Saturday, October 5, 2013
Book Review: Catherine Doherty's "Poustinia"
Little did I know then that I had written off a rich spiritual writer. Catherine Doherty presented herself once again after a long while involved in studying the spiritual writings of Russian Orthodoxy, begun after I had chanced upon that wonderful anonymous work, The Way of a Pilgrim. I had heard the famous Eastern Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose, mention Doherty's most-famous work Poustinia disdainfully once in his famous talk "Living the Orthodox Worldview", which planted the seed of curiousity in me.
Just as St. John Cassian brought Egyptian monasticism to the Latin west, Catherine Doherty effectively introduced Russian Orthodox spirituality to an audience that had never encountered it before. Fr. Seraphim Rose criticized this heavily, no doubt because Catherine herself was a convert to the Catholic Church from Russian Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, Doherty's work speaks with a simple, primal power that grabs the attention of the heart.
As I mentioned, Poustinia is Doherty's most famous work, and no doubt her masterpiece. The cover artwork depicts an Eastern monk, similar looking to that famous Russian saint Seraphim of Sarov, in the middle of some woods and dwelling in a little hermitage. For me, the cover artwork of the book immediately drew me in.
Catherine writes in a style that is immediately akin to a conversation with an old and much-beloved friend over coffee - she does not speak in high-theological language, and seems to wish to remove all barrier that a less informed reader might have in approaching such subjects as she elucidates on.
Here, Catherine imparts her knowledge of Russian Orthodox spirituality to the reader, most notably the Jesus Prayer or "prayer of the heart" and the idea of the poustinia (meaning "desert"). In simple language that has a power all its own, sweeping away the reader into a deep conversation on the spiritual life, she expounds on the idea of cultivating an interior desert of the heart, one wherein the Christian can always be at prayer and in the presence of God no matter where they might be or what they might be doing. Such, to me, is the essence of the spirituality surrounding the idea of continual prayer of the heart.
According to her, Western man has no excuse not to dwell in the poustinia - though we may not be able to withdraw to an actual hermitage and live as recluses and hermits, we can always have an inner cell within us where we are always at peace and in prayer with God. This is the core around which the book is formed.
Interestingly enough, and perhaps on purpose, Doherty does not load the work with references to Eastern Christian writers and saints, barely mentioning any by name at all. This is a book that anyone can pick up and read, much like The Way of a Pilgrim. Indeed, this is why the work is so appealing and refreshing - after having investigated heavier works on similar topics, Catherine Doherty's is so immediately approachable and conversational that it is easy to breeze through and yet so very rich in content.
A classic in my mind, well worth adding to one's library. Pick up a copy here.