Simplifying the Soul

Paula Huston: From its earliest beginnings in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, monasticism has offered a particular way—one way among many—of undergoing the radical sort of transformation that St. Paul was talking about when he said that we were meant to put on the mind of Christ or what Jesus was referring to when he said we were to be “perfect” as our Father is perfect. Monastic wisdom would gently offer that, without ever losing sight of our inherent human propensity to self-deception and sin, we can indeed learn and we can indeed change for the better, all without falling into the trap of hubris. How? We embark on a program meant to teach us who we really are, one in which we do certain things in order to discover certain things. We attempt to fast, for example, and find that we are completely addicted to burgers and fries or Starbucks frappucinos. We attempt solitude and learn that we need a fairly large audience around us most of the time in order to feel alive. We attempt frugality and realize for the first time how married we are to our credit cards. This new knowledge about ourselves can be chastening in a good way; it can lead to humility, which means the ability to see ourselves clearly. No longer deceived by grandiose fantasies about our own importance or, conversely, riddled by self-hating shame, we are freed up to love in a way we cannot when the ego is still running the show.
So the seemingly archaic practices and rhythms of monastic life are really just a way to gain some kind of control over habitual behavior and thought. And if we are going to be effective witnesses for Christ from within culture, whether as cultural critics or culture shapers, we must be willing to look with a clear eye at the habitual patterns of behavior and thought that dominate our society. If we’re to avoid hypocrisy, however, we must first be willing to turn the same assessing gaze on ourselves. This is where I see monastic practices intersecting with contemporary cultural concerns.
TOJ: Lent is often considered to be the season one deprives oneself of something, usually chocolate or television or coffee. At their best, these abstentions can remind us of Christ’s suffering, but more commonly they become a token observation of the season. Your book invites readers into a life of simplicity but perhaps paradoxically, not a life of deprivation. Can you explain the difference?
PH: The voluntary deprivations of Lent may indeed be reminders of Christ’s suffering, but I believe that their real purpose is more strongly connected to this ancient Christian wisdom about how we get to know ourselves as we really are, including the parts we’d rather not acknowledge. Thus, deprivation per se is not the point; the real point is to in some way pit ourselves against ourselves to see what we can discover. The desert dwellers of the third and fourth centuries conducted running experiments on themselves to find out what sorts of spiritual obstacles they were throwing in their own paths. The commitment to celibacy revealed pretty quickly their true relationship to sex, for example. If they discovered that most of their attention was taken up by lustful fantasies, then that was going to be a real problem on their particular spiritual path. They had to deal with that—usually through the practice of regularly revealing their innermost thoughts to a wise elder—before they could move on. The same held true for those who could not stop worrying about security issues, for those who worried that when they were old, decrepit monks no one would care for them if they didn’t stash gold under their mattresses. If they allowed themselves to hang on to that gold because it made them feel safer, they’d never learn what they needed to grasp about trust as an aspect of faith. As they slowly began to shed their propensities toward gluttony, avarice, anger, self-pity, et cetera, they became simpler, more integrated, more focused people. The deprivations that seemed so difficult at the beginning of the process were no longer an issue; those things were usually no longer important to them. They’d found something better.
I don’t think we are any different than those third- and fourth-century desert dwellers were. What initially might seem like a really tough sacrifice—say, giving up obsessive social networking for an extended period just to get our heads on straight—begins to feel natural, right, and good once we begin reaping the spiritual benefits of this supposed deprivation. We’re no longer enslaved by a mindless habit. We can think about other things. We can pray with more focus and intensity.”
From “On Monks, Desert Dwellers, and Lenten Asceticism: An Interview with Paula Huston” by Paula Huston and Tom Ryan on Wednesday, March 28, 2012: “The Other Journal. An Intersection of Theology and Culture”
“Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit” Ave Maria Press, 2011

Table of Contents:
Week One: Simplifying Space
Week Two: Simplifying the Use of Money
Week Three: Simplifying Care of the Body
Week Four: Simplifying the Mind
Week Five: Simplifying the Schedule
Week Six: Simplifying Relationships
Holy Week: Simplifying Prayer
Author Portrait- Paula Huston-for Brochure @300 dpi
Paula Huston’s books include Daughters of Song, Signatures of Grace, The Holy Way, By Way of Grace, Forgiveness, Simplifying the Soul, and the forthcoming A Season of Mystery. A National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, her work has been honored by Best American Short Stories, the Catholic Press Association, the Catholic Book Club, Foreword Magazine, and Best Spiritual Writing. Huston, a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate, currently teaches fiction for the GlenOnline and creative nonfiction for Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program.

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