A Quarantine Quaranta

By Stephen Blackmer ’12 M.A.R., ’83 M.F.

I came to the woods as the quarantine began. “Closer, come closer to me,” the Voice beckoned. Come for a quaranta, for forty days. Immerse yourself in silence, in the woods, in prayer. A period of penance, a time of withdrawal and renewal. Forty days in the wilderness a response to the rising pandemic. I said yes. 

I came for forty days. I have stayed for two years. I do not know what comes next. 

Eighteen months earlier, aeons before the pandemic arose, I had confided to a friend my longing for a space of withdrawal in the woods. “Oh,” she said, “you need a poustinia!”  

“Poustinia,” I learned, is a Russian word that means desert, as in Desert Mothers and Fathers—a  place of silence, solitude, and prayer, apart from the world. Catherine Doherty’s 1993 book, Poustinia, tells of the Russian tradition of withdrawal into the forest in search of God. She writes: 

To go into the poustinia means to listen to God. It means entering into kenosis—the emptying of oneself. … It also means to know “how terrible it is to fall into the hands of the living God,” and yet how delightful, how joyful, and how attractive! So attractive, in fact, that the soul cannot resist. That is why Russians say that he who is called to the poustinia must go there or die, because God has called him. … 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.[1]

The practice of poustinia, Doherty hastens to tell us, does not require a parcel of woods in New Hampshire, the deep forests of Russia, or the deserts of Egypt:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person we need silence. … True silence is a key to the immense and flaming heart of God. … This silence, then, will break forth in a charity that overflows in the service of neighbor. … Deserts, silence, solitudes are not necessarily places but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in the everyday of our lives.[2]

My poustinia, attached to a small chapel in the woods, is simple. I have a bed, bookshelf, wardrobe, and writing table. The tiny-house kitchen has a propane cook stove, three shelves and a cupboard. Solar panels on the roof provide electricity—a lot in the summer and very little in the winter. High in a hemlock tree, an attached antenna communicates with the world. I pump water from the well. I cut down trees—my neighbors, my beloveds—to stay warm. I go to town for supplies. I have a few luxuries. 

My quaranta began with Covid. It continues with Ukraine, climate change, and ecological destruction. The culture is self-absorbed and rotten. The world is a disaster. The church is too often compromised and toothless. How are we to live, now? Where does one begin? 

Listening

Church of the Woods, the spiritual community I created and have been leading since 2014, meets in the woods. The trees and their fellow creatures are the founding members of the congregation, the ones who called me to be their priest. For the sake of us less-hardy humans, we have a small barn with a woodstove to keep us warm in cold and wet weather, but even on the coldest days we immerse ourselves in 20 minutes of silence and solitude in the woods. To listen. 

We listen to God’s word proclaimed through scripture, then we listen to God’s word proclaimed through nature. When we gather back, we listen to each other’s reflections and experiences. During Covid, we just kept meeting (after a two-month hiatus)—outdoors, for two years—to listen. 

If I believe what I preach about all God’s Creation, then we must greet Coronavirus, too, as a member of the Body of Christ. We may keep a respectful distance, as our relationship with the virus is tense, but we must nevertheless acknowledge that we are all part of one great family in Christ. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is never simple.

The question on my mind and heart as I watched so many congregations close down in self-inflicted isolation has been: “Why don’t they just go outside?” Church buildings are useful. They can be very beautiful. They can also be prisons—which keep us shackled in our self-imposed ways, beliefs, and habits. 

The great threat to living a life centered in God, the early hermits knew, was not distraction from the outside but decay from within. Buildings allow us to wall out the world so we can have the illusion of control inside our bubbles.

Outdoors, when we were not able to hug one another, I invited people to hug a tree and say, “I love you.” Standing apart, we sang to one another of love—the same love song every week. Even as we kept distance, we were never separate from the vibrant living world that shapes and holds us. 

Healing 

Thomas Merton opens his book The Wisdom of the Desert with these words: 

In the fourth century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men [sic] who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Why did they do this? …They were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the “world” was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve … The simple men who lived out their lives to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves.[3]

Covid has served as an accelerant of fault lines already present in our society, but it is far from the source of them. Gross inequity, decayed trust and social behavior, obsession with wealth, possessions and power, obsessions with control, disconnection from the Earth … you can formulate your own list. Merton writes: 

We must liberate ourselves, in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging to disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is far more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think. We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, and discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the kingdom of God.[4]

The ultimate human wound is that of being separate—separate from our fellow humans, separate from nature, separate from the Source of all, separate from our own truest Selves. As I agonized over leaving home, family, and friends to come into the woods, the mantra that rolled through my mind over and over again was this: “I can no longer be divided.” My inner division is an expression—and a cause!—of the outer divisions that wrack our world.

Forty days came and went, and I wasn’t ready to leave. “I’ll stay till Pentecost,” I told myself, my wife, my friends. Pentecost came and went. I stayed. 

I am no hermit but I am, at least for now, solitary. I have never longed to live this way. Yet there is something about this time that calls us to loosen our fearful grasp on what we perceive as reality, as safety. To allow the wildness of God to break everything open. 

I came for forty days. I have stayed for two years. I do not know what comes next. 


The Rev. Stephen Blackmer ’12 M.A.R., ’83 M.F. is pastor of Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, and founding director of Kairos Earth, a non-profit organization with a mission to love, heal, and bless the Earth and one another. Before his ordination as an Episcopal priest in 2013, he worked for 25 years to conserve forests, mountains, and rivers in northern New England and New York. Besides his YDS degree, he graduated from the Yale School of the Environment with a Master of Forestry degree in 1983.


[1] Catherine Kolyschkine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia (Madonna House Publications, 1993, 4th Edition 2021), pp. 21-22.

[2] Doherty, pp. 4-5.

[3] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions, 1960), pp. 3, 22-23.

[4] Merton, pp. 23-24.