Touching God

PoustiniaSelected text from Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer

The modern spiritual classic for those seeking the open heart and listening soul of a silent contemplation.

The following text is taken from chapter 12 of Catherine Doherty’s book, Poustinia, 3rd ed., published by Madonna House Publications in 2000.

Chapter XII  —  Touching God

As I have explained to you before, when a Russian goes into a poustinia, even for a day or two, he goes for others as well as for himself-but predominantly for others. Upon returning, he should tell members of his family or community what he has received during his stay in the poustinia. If one were in a Russian village, these words would be meant for everyone in the village. I do this at Madonna House, either at supper or during the day which follows my poustinia. I bow before the community and say, "May the peace of the Blessed Trinity be with you," or something similar, and they answer, "And also with you." I then share with them a word from the Lord.

Someone may ask, "How do you hear this ‘word of the Lord’?" Let me explain.

It is understood that since the reason for entering the poustinia is one of listening to God in prayer and fasting, the first act of a poustinik is to fold the wings of his intellect and open the doors of his heart. The Russians would say: Put your head into your heart and try to achieve a deep and profound interior silence. It is then, when one is deeply silent, that God begins to speak.

When I say "God begins to speak," I mean that the mind is purified, the heart is at peace, and out of the depths of both come forth the gifts or the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Quietly, imperceptibly, out of this overshadowing of the Holy Spirit comes a word, a thought, a sentence, as the case may be.

Someone might say, "All this sounds very mystical." There is a difference between what the East means by mystical and what the West means. I think the East would call normal many things that the West might term mystical. If you are in the poustinia and God knocks on your door and speaks to you, that doesn’t sound mystical to me; it sounds quite normal. He said he would speak to us. Many Westerners may believe that they are not worthy that God should speak to them thus. Of course we are not worthy! If for one minute you think that you are worthy that God should speak to you in the poustinia, you should get out of the poustinia! It is because we are not worthy that we can say, "How wonderful God is, he comes and speaks to unworthy me!" You can’t pay any attention to whether you are worthy or not. Everybody is unworthy-but still God speaks to us.

So it is common around Madonna House for someone to ask a person returning from the poustinia to the community, "What has the Lord said to you?" implying, "What has he said to you for us?"

It seems to be a little difficult for people to tell us what they have received in the poustinia. For those who only stay for 24 hours, it takes a long time to get used to listening to God and sharing what he has said. But poustiniki who are in the poustinia for a long time should be able, once in a while, to tell what God has told them. Because they are there for us, for others. They are there to share. It’s very important.

It takes the guts out of you to share, because God touched you. Listening is touching. Smelling is touching. We don’t want to share it with others. But if we don’t we’ll never hear it again. What you hear is part of the Good News; in a sense, a word of God (I hope I’m not heretical in this!). There is something of the Lord in it, and you are meant to share it.

A word comes to you and you know, deep down, in quiet prayer, that you have to share it. You suddenly know that you have to say this thing, and you don’t want to. You say, "I don’t want to! I don’t want to! I don’t want to!" But then, if you refuse God, if you refuse to pass on something that is being said to you, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t do anything. You might just as well be dead. It’s going to come out; then you can relax. It’s almost as if the word were torn out of you. This, to my mind, is what prophecy is. In this section, I would like to share with you some "words from the poustinia" that I heard.

One of the favorite images I like to use for describing the Christian life is of a person standing with arms outstretched. One hand, in faith and prayer, touches God; the other hand is extended in service to the neighbor. Thus is a person cruciform, touching God and touching neighbor. The words which came to me in the poustinia seemed to revolve around these two themes.


It is evening. In fact, it is already a quarter past seven. Today was a very strange day in the poustinia. I must admit that throughout the day nothing made sense to me. Perhaps it was because I was very tired and just wanted to lie down in the sun, read a few spiritual books, and an excerpt or two from the bible. This I did.

I listened to God through all this haze but no special word seemed to come through. It seemed to me as if I were suspended betwixt and between whatever place God suspends people. It seemed as if he said, "Rest," so I rested. I must admit it was lovely. The sun was shining and I relaxed. I swam in the river and rested some more; I slept a little.

Time marched on and toward seven o’clock, slowly a word began forming itself.

It was a word I didn’t expect at all. The word was faith! Confronted with this word, for some reason or other I was like one bereft of my senses, or like one asleep, who wasn’t reacting.

