read and could have easily been read in one or two sittings, I took a considerable amount of time to work my way through it. In my opinion, Doherty writes as a Christian mystic. The words in this little book are simple and deeply spiritual and packed to overflowing with wonderful godly wisdom relevant to the way of heart changing spiritual formation. Since the time of reading this spiritual classic, I have read other books and writings that have quoted Doherty’s words from Poustinia. I found this rather serendipitous in a divine way considering all that I have read in the past and had never “bumped” into this book or this particular teaching.

I will recommend this book to others as a wonderful resource not only for spending silence, solitude, and prayer with God, but for general formation in the ways of the soul. This is a great book and I wish I had known of it earlier in my journey, but I am grateful to have found it now. Highly recommended.

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