Madonna House, Part III of III: Poustinia

A friend tells me that she once sat and meditated for an hour and half, only to discover at the end that what she had been meditating on, scene by scene, was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

There is a moment in prayer when you really do achieve emptiness: you actually manage to rid yourself of all the things that typically consume and distract you, every last worry and earworm and grievance. And in that emptiness you find, not some vast chamber humming with the solemn grandeur of God’s presence, but — nothing at all.

It’s dreadful. Suddenly you are a bag of meat and bones. Your butt hurts from sitting on the floor. Little thoughts about food and sex buzz around halfheartedly, get swatted, and buzz around again. This is all you’ve got: bones and hunger. You can’t think about the grandeur of love or the infinity of God. Your brain is about three inches deep. You can’t remember why beauty was interesting. There is nothing but time: tick, tick, tick, never slower or faster, inching along with nothing before or behind. When will it be over?

This isn’t what prayer aims at. I think it might be where prayer starts. I think this is what they mean when they talk about being aware of our own nakedness, emptiness, smallness, dependency. I’m a stupid bag of bones who can’t even think about anything worthwhile unless it is given to me, fed with a spoon. Everything good comes from something besides me.

I am empty, says the soul. That is when John 15:5 actually begins to make sense. Now the soul can say to God: fill me!

As with prayer, so with life. We are terrified of that emptiness, so we fill it with whatever we can: vodka, Beethoven, Marlboros, text messages, kale smoothies, tattoos, X-Men, even Kung Fu.

All of these things are good, but we stuff them into the wrong places. We stuff them into that emptiness, that inner chamber: our little interior desert, our little Poustinia, the silent chamber in our innermost heart, our Holy of Holies, where we alone may go. Where we go to meet God.

5 Comments on “Madonna House, Part III of III: Poustinia”

  1. HN says:

    I remember a some years back where i was (dreaming? Daydreaming? Praying? Meditating? Something…) while I was supposed to be cleaning my room. I was sitting in my floor amomg my and my sister/roommates stuff. I kind of began daydreaming acout the random junk, then imagined the junk forming a tall shape. Building blocks, teaddy bears, legos, videogames, clothes, sewing supplies, everything in my room, all together in the shape of a person. Everything I recognized as my sister’s and mine, exept a little golden triangle in the chest. I kind of reached out and plucked it. All of a sudden, a hole, bigger than any Id ever seen was revealed, and all the things, the stuff tumbled down into it, crshing together sinking a way, becming dwarfed by the vasf nothing as the stuff made person imploded without that golden keystone. One beautiful red block morphed into a cherry red sports car as it feel, a waving plie of green clothes into a flutter of money, each little, innocent piece of my life transforming into a more expensive or sought after status symbol time and time again, and yet
    nothing filled the hole.

  2. S. says:

    This post is so good. Flove it. Especially the part about filling the emptiness with alcohol/smoking/activities etc. Most of the things you listed can be enjoyed prudently, but there’s a fine line. It’s one thing to enjoy good music and a drink with friends; it’s another thing to enjoy the same music and the same drink by yourself in your bedroom at 10:00 at night because you’re bored.

  3. richard says:

    This is good writing. I was not aware of the book “Poustinia”. Will have to check it out.

  4. Shannon says:

    This is such a beautiful reflection. I actually never thought about silent prayer and contemplation in this way. Thank you, Steve.

  5. CJD says:


    Jesus, I come to the warmth of your Presence
    knowing that You are
    the very emptiness of God.
    I come before You
    holding the water jar of my life.
    Your eyes meet mine
    and I know what I’d rather not know.

    I came to be filled
    but I am already full.
    I am too full.
    This is my sickness
    I am full of things
    that crowd out
    Your healing Presence.

    A holy knowing steals inside my heart
    and I see the painful truth.
    I don’t need more
    I need less
    I am too full.

    I am full of things that block out
    Your golden grace.
    I am smothered by gods of my own creation
    I am lost in the forest of my false self
    I am full of my own opinions and narrow attitudes
    full of fear, resentment, control
    full of self pity, and arrogance.
    Slowly this terrible truth pierces my heart,
    I am so full, there is no room for You.

    Contemplatively, and with compassion,
    You ask me to reach into my water jar.
    One by one, Jesus, you enable me
    to lift out the things
    that are a hindrance to my wholeness.
    I take each on to my heart,
    I hear You asking me
    ” Why is this so important to you ? ”

    Like the murmur of a gentle stream
    I hear You calling,
    ” Let go, let go, let go! ”
    I pray with each obstacle
    tasting the bitterness and grief
    it has caused.

    I sit with my empty water jar
    I hear you whisper
    You have become a space for God
    Now there is hope
    Now you are ready to be a channel of Life.
    You have given up your own agenda
    There is nothing left but God.

    Macrina Wiederkehr OSB. ( Prayer inspired by John 4 : 28 )

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