February 18, 2014

A Western Poustinik's Love for the East

Dr. Joel Barstad, associate professor of theology at Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, shared these words at the end of the Vigil service for Lucille Dupuis.  He gave me permission to share them with you:

Lucille and I shared a love for the Eastern tradition of the Church. When we first met, more than twenty years ago, that love meant for me, primarily, an enthusiasm for the liturgy and iconography of the Slav-Byzantine churches, as well as a fascination with the mystical theology of the Church Fathers expressed in that tradition.

Lucille loved those things, too, but not quite in the same way I did. She even had to warn me once, and rightly, against making an idol of those traditions. For her "East" meant something both simpler and more elusive. She could use the term "East", for example, not only to contrast the spirituality of Eastern Christians with the outward, action-oriented piety of Western Christians, but even to highlight what she admired in the mentality of the Native Americans she had known and served, a mentality so different from that of urgency and distraction that surrounds most of us.

I think that what she valued most in what she called "the East" was hiddenness and the slow, patient work of love done in hiddenness.

Some years ago when she and I set about creating a website for Our Lady of Tenderness Poustinia, she chose two short texts to communicate her vision of the place and what happened there.

The first was taken from the Prophet Hosea, "I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart." Certainly, this verse summarizes Lucille's love affair with the Lord; but that experience is also one to which she invited us and for which Our Lady of Tenderness exists. 

The second text was a simple, one-sentence description of what it means to be a poustinik. "The desert dweller, the poustinik, cultivates his heart until it becomes a garden enclosed, a sacred place where God may dwell." To cultivate one's heart, to become an enclosed garden, to become a sacred place where God may well -- that is the work a poustinik does and for which a poustinia exists. It is by its very nature a slow and hidden work. 

When I met Lucille, I loved the beauty of Eastern liturgy and prayer and theology, but I did not grasp as clearly as she did the reason for cultivating such a garden. I cultivated mine because it pleased and delighted me. She cultivated hers for the sake of the one who had lured her out into the wilderness and spoke to her there. Her hidden garden of the heart was meant to please, not herself, but the one she called her Beloved.

Lucille and her Beloved were never selfish lovers who wanted to keep the garden to themselves. On the contrary, nothing gave Lucille more delight than when one of us would visit that enclosed space and meet her Lord, and so become gardeners ourselves, cultivating our own hearts as sacred places for God to dwell.

The hut of a Russian poustinik has no lock, just a latch to keep out the wind. Nor was there a lock on the gate of Lucille's heart. How many of us, and how often, walked in and out of that gate, whether by visiting her on the mountain or by picking up the phone. 

Lucille's hiddenness did not mean that she did not want us to find her. What it meant was that when we did find her, we discovered something unexpected and beautiful waiting for us.

Now the Lord has lured Lucille to another place. For most of us death still looks like a journey into a bleak wilderness, but Lucille looked forward to it as a voyage to the hidden garden that her Beloved began cultivating for her long ago, which was reserved for her at her baptism and for which she longed all her life.

As a blessing for her road, I would like to end with a little piece of the Eastern liturgy: 


"In the place of rest which is yours, O Lord, where all your saints repose, give rest to the soul of your servant; for you alone are the Lover of mankind."