Why I felt that way I don’t know, because I use the word faith constantly! But this time it seemed to stand out in another context. I looked at faith with clear eyes, with deep eyes, and I realized with a depth I had never experienced before, that faith is a gift of God.

I realized in a fuller way that it is a pure gift indeed, and that God alone can bestow it. At the same time I realized that God passionately desires to give it to us, and that he wanted us to ask for it, for he only could give it to us when we asked for it (that is, of course, after his original gift to us in Baptism).

It seems that when we ask for faith we are, as it were, turning our face toward his face, for we have to! It seems that God desires this very simple action to happen so that he can face us, face to face! Yes, he wants to look at our face. He loves to see our face facing him, for so often we avoid this simple act. Even while we beg him for simple favors we somehow close not only our physical eyes but the eyes of our souls as well-avoiding looking at him. Yet we know that he always looks at us, looks at us with deep love.

Faith: that God-given gift that had healed many who believed in God long before Baptism came to be instituted as a sacrament by Jesus Christ. There were the leper, the blind man, the woman with the issue of blood, the servant of the Roman soldier, and millions of others who are not mentioned in any recorded documents. For there were thousands upon thousands, I am sure, who were healed through whatever faith in a Supreme Being they had during human history.

Faith is the father of love and of hope, as well as of trust and confidence. Faith sees God’s face in every human face. Faith, as it slowly grows, and as we pray for it and beseech God for it, identifies us with Christ.

Faith allows us to enter peacefully into the dark night which faces every one of us at one time or another. Faith is at peace, and full of light. Faith celebrates the very warp and woof of one’s existence. Faith considers that its precariousness and its finiteness are but the womb in which it abides, moving toward the plenitude and fullness of the eternity which it desires and believes in and which revelation opens to it.

Faith walks simply, childlike, between the darkness of human life and the hope of what is to come. "For eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God reserves for those who love him." Faith is fundamentally a kind of folly, I guess, the folly that belongs to God himself.

Faith heals by asking God to heal. Faith heals others because of the faith I have in the Lord. Faith is an incredible, fantastic reality, untouchable, unweighable, yet visible and real. Faith is a contact between God and man.

Man’s face is turned to God through faith, and their eyes meet, so that every day becomes more and more luminous. The veil between God and man becomes thinner and thinner until it seems that man can almost reach out and touch God. Faith breaks through barriers. Faith fans love into a bonfire. Faith holds the wind of the Holy Spirit which fans the bonfire into flames. Faith thrusts its hands into the hands of the martyr and so brings the martyr to his knees. Faith is contagious when we show it to one another. Men cannot resist faith even when they deny it or jeer at it; or even kill the one who has faith. Killing those who believe is simply multiplying belief, for the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith!

What about us? What about us men and women of today? We certainly must pray for faith, especially we who desire to preach the gospel with our lives. Without faith we cannot do it. We must believe in God. We must believe in our fellowman. We must enter into trust and confidence with quiet steps but without hesitation, without cerebration. Truly here is the moment of the heart, not of the head. The head will rationalize, will turn its face away from faith, from love, from hope, from confidence. The head will put its hand behind its back so as not to touch the martyr, the prostitute, the publican.

Few men go where no one wants to go. If we have faith in God we must have faith in men. Even the most evil among us has some redeeming feature. Faith will seek it out.

It is so important for us to have faith, trust, confidence in one another. It is the only way we can communicate. Without faith there is no communication, there is no love; or if there was a little love it will die without hope, trust, and confidence. Even if it doesn’t die right away, it will be so ill, so weak, and so tired that communication will be miserable as well.

Faith alone can restore communication. Yes, it is time we should believe in one another. It is time we should return to God and ask to be healed from lack of faith, lack of confidence and trust in one another. This is the moment, this is the hour to turn our face to God and ask to be healed from the fear of trusting, from the fear of confiding, from the fear of believing in one another.

"Lord, behold, we are all kneeling here together, beseeching you to give us an increase of faith. Let our hearts be open to you. Let our heads be put into our hearts. Let faith, hope, love, trust, confidence reign among us. Let us be done with human respect. Let us be done with being afraid of ridicule. Let us be done with thinking we have to hide anything from one another. Lord, behold, we are in need of healing. Maranatha-Come, Lord, we need you so."

