Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: Catherine Doherty's "Poustinia"

My first encounter with Madonna House was with a member of the apostolate who occasionally taught my RCIA classes.  I didn't put much thought into Madonna House as an apostolate in those days.  Its foundress, Catherine de Hueck Doherty (now a Servant of God whose canonization process is currently underway) never stood out to me, and I wrote off the whole thing as simply lay spirituality of little interest to me at the time.

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.

11 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorites Jason! My spiritual director introduced me to her and what a blessing it has been to read her writings.

    Hope all is well...blessings~

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    1. Theresa,
      I knew you would like this book - the title of your blog rang in my mind while I wrote this.

      God give you peace.
      Jason

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  2. I just saw this at our Catholic bookstore today. I agree with you. I enjoy her "over a cup of coffee with a friend" way of writing. I love to read about Catherine Doherty and her mission. I'm actually reading one of her books now. We had a group of her followers in our area. I wish I could visit Madonna House. I'll be sure to pick up a copy of this one next time I go to our bookstore. Thanks for the review.

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  3. I've read everything she wrote, but I always thought of her writing as spiritually superficial - almost storybook, despite the fact she had and still has some very sincere followers. I also regarded her clinging to the title of baroness a bit vain. I thought the Eddy's ordination was rather contrived as well.

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    1. Terry,
      I never knew about her holding to that title...what is the story behind that? And what is "Eddy's Ordination" refer to?

      I can definitely see why someone would say that about her writing - I think it's an acquired taste in some ways, simply due to her very informal style.

      God bless!
      Jason

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    2. Fr. Edward Doherty was ordained a Melkite Catholic priest by the late Abp. Joseph Raya, sometime pastor of St. George Melkite Church in Birmingham and retired Abp. of Nazareth and Galilee of the Melkite Catholic Church in union with Rome. Abp. Joseph died at Madonna House in Combermere, and to the best of my knowledge is buried there or nearby.. I'm rather offended at Terry Nelson's thinking that Melkite Catholic priests are "contrived."

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  4. She is not merely Catherine Doherty. She is KHOURIEH Catherine, as her husband, Fr. Eddie, was a Melkite Catholic priest.

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    1. Jack,
      Can you enlighten me as to what Khourieh means?

      Jason

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    2. Khourieh is the feminine of khoury (Arabic word for priest) and is used for Arabic Christian priests' wives, just as "presbytera" is the wife of a Greek Orthodox priest and "preoteosa" is the wife of a Romanian Orthodox or Romanian Catholic priest. The Slavic word for priest's wife, "matushka", with the accent on the first syllable, means "little mother."

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  5. Jason, If you liked Poustinia you'll love her book Urodivoi, Fools for Christ. That's my favourite of all her books. To me Catherine really incarnates the spirituality of St Francis in a modern way. Funny story: Catherine became really important to me after meeting some people from Madonna house. I started reading all her books and I believe she's probably a saint. About three years later I was leafing through an article on her and realized her very first Friendship house in Toronto is next door to the apartment I lived in for three years. I'd never heard of her then but she was sort of my neighbour in a way.

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    1. Hi Pat,
      Interestingly enough, that's the one title of hers that I have been most interested in reading next!

      Thanks for your story - I have found Catherine Doherty to be an incredibly valuable read for me, and will assuredly be reading more of her.

      God bless,
      Jason

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