Death came suddenly for Lucille Claire Dupuis Jan. 27. But the poustinik was ready.
As keeper of Our Lady of Tenderness Poustinia (hermitage) in Estes Park, the 79-year-old had been cultivating her heart as a sacred place where God could dwell, and helping others to do the same. For 31 years, she prayed for her own salvation, that of the world, and for the Archdiocese of Denver.
Poustinia, Russian for “desert,” refers to the tradition of going into the wilderness, alone, to fast, pray and listen to God. Dupuis felt led by God to establish the poustinia on the secluded 80-acre site in 1983. As caretaker and spiritual director of the poustinia, Dupuis was a “poustinik,” one who lives permanently in the “desert” much like a hermit.
With her death, due to complications associated with pneumonia, Our Lady of Tenderness is closed. Anthony Lilles professor of spiritual theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and close friend of Dupuis said he and the other members of the poustinia’s board of directors are praying and discerning how to continue the apostolate.
“We think it’s vital for our times,” Lilles said, “because Christians now more than ever need places where they can find solitude and silence to listen to God.”
Poustinia adherent Father John Nepil, parochial vicar at Queen of Peace Church in Aurora, agreed.
“(Theologian-priest) Karl Rahner once said, ‘The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.’ Lucille’s life is an example of this response to our post-Christian world, as well as a radical witness against the ever-increasing activism of the new evangelization. Quietly and lovingly she is calling us to cease our work and return to the source of the Christian life—the poustinia of the heart, where the presence of Trinitarian love abides and invites us to ‘come away and rest awhile.’
Poustinia rest is unique, said Lilles, author of a book on prayer, “Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer,” and an advocate of poustinia. A spiritual tradition of Eastern Christians, poustinia differs from the outward, action-oriented piety of Western Christians.
The poustinia experience
“I will lure her out into the wilderness and there I will speak to her heart,” Dupuis told the Denver Catholic Register in 2002 quoting Hosea to describe the spirit of poustinia.
At Our Lady of Tenderness people could go for a minimum 36-hour stay in a rustic cabin to fast on bread, water and tea and feast on the Scriptures—the only reading permitted.
“Not everybody can go off into the wilderness and fast on bread and water for two to four days or longer,” Lilles said, “but I do think that as part of our regular Christian lives we need to make it a priority to withdraw from the world to enter the silence of God—to renounce and to fast so there’s space for God in our hearts, so we can see the truth. We as Christians can only thrive when we live by the truth, the truth that God has for us.”
Lilles goes on poustinia a couple of times a year. The first 24 hours he simply “crashes” from exhaustion and the overstimulation of modern life.
“The second day that you’ve been fasting you get used to the silence and you begin to feel more alert,” he said. “The Lord begins to speak to you through the Scriptures in more acute and forceful ways.
“There is a monotony (to poustinia), which is part of the solitude and silence,” he admitted, “but hidden in the monotony are moments of grace where God reveals truths about yourself, things that need to be changed, and God reveals things about himself and his great love for us.”
Lilles said the experience has helped him confront sin his life and has deepened his relationships with others, particularly with his wife and children.
“When you step back you see some of the broken ways you relate to each other and you realize that’s not really what you want for life. And as you submit that to God, he begins to disclose new ways of relating and a deeper way of being with each other,” Lilles said. “That’s one of the greatest blessings for me.”
Dupuis and Catherine Doherty
The founding of the poustinia and Dupuis’ ministry here was the last chapter in a faith-filled life that ended being offered in intercessory prayer for the archdiocese, her friends said.
Born Aug. 6, 1934, in New Haven, Conn., to French Canadian immigrants Herv’e and Marie (Arsenault) Dupuis, she attended St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford where she met Catherine De Hueck Doherty, founder of Madonna House Apostolate in Ontario, Canada, and proponent of poustinia.
“I went to Madonna House for four days in 1954 and it changed my life,” Dupuis told the Register in 2002.
She became a 20-year member of the apostolate, which is a house of hospitality where celibate laypeople and priests live in community. She was present when Doherty, a native of Russia, introduced poustinia to the members as a way for them to deepen their prayer life and relationship with God.
“(Poustinia) means, geographically, a place like Sahara, but it also means more,” Doherty told them. “It means the lonely place that souls sometimes have to enter, to find the God who dwells within them. Or it means a wild and lonely place to which a hermit would go to seek God in solitude and silence.”
Doherty, whose cause for canonization is being considered, later wrote a book, “Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man,” which is now a spiritual classic.
When Dupuis left Madonna House, she was uncertain about what God was calling her to, Lilles said.
“She was alone at a lake and cried out ‘O Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!’ It was a kind of prayer of the heart, which expressed both love and trust, but also sorrow and heartbreak,” Lilles said. “Then she said she heard an echo across the lake—not an echo of her own voice, but another voice that called to her ‘O Lucille, O Lucille, O Lucille.’ She had already entered into what many of us seek, a deep love affair with God. It is this profound love of God that opened her up to come to Colorado and live a life of solitude and prayer.”
Popular among contemplatives, those who frequented Our Lady of Tenderness and received spiritual counsel from Dupuis included laity, clergy, seminarians and non-Catholics. Many of them attended her vigil and rosary at Our Lady of the Mountains Church Feb. 3, and her funeral Mass in the poustinia chapel and burial on the mountain the next day.
“Now the Lord has lured Lucille to another place,” professor Joel Barstad of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary said in a eulogy for her Feb. 3. “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.”
The Our Lady of Tenderness Poustinia board and those who benefited from the apostolate hope Dupuis’ death is not the end of poustinia here, but the seed to even greater life for the ministry they said enriches the faith-life of many and provides essential prayer support for the multitude of good works in the archdiocese.
“The islands of Christian contemplation are disappearing from the landscape of our technocratic world,” observed Father Nepil. “May Lucille Dupuis be the grain of wheat that ‘if it dies, bears much fruit’ for only this fruit of renewed contemplation can restore the soul of our apostolic endeavors.”
For more information, contact Lilles at Anthony.firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-715-3218. Memorial contributions may be made to: Our Lady of Tenderness, P.O. Box 4311, Estes Park, CO 80517.