Defenselessness and Forgiveness

For the last few days, for some unaccountable reason, I have been thinking about defenselessness and forgiveness. These two thoughts have wended their way into my heart and mind, off and on, for quite a while now. As usual, I wondered from whence such words came to me, but then I smiled, remembering that for years now I had ceased to question the source of the words that came through my mind and heart.

I must be truthful: I was afraid to examine these words in depth. Defenselessness, especially, is a frightening word! It means to be without defense or without protection. I realized at once that it had nothing to do with physical defenselessness, namely, the lack of being armed with some weapon. No, that was not the meaning of this word that was knocking at the door of my heart to be let out. Defenselessness had something to do with the will of God and with a sort of total freedom that he wanted through that defenselessness.

Yes, it had something to do with some new dimension in the Lord, as if he wanted to say to me, "Come higher unto my mountain and listen to what I want to tell you." I must admit that I didn’t want to go any higher unto any mountain. Yet, when I say this I feel that I am a liar, because the inner and outward voice of God for me, even disguised in my own thoughts, has been always too powerful to resist.

I said to myself, "Well, it’s good to live according to the will of God, because the defenselessness must be hidden somewhere in the will of God. Otherwise, why should I become defenseless?" My thoughts went back and forth, so I prayed for a moment and looked up my friend Staretz Silouan in the book that I like so much-The Undistorted Image. There I read the following: "It is a great good to give oneself up to the will of God. The Lord alone is in the soul. No other thought can enter in and the soul feels God’s love even though the body is suffering."

I had known this truth for a long time, but today in the poustinia I asked myself how I live out the will of God, to achieve the freedom that is contained in his will.

Once more I turned to The Undistorted Image: "He who lives according to God’s will has his sign to go by: If you are distressed over anything, it means that you are not fully surrendered to God’s will, although it may seem to you that you live according to his will. He who lives according to God’s will has no cares. If he has need of something, he offers himself and the thing he wants to God, and if he does not receive it he remains as tranquil as if he had got what he wanted."

Well, that made sense to me, because if I were really given over to the will of God totally, then I would fear nothing, and I would be totally free. I wouldn’t need any defenses, any weapons, any psychological coping devices. What for? In everything that happened to me I would say: "Such is God’s pleasure." I would accept whatever comes to me with joy.

My thoughts turned to death at this moment. Man fundamentally fears death above everything else. He fears dissolution. But with this defenselessness that leads to total freedom there would be no fear, no defenses, even against death. And I looked back upon my life. True, the Lord put me through a little novitiate of defenselessness. For I have been persecuted. I have been ill. I have lived in great poverty for quite a while. Looking back I saw that I was defenseless, or tried to be. I also saw that I failed sometimes, and put up little defenses against people who tried to persecute me.

But now I understood that God wanted me to give up even these defenses-all of them. Defenselessness against death, defenselessness against people, defenselessness against everything-for defenselessness was holy. It gave you total freedom. The soul then would truly walk in the footsteps of Christ who was led like a lamb to the slaughter and accepted it all, including death. Then the person would experience resurrection right here and now. He would have the freedom of the children of God. He would really know that God has ceased to call him a servant and now calls him his friend!

Oh, what an immense and holy knowledge would come to this person! I beheld the periphery of that knowledge in my poustinia, but knew that I had to use yet another key to understand it in its fullness. I asked God to enlighten me. I prayed to the Most Holy Trinity, to the Holy Spirit, for it was the Father who gave me this Holy Spirit to enlighten me. At this moment of prayer I understood that before I could really become free in that total defenselessness that is ready to do the will of God in utter simplicity-in the depths and heights shown by him-I must forgive!

Then an immense panorama, beautiful and serene, unrolled itself before my eyes. I understood that not only did I have to forgive all my enemies, but I had to do more-I had to love them, love them with the love of Christ. For hadn’t he said, "By this shall men know you are my disciples, that you love one another as I have loved you"? But how could I love with the love of Christ? How could I become so utterly defenseless as to allow that love to flourish within me, cleansed by the waters of forgiveness? How could I achieve the freedom that this defenselessness and forgiveness would give me? Again I prayed to the Most Holy Trinity and the answer came to me in one word: faith.

