Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices Worth Making

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. What are your plans? On Sunday, our pastor advised us to hit the ground running with Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. But if like many you’re still wobbling, you could do worse than use Paula Huston’s new book as a Lenten companion. It’s called Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit. Overnight it from Amazon, or Kindle it now.

I was prepared to be annoyed by this book, and then I found that I was annoyed a third of the way through. But by the end I was admiring, and last night I began reading it aloud to Katie. It’s the sort of book a couple, or couple of friends, can use and enjoy together. Each of the daily chapters is only about four pages, offering a simple specific exercise for the day, and the cumulative effect is powerful—by the time you turn to the last chapter, Holy Week, and find yourself going to confession and making a prayer list. I am looking forward to using the book seriously, not in place of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving but to supplement them, and especially as a way to share Lent with someone I love.

First my annoyance, expected and actual: This is a book, from the title and subtitle to its tight 162 pages and handheld trim size, that screams self-help. Been there, done that. The trail I wandered during my 40 years in the desert, before coming to the Catholic Church four years ago, is littered with dog-eared, over-underlined self-help books. This sentence will change my life. And this one. And that one too. In reducing the season of Lent to a series of exercises Simplifying the Soul seems to threaten a dumbing down of Christian experience.

Then there are the lifestyle issues, where my annoyance may be tinged with envy. The woman lives on Big Sur, for God’s sake, and she is a Benedictine oblate who has traveled around the world—alone—and she lives in a tiny house in the woods hand-hewn by her husband, which sits behind the big house she used to live in, which is now occupied by her child and grandchildren. We’re talking the love child of Ken Kesey and Beatrix Potter here.

OK, enough attitude. 

In an introduction, Huston explains Lent as a “lengthy annual version” of the short monastic retreats she has found so helpful in “recalibrating” her soul. Lent, she says, is designed to develop humility, a virtue that, in recent times “has lost a good deal of status. Instead, we prefer to focus on the development of self-esteem, on achievement, on self-fulfillment; our temptation is to dismiss humility as a relic of the unsophisticated past, a time when people supposedly knew next to nothing about psychology or good mental health.”

The book is divided by week into thirty-eight short daily readings. What happened to the “forty days of Lent”? Instead of counting from Ash Wednesday thru Palm Sunday, Huston leaves out Sundays as “mini-celebrations of the resurrection” and drives on through Holy Thursday. The theme of each of seven chapters is to simplify one area of our lives: space, the use of money, care of the body, the mind, the schedule, relationships, and prayer, respectively.

Each day begins with an anecdote from the Desert Fathers (“Abba Theodore of Pherme said . . . ”) followed by a meditation on Huston’s own life experience and then a “practice” for that day. The first week’s practices—to simplify space—are deceptively simple: (Wednesday) clear out a junk drawer or closet, (Thursday) scrub a dirty corner, (Friday) give away something you are not using, and (Saturday) set up a special place of prayer.

The progression of exercises thoughtfully winds through so many temptations of our over-stimulated lives. One day we are asked not to send or receive e-mails, another to sit in silence with a friend.

But what sets Huston’s book apart and for me validated it was her own experience. There is a tendency for any “spiritual memoir” to read like fiction; this is a short, fragmentary spiritual memoir complete with a wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi as Huston’s confessor, who then gets Parkinson’s disease and sits with her on a bench overlooking the crashing Pacific while John Tesh plays soulfully in the background.

But so—by the end of Simplifying the Soul, I was convinced that the author has lived this stuff. What moved me most is the tender, honest, but respectful way she writes of her husband, Mike, who came to the Church ten years after her conversion; who has always wanted to sail around the world alone but settled for five days crewing off Baja California; and who nearly ended his marriage by chopping down a great pine tree that his wife adored.

I would like to write so well someday about Katie.

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