The Breath of Prayer

Author: Catherine de Hueck Doherty

The Breath of Prayer

Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Desert communities today

These words were written for those who sought to experience silence in the poustinia — a hut in the Canadian woods — built by Catherine de Hueck Doherty and modelled on a spiritual practice which she had known in her Russian childhood. Catherine was born in 1896 into a wealthy Catholic Russian-Polish family and was then forced by the Revolution to flee with her husband, a Russian aristocrat, to Canada and the United States. She experienced exile and poverty, then once again riches and a worldly life from which she withdrew in order to live with the poor in Toronto. She later founded a House of Friendship in Harlem and several people joined her to share her life there. As a friend of Dorothy Day she strove to create places of silence for prayer and meditation, which she was to call Madonna House. She devoted herself to this project until her death in 1985. In her many writings she revealed the importance and need for silence in life today.

The one who goes to the poustinia for the first time, for a day or two, will experience a certain amount of interior noise. The first time one of the staff went she said to me on returning, "Boy, that was a terrible experience! You know what happened to me?" I said, "Yes, I think I do. But tell me anyway." She said, "All my thoughts buzzed in me like flies. I was thinking that my jeans needed patching, that the garden needed weeding. I thought about everything except God." I said, "Oh, that s perfectly natural." It takes a long time for modern man to close the wings of his intellect and to open the door of his heart.

For those of you who go into the poustinia for a day or two, this is the essence of it: to fold the wings of your intellect. In this civilization of the West everything is sifted through your heads. You are so intellectual, so full of knowledge of all kinds. The poustinia brings you into contact first and foremost with solitude. Secondly, it brings you in contact with God. Even if you don't feel anything at all, the fact remains, that you have come to have a date with God, a very special rendezvous. You have said to the Lord, "Lord, I want to take this 24, 36, 48 hours out of my busy life and I want to come to you because I am very tired. The world is not the way you want it, and neither am I. I want to come and rest on your breast as St John the Beloved. That's why I have come to this place." Or you might say, "Lord, I don't believe in you. I just don't think you exist. I think you are dead: But they tell me that in this strange little cabin in the midst of the woods you might be alive. I want to come in and see. May I?" There are a thousand reasons why a person might come to a retreat like this, but the essence is the folding of that intellect that makes so many towers of Babel and is still doing it and opening the heart that alone can receive the word of God.

St Paul says, "Pray without ceasing." Prayer is the source and the most intimate part of our lives. "When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret." These words of Our Lord mean that you must enter into yourself and make a sanctuary there; the secret place is the human heart. The life of prayer — its intensity, its depth, its rhythm is the measure of our spiritual health and reveals us to ourselves. "Rising long before daybreak, he went out and departed into a desert place, and there he prayed." With the ascetics, the desert is interiorized, and signifies that concentration of a recollected spirit. At this level, where man knows how to be silent, true prayer is found. Here he is mysteriously visited.

This is another thing that the poustinia will teach you if you allow it to do so. It will teach you prayer, a different prayer than perhaps you have been used to.

Often people say that they have no time for prayer. Where is the place for prayer? Prayer is inside. I am a church. I am a temple of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They came to me. The Lord said that he and his Father would come and make their dwelling with me. I don't have to go anywhere. Neither does this mean that you shouldn't render glory to God in church where everybody else comes to pray, but it means that you should pray constantly. There should be no break in our prayer. There is a poustinia of the heart. Why should my heart be removed from God while I am talking to you? When you are in love with someone, it seems that the face of beloved is before you when you drive, when you type, when you are taking out insurance, and so on. Somehow or other we can encompass these two realities, the face of the beloved and whatever we happen to be doing.

My friends, prayer is like that. If you fall in love then it's impossible to separate life and breath from prayer. Prayer is simply union with God. Prayer does not need words. When people are in love they look at each other, look into each other's eyes, or a wife simply lies in the arms of her husband. Neither of them talks. When love reaches its apex it cannot be expressed anymore. It reaches that immense realm of silence where it pulsates and reaches proportions unknown to those who haven't entered into it. Such is the life of prayer with God. You enter into God and God enters into you, and the union is constant.

The day I was baptized my little feet made the first step toward that union with God for which I was born. I can walk through my life and never remember. Such will be an arid life. It will be an unhappy life. But no matter what happens to me, if I remember that I exist to be united with God, and that I am united with God every minute, all I have to do is think about it. In fact, I don't even have to think. His face is always before me.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 July 2014, page 7

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