Yes, I had to not only believe in forgiveness, in loving my enemies. But this time I had to enter into deep faith, holding hands with defenselessness and forgiveness, that is to say, becoming myself defenseless and forgiving. It is love that will make me forgive always and every time! So I began to meditate on the power of love. I recalled my return to the Holy Land, where I had an encounter with Christ. Having experienced him, I lost all interest in visiting the places where he lived, and which he visited.

This time in my poustinia my encounter with him was different. I simply contemplated his incarnation, his birth, his life in Nazareth, his preaching years, his passion. I heard him, as it were, very clearly, forgiving all his enemies from the height of his cross. Then a great chorus sounded, the chorus of all those who followed his footsteps, from Stephen the first martyr, to St. Sebastian, to a whole crowd of people who in one way or another died a martyr’s death and kept forgiving those who hurt them and brought them to this death.

Yet, each one of these could have escaped in one way or another. They could have given incense to gods with a mental reservation, but none of them did. All of them were defenseless. They all walked in the footsteps of the Lamb, led to the slaughter because of love of him. This is when I began to really understand what defenselessness means, because I began to understand what forgiveness means.

Forgiveness means the incarnation of God’s words to his apostles. The incarnation of the command that we love one another as he loved us. I also knew that God himself would now teach us about the depths and the heights of this defenselessness and this forgiveness, for he alone could. Yes, God himself will teach me and all of us who want to enter this new dimension of his heart, his holy mountain.

This realization brought a tremendous joy to me which I share with you. By becoming our teacher he also makes us realize with a tremendous clarity that he considers us his friends and will talk to us as to his friends. Yes, the more I meditated on trying to be defenseless and forgiving, the more I understood what this true freedom of Christ meant.

God’s love is insatiable. He wants us to go into the depths of his heart. But his heart is fathomless. Our defenselessness means to do his will. To do his will means to enter into this heart of his, this insatiable, loving heart that died for us and was wounded by a lance. It means to forgive all enemies, great or small. It means to be his reflection. To forgive everyone who in the smallest way upset or hurt us is to be a reflection of his loving heart. So to be defenseless and to forgive is to be free. Now nothing can touch us. We are indeed in God and God is in us. Alleluia!

Now the Holy Spirit fills us with a constantly growing love of the Trinity. Now we understand a little better why he too was defenseless and why he forgave, for through those attitudes of the heart Love came to dwell among us. If we follow him, and understand those two words with our hearts, defenselessness and forgiveness will fill the earth.


The word which came to me today in the poustinia was listening. I had meditated on this word quite a bit in the past, but it had never come to me so directly, so vividly, so poignantly as it did today. I really had to take it into my heart and meditate on it in depth. While I was considering it, this poem came to mind:

Listen to yourself so as to find the path to God within the frail walls of your humanness.

Listen to yourself, for it is you alone who will lead yourself to him, or away from him.

Listen to yourself, listen to God, when you have led yourself to him.

Listen well, for if you hear his voice you will be wise with the wisdom of the Lord, and then you will be able to hear the voice of men, not as a surging sea, or as a mob.

But each man’s speech is his own, a treasure given to you beyond all expectations, because you led yourself to him and listen to his voice.

I wrote that poem down immediately and when I had finished I was a little bewildered! I didn’t quite understand it; I had to meditate upon it. Slowly it began to make sense. It meant a journey inward again. A journey inward that would take will power to accomplish. That is to say, I would have to use that will power under duress, pushing myself into it instead of walking easily. Yes, I had to force myself onto that journey inward, for I was reluctant to go. I realized that the journey inward was a confrontation with the Trinity that dwells within me.

Strange, that listening had something to do with the Trinity. Strange, that I had to lead myself there of my own free will. Maybe to you this is all very clear, but it wasn’t to me. So during this poustinia I undertook to lead myself to the Trinity on that eternal journey inward, the journey that man must undertake to find the God who dwells therein.

At this time, the urge, the need, as it were, was very direct and powerful. The call was there. I had to answer it. Nevertheless, I was free to undertake the journey inward or not to undertake it. I could answer the call or I could reject it.

So, in this poustinia I really battled and struggled with God. I struggled because for some unaccountable reason I did not want to go. It seemed a little bit frightening. Can you imagine that it can be frightening? Well, as far as I was concerned, it was. So I fought. It was a day of struggling and fighting with the Lord. I got tired, so I slept.

