Two months ago, I wrote about my commitment to stay in my poustinia in the forest through Pentecost, on May 31, leaving a few times each week for groceries and wifi. As you may recall, in the Russian monastic tradition, a poustinia (which means “desert”) connotes a secluded place where a poustinik seeks God in silence, prayer, and solitude. I kept that commitment, and I’m still here. I don’t know how long I will stay. It could be quite a while.

God began beckoning about a year ago, when I was on a 5-day silent retreat with two friends, at a remote lake in the Adirondacks of New York. I heard a lot amidst the silence, including this: “Come closer to me. Spend more time with me. I need you close. The poustinia is home base for your real work, now.” That was May 2019. This poustinia didn’t exist yet; indeed, I had learned from my friend, Carla, only six months earlier about the practice of poustinia. But I’d been hooked. I cleared the site last summer and we broke ground in September. By Christmas, there was a lovely, little building. By February I was here a lot. In April, I came to stay.

I hadn’t expected everything to change so quickly. It’s as though God went fishing for a human being. Standing on a wooden dock, looking out on the still morning waters of a New Hampshire lake, God tosses a line with baited hook. No sport here, God fishes with worms. Plop. Bam! The fish takes the bait. A minute later, God is holding the fish, gently but firmly. In an instant, life has changed.

Why am I doing this? The direct and honest answer, of course, is that I don’t know. Because God beckoned, then hooked me. Drawing from Christian history, though, I can make some inferences. There were the Desert Fathers and Mothers who withdrew into the wilderness of Egypt and Arabia in the fourth century A.D., seeking the wisdom of Christ in a time when Christianity was joining the Empire. Thomas Merton writes, “With the Desert Fathers, you have the characteristics of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one’s life into an apparently irrational void.” That sounds familiar.

Benedict withdrew into the mountains of central Italy about 528 A.D., as the Empire was collapsing, and founded a way of communal monastic life that continues today. The monks of Ireland continued this tradition, eventually re-seeding learning into the waiting ground of Europe. My own guide, Francis of Assisi, heard the call to “rebuild my church” about 1206 A.D., and followed Jesus into a life of poverty, simplicity, and love for the whole Creation. Then there are the Russians who go into the forest.

Catherine Doherty writes, “Russians say that he who is called to the poustinia must go there or die, because God has called him to this mountain to speak to him in awesome silence, in that gentle loving silence! For God has something to say to those whom he calls to the poustinia, and what God says to them the poustiniki must repeat as a prophet does.” Though I am not worthy, I am here to listen.

As I will be telling you in future letters, I am not good at prayer, am constantly distracted by events in the world, and spend a lot of time connecting by telephone and email — especially in this time of Covid. I write. None of what I am doing makes rational sense. I cannot explain it using the categories that the world knows — leadership, productivity, deadlines, measurement, evidence-based, pivot, strategic, accomplishment, reward, merit. This is none of that. God is in charge. I am following, trying to listen, trying to be obedient. I don’t really understand, but I don’t need to. I trust. I am staying put.

from the poustinia, 


Stephen Blackmer

Stephen Blackmer is founding executive director of Kairos Earth and chaplain of Church of the Woods. Steve comes to this with 30 years of conservation experience, having founded and built conservation organizations including the Five Rivers Conservation Trust, Northern Forest Alliance and Northern Forest Center.

A midlife shift led him to Yale Divinity School and ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church, carrying the question in his heart and mind: “How can being a priest deepen my work to conserve the Earth? What does the Christian tradition have to offer to this work? How can the Christian tradition be re-understood and re-imagined in a time of need? How can the conservation movement recover its understanding of the Earth as holy ground?