I slept and woke up again-and struggled again. But finally I took the journey. It seemed as if I came to the Trinity. What does it mean to come to the Trinity? To me it means to come into the light from a very great darkness. It means to come into peace from a great turmoil. It means to come into joy from a painful and joyless journey. When I came before the Trinity (which appeared as all motion and light), I fell asleep again!

Suddenly I woke up and listened to myself. I don’t know how I got the grace to listen to myself, but I did. It was as if all the corners of my person were illuminated, and I clearly saw much in me that wanted to talk to me and that I wanted to talk to. As the dialogue took place I discovered that it was really the grace of loving myself!

You cannot really love your neighbor unless you love yourself first. The Lord said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." In a strange luminosity of the Trinity I realized that I had to love myself more than I did, because God loved me. I found this out by listening to myself. I grew in reverence, love, and adoration of the God who created me and dwelt within me.

I realized too that loving one’s self included also loving God who dwells within me. It becomes interwoven, this love affair, like a piece of weaving. The warp and woof blend in some strange and uncanny way. Then I realized in depth that I was an icon of Christ.

But I saw more, and with a clarity that was incredible. I saw that I was an heir to my Father’s love and to all his goods. I saw that I was a sister to Christ, and that I indeed always walked in the shadow of the wings of the Holy Spirit. These realities apply to all of us who know how to listen. The gift of listening is part of the gift of wisdom for which we pray, and for which I prayed intensely at that moment.

Again I slept and awoke. This time I understood that now I could, should, and would listen to people, to persons. They would come to me not as a mob, not as a raging sea, not as a group, but individually, one by one. I realized that the roots of listening must be planted in the soil of wisdom, for only from that soil would come the depth of reverence with which we could listen to one another.

I also understood the totality of my gift. For when we listen to one another we must be totally surrendered to the person, totally attentive to his speech. Also, we must be totally dependent on God for our replies. I don’t know if I am theologically correct, but at that moment I thought of the Holy Spirit as one who listens to each of us and dispenses his gifts to each one of us. I also understood that this listening of the Holy Spirit is so profound, so immense, that no one can probe it. Yet, I thought that we must strive toward that immensity, toward that profundity.

Somehow (I know this sounds crazy), I thought that in a sense, while I was listening, I disappeared! Only a heart remained, and in that heart the Holy Spirit listened instead of me. Yet I was part of it. The Holy Spirit imparted to me that to which I had to listen, clearing the road of all indecisiveness, of all stuttering, and this seemed to be the moment in which the Holy Spirit gave the gift of discernment.

Perhaps I should have spoken first of the ability to listen to God after I had listened to myself. But in a sense it doesn’t matter, because this word listening that came to me in the poustinia was a combination of all these things. Listening to myself, listening to God, listening to men-all blended into one word-love!

Listening to God has a dreamlike quality. Oh, you are awake. But you are at work. It is an interiorized situation in which he comes to you and clears a little bit of your heart. He makes it comfortable there for himself and there he talks to you as a friend to a friend. You feel as if you are sitting at his feet like Mary, listening, just listening. It is as if God came to prepare you again and again to listen to men. At this moment the Holy Spirit enters with a great strength and vigor and suddenly the gift of wisdom and discernment becomes like a huge shady tree that grows from your heart, inviting people to sit under it and rest.

With the gift of listening comes the gift of healing, because listening to your brother until he has said the last word in his heart is healing and consoling. Someone has said that it is possible "to listen a person’s soul into existence." I like that.

One point that came to me strongly during this strange day of struggling was that all these gifts demand the annihilation of self. One cannot intrude oneself while listening to another. Truly, here the wings of the intellect are folded only to be unfolded by the Holy Spirit who alone knows when this immense gift from God, the intellect, must be used to help the one to whom we are listening. Always the essence of the listener is one of deep reverence, infinite respect, and deep gratitude to God for having selected us for that listening.

Yes, it is a deep and profound thing that I fought through and delved into, in the poustinia. There is more, but I am tired. I know that the Lord will give me words to tell you about what follows, for it is he who has given me the word listening. If he so desires, he will give me the next word, or a fuller explanation of this same one.


The word which was coming to me on this occasion was transparency. We must take such a word and unwrap it, and begin to think about and pray about it.

What I mean by thinking and praying about it is a sort of stillness of the heart that allows whatever word the Holy Spirit gives, to really mature and blossom within oneself. So in this way the word transparency took hold of me as the other words had done, and I knew that I would have to examine it carefully on my knees in the poustinia.

I must admit it was hard going. For some unaccountable reason this word eluded me. I prayed and kept my soul in patience and, I hope, in serenity and tranquillity, awaiting the coming of the Spirit to clarify it for me. The Lord said that the Spirit would be sent to us by the Father so that he might clarify for us all the things that Jesus told us.

Thus meditating, I fell asleep for about an hour or so. I woke up refreshed, and the word transparency took possession of me. I cried out to the Lord, "Lord, how are these words coming to me, and why are they coming to me? Do you really send them to me? They are so strange."

What is transparency? I see a window washed clean, through which whatever light is outside comes in, as if there were no window at all. For the window is so well washed, so transparent, that it ceases to be glass, and blends, or seems to, with the air around it. If there is sun outside such a window, it floods the room with its golden light, obliterating the window completely, because of its transparency.

Is transparency, Lord, the window you desire to make out of men who love you or try to? In our polluted, opaque world it is difficult to keep ordinary windows washed clean. Even if they can be washed clean, there is little light and sunshine that can seep through them. We have polluted the air to such an extent that even sunlight barely reaches the earth.

Is the word transparency your answer, Lord, to our polluted world, our polluted minds, hearts and souls? It may be, because if we unpollute our inner selves, then of course we will be selfless; and if we are selfless we easily will unpollute the air, the water and the earth, because selfless men in love with God are not subject to greed, and it is greed that today pollutes the earth. But greed pollutes the inner man before it pollutes the earth.

Lord, is this your way to unpollute the world? For if the person were truly defenseless, forgiving, and loving, the result would be transparent minds, hearts and souls. A transparent soul would show you to everyone who seeks you, for unless we become transparent, others will not know you. For every human face is an icon of Christ, as is every human heart. But for his icon to be reflected in a face, it must be painted in the heart.

To achieve such transparency means answering Christ’s call: "Friend, come higher." To go higher in this case means to cry out to the Holy Spirit, for only his gifts and his fruits can help us to achieve such a transparency. Calling to the Holy Spirit! Is this why the charismatic renewal has taken hold of so many people across the world? Is this why the faces of men have been turned toward the Holy Spirit, our Advocate: so that he might make us transparent by washing us clean in his fire and water? So that we might offer our transparency as the gift of the Holy Spirit to a world searching desperately for God?

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the gift of tears. We must then implore him to give us this gift of tears, for it is only with tears of love and compunction that we will be able to wash the windows of our soul and place within it, brilliantly lighted, the signpost that shows the way to the Father. Thus you, the Triune God, may be better known.

Yes, I think I have grasped the outlines of this immense word, transparency, which also means a total opening to others. Transparency is that through which we begin to unpollute all pollution, especially of the Church, of Christians so mired in the opaqueness of modern theologians’ excesses.

Transparency is given to us so that all Christians, whatever may be their position, will become unpolluted in deed and in truth. Yes, it is given so that we might become united, of one mind, in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Is this what you mean by transparency, Lord? I think it is. So this is the word I bring to you, my friends.


It is one of those strange days in my poustinia, a kind of day that has happened often lately. Perhaps I could call it a "depression day," for it seems depressive, and yet, I don’t think it is. Depressions rarely come to those who try to pray. No, it isn’t a depression. It’s a sort of "cosmic sadness."

I asked myself, "What is a cosmic sadness?" The answer came quite simply: it is the feeling that Christ might have had in the garden of Gethsemane when he perhaps realized that his sacrifice might be in vain for many people. Out of his humanity came that cry to his Father to allow this chalice to pass him by. That seemed to be cosmic sadness as I felt it then.

But another element entered into this poustinia. I wanted to escape from it, because in it I had to face God. For some unaccountable reason on this day I seemed to be either in awe of him or afraid of him; maybe I was afraid of the pain to which his love was eternally calling me. It wasn’t until about a quarter past four or thereabouts that the word came to me. It was poverty!

Yes, poverty just won’t let me be. I remembered St. Francis who used to call poverty his Lady Fair. But to me, poverty is more like a sister, a twin sister who walks where I walk, eats where I eat, sleeps where I sleep. Today poverty was connected with purity of heart.

A sentence was clearly forming within my heart: purity of heart is love for those who fall again and again-the sinners. It is love of the humble, the simple, the ‘humiliati’ (the humiliated ones).

This is a rather simple sentence, yet very profound, and it sort of baffles me when I think about it. Purity of heart is love for the weak who constantly fall. Yes, this is as close as I can come to it. Let me repeat it again: Purity of heart is love for the weak who fall; and who is not weak?

Looking out the window of my poustinia I saw how tenderly, how gently, how warmly, how lovingly Christ bends toward the world. At that moment I understood the words "cosmic charity," and when these words touched me, they expanded my heart to embrace especially all those who are weak and who keep on falling.

Then I looked again, and I realized that everyone is weak and everyone falls! Does that mean that to be pure of heart one must love everyone? From the very depth of my soul came the answer, "Yes." That is what is meant by being pure of heart. Now I began to understand why the pure of heart will see God. It is because God has come to heal and to restore, and it is the weak who need healing. I have to open my heart to everyone who is weak, and that means to everyone. Now I know why the pure of heart shall see God, and see him even now, because he is in the ones who are weak.

Yes, he is in them, in each one of them, and that thought brought me to the sacrifice of the Eucharist. I saw the bread given to everyone present and I realized vividly and clearly that everyone among those present, including myself, was weak, prone to failing and falling again and again. Somehow I understood with the heart what the beatitude meant. I understood, too, that the kingdom of God begins now. The "seeing" of God also begins now, for those who are pure of heart.

At this sight the heart must truly enlarge itself. Now I understood why I myself felt so terribly poor when I considered the pain of the world. For it was my turn to pass through Gethsemane as Christ did. Yes, I had to pass through Gethsemane with the full, clear vision of what it means to be a Christian, another Christ; what it means to be crucified and lifted up. Yes, I understood what it meant to be pure of heart and to see God, but what did purity of heart have to do with poverty?

As I pondered over this, a sentence from the Fathers seemed to come floating through the air: "If you see your brother in the act of sinning, throw the cloak of your love over his shoulder."

If this were true, if we are to understand purity of heart as the ability to love as Christ loved, then I began to understand how all pertained to poverty. For as the heart becomes pure, as it is enlarged by the Lord, as it is ready to go to Gethsemane, as it finally sees the face of God in the weak and in those who fall, its gaze also turns in upon itself. One’s heart begins to see what it itself is made of before the face of God. Here, I think, is where poverty entered my contemplation.

Unless I know myself, none of this purity of heart can take root in me. The poverty I speak of, which comes through the understanding of myself and others, is the fruit of love-the immense, incredible love that comes to all who allow themselves to be pure of heart, that is, to be purified by God himself. To allow this to happen means to enter the abyss of poverty!

Now I have truly opened my door, the door of my heart, to him who knocked at it so long. Now I have let him in and I have said to him, "Lord, this is your home. Please take out of it anything you don’t like. Make my heart a place for you to live in, rest in. For behold, Lord, I have loved you as long as I can remember, but my heart has acquired, as every one of us does, so many things. Take them away! My heart and everything that is in it are all yours, for in opening my door to you I surrender myself to you."

Yes, I did surrender to him, which to me simply meant that I surrendered my person with a totality which I never thought possible before. In doing so I found true poverty.

Whenever the Lord enters, all other things simply disappear. It is as if God took the furnishings of my heart and threw them away. But he didn’t move, he didn’t act. He simply looked around and they vanished. That is the way he acted when sick people were brought to him. As with the leper, he cured by simply looking.

Now I rested naked before the Lord, naked of heart that is. Then it seemed that a sort of fog lifted from my face, a fog that had been there for so long. I looked at every member of the community and I saw them as perhaps God was seeing them, from my empty heart. I looked again and saw all those who passed through Madonna House, people whose names I didn’t remember but whose faces I often recall. In each I saw God’s face and realized that I was being purified. Purity of heart!

Still, dimly and gropingly, I understood that poverty, coupled with a raging, flaming desire to see God, was burning me up. Today in the poustinia I somehow incredibly discovered how and why the pure of heart see God. Yes, I think I did.


The word that comes to me today is compassion, but in my mind-or is it my heart?-it is spelled com-passion. For quite a while I sat very quietly contemplating this word. There are moments in the poustinia when an intense stillness surrounds me, and it is in this stillness that the word that comes to me flowers. I wondered: what did compassion mean? Where was this word going to lead me? It led me to Mary.

As I began to realize that I was "Mary-bound," I examined the word itself while pilgrimaging toward her. Yes, com-passion. It means to share a passion, to share a pain, to be part of the pain, part of the passion. As I finally came to Mary, I rested at her feet and looked at her and I realized what this word com-passion meant. It meant Mary.

Mary was born without the taint of original sin. This does not mean that she didn’t have a free choice between good and evil throughout her life. She did have that free choice, otherwise her fiat would not have been freely given-would not have been the freewill offering that it was. I realized that her life with Jesus, which was freely embraced, was not easy. It was not easy because she did not always understand what the events of his life meant. What did his reply to her in the temple mean when he was a boy? What did he mean when he said one day that he had no brothers or sisters or mother? No, she didn’t always understand, but she kept all his words in her heart, which meant that she loved him intensely and that he was her life.

Mary was the still one, the quiet one, the recollected one. She didn’t speak much for she was also the listening one, and that is why she could keep so many of his words in her heart.

The still ones, the listening ones, are the children of the Father, and do his will. Mary was the mother of the Son, the daughter of the Father, and the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Yes, she, above all others, was the listening one, the praying one, the still one. She was also the free one, pure of heart, and therefore she saw God. Yes, Mary must have seen God in many ways: often darkly, as through a glass, and perhaps occasionally in a blinding revelation of love. But this is speculation. What isn’t speculation is that she followed Christ in his passion.

When one considers Christ’s passion (and I did in my poustinia on this occasion), one has to ask, what is passion? Passion holds hands with love. Passion makes love sparkle and shine, leading it to the rugged tops of immense mountains that lie in the hearts of men but can only be scaled by passionate lovers. The roots of passion are love, its fruit is love. Christ loved us passionately, and some of us love him back passionately.

Passion usually means pain. Nothing strange about that. Love and passion not only hold hands, not only scale, together, the tops of rugged mountains, but they are entwined one around the other. There is no love without pain. Love without pain is inconceivable.

Mary entered into this marriage of love and passion which the Lord accepted and through which he redeemed us. Pure of heart, she saw God. She followed him, her Son, right to the foot of the cross, and beyond to his grave. Hers was a com-passion. She shared his passion not only in a physical way but also in a spiritual, emotional, and deeply tragic way.

As I sat at Mary’s feet and watched her with the eyes of my heart, I realized that a fantastic question had been presented to her by the archangel Gabriel. It took faith to accept the announcement which told her that she was full of grace and that God would be born of her. Mary had that faith. Of her own free will she accepted to be the mother of the Messiah. Her faith was challenged again when, from the height of the cross, she heard Jesus say, "Woman, behold your son!" and to John, "Behold, your mother." Once more she was asked to do the impossible, or the almost impossible. The Son who had come to do the will of his Father was offering this same will of the Father to Mary.

At that moment he was telling her that she was to be the mother of mankind, and that her com-passion would be constantly exercised throughout the centuries, even as the mercy of God was going to be exercised throughout the ages. She too would have to forgive the present murderers of her Son and all the new murderers who would arise down through every generation. Our Lady’s com-passion had to bear fruit, the fruit of forgiveness, and this would help heal mankind. Yes, the role of Mary was clarified for me a little more on this sunny poustinia day.

Mary, who experienced the passion of her Son as no one else experienced it, was herself com-passion. She truly com-passionated: she shared the passion of her Son. She shared his passionate love for humanity, and she shared his pain!

"Passionate love for mankind" and "pain." These two realities were like a chalice the Father had given Christ, and from which men would drink and know that he had forgiven them. Forgiveness too is the fruit of love. The incredible, incomprehensible love of God is filled with forgiveness. This same chalice was also given to Mary, for in the incredible mystery of God’s dealings with mankind, this woman was asked to share in the healing love, pain, and forgiveness which her Son experienced on the cross.

Because Mary accepted this chalice, she became the mother of men, and men understood that they could not walk through life without her. Men need other human beings, and they need above all a gentle one, a compassionate one, a listening one. They need a woman who can teach them forgiveness, because she forgave with all the fullness of her being. She forgave with the forgiveness of her Son. Yes, this would heal them, for nothing really heals like a woman can.

Catherine Doherty, "Touching God." Chap. 12 in Poustinia. 3rd ed.
(Combermere ON: Madonna House Publications, 2000), 125–148.

Copyright © 2000 Madonna House Publications. ISBN 0-921440-54-5

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