Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Review: Paula Huston's new book on Lenten Practice--Go for it this year!

Book Review: 'simplifying the Soul:
Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit' by Paula Huston
by Peter Menkin

In the useful book on Lenten practice, where quiet and silence, even meditation is recommended and outlined as practice for the Season, author of “simplifying THE SOUL: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit.” Paula Huston, again gives readers an excellent opportunity for the bettering and continuing their work of Church life.
Another in a series of well-done books, which include, “By Way of Grace,” and Following Jesus into Radical Loving,” as another in her few number of books in the religious realm, one received a starred review from “Publishers Weekly.” That was the one she authored titled “The Holy Way,” which is recommended for reading, too, by this Religion Writer.
Published by Ava Maria Press in Notre Dame, Indiana, my review copy arrived in time for the 2012 year, and a pretty paperback for Lent/Spirituality it is-- besides the readable and attractive type and design, it is a good size for carrying around. City people can even bring it with them on a bus or transit of any kind, if you don’t mind others seeing you are reading something religious. Should those others even notice, let alone care—though someone might get curious. It is good enough for curiosity, too; for looking through it at a bookstore, online, or even when catching someone at an involved reading of the work, the curious will find gems of practice and observance like:
Today, consciously avoid looking at or listening to any advertising, whether it is on the Internet, in magazines, on the radio, or on TV. The easiest way to do this is to keep all these devices turned off, but if you have to use one of them, pray first for the ability to recognize, then avoid, any ads that pop up. Pray also for insight into your own susceptibility to constant advertising. Are you ever overwhelmed by the urge to go shopping? Do you find it comforting to spend money, even money you don’t have? Do you find yourself judging your own appearance on the basis of people you see in ads?

No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. . . . What is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God. (Lk 16:13, 15)

That makes good sense, and here the observant Christian is going to look at some practice for a week, as this example above tells us on page 24, both to give something up of our living and lives, and create something to do in the light of Christ and one’s faith so as to come to better preparation for Easter and relationship with God. As a means of relationship with God, and we are alive for good reason to be in relationship with God, and to celebrate and prepare for the promise of Easter in this life as Christians, there is little doubt that with this kind of Lent anyone who uses “simplifying THE SOUL” by Paula Huston will come away a little more uplifted in their penitential and renewing work. High praise, but this book is just what the cover blurb by Phyllis Tickle, author of “The Great Emergence” declares it as being: “The most practical work I have ever seen on Lenten practices.”
Allow this writer to stop a moment and say the author of the book writes well. Enough said there. She has organized the book into useful and somewhat thoughtful parts to lead and prepare the reader for the Season of reflection, which this Season is as well as other things. Does not this book renew us in its promise and offering to a new Lent? Some of us need this kind of thing.
Here are the few chapter headings in the book: beginnings: simplifying space; first week of lent: simplifying the use of money; second week of lent: simplifying the care of the body; third week of lent: simplifying the mind; fourth week of lent: simplifying the schedule; fifth week of lent: simplifying relationships.
I have always believed and liked the hymn, “Tis a Gift to be Simple,” and here is an opportunity to turn, turn, turn.
The writer, Paula Huston, has given us a slice of her life as testimony and insight along the way, as this excerpt from page 25 demonstrates:
Here in the Chapter titled  first week of lent: Simplifying the Use of Money, under the subhead, Wednesday: Today, Walk to the Store Instead of Driving, she writes…

MEDITATION: Some years after we got married, I was awarded a writer’s travel grant that allowed us to take the family to Europe. But even a very generous grant could not cover six people traveling in style. So we compromised; we’d rent a small van, we’d haul tents, we’d sleep in campgrounds every night, and we’d do all our own cooking. This way, we could stretch a week’s worth of wandering into five. By the time we landed in Amsterdam, we’d added our former Dutch exchange student and my recently widowed mom to the passenger list, so every seat in our eight-passenger van was filled. Since the majority of the crew were teenagers, pulling together our daily food supplies was a top priority. Each morning after breakfast, we’d hike from the campground to a bakery, a farmer’s market, and a grocery store and buy everything we needed for the next twenty four hours. Though our menus were simple—baguettes, cheese, fruit, milk, couscous, and veggies, plus an evening chocolate bar, split between us—it took some effort to find all the ingredients, and we soon learned to stick with the essentials.

One evening we set up camp in the shadow of a great ruined castle on a hill, a perfect spot for sunset watching, though everybody was too footsore to appreciate it. I also seemed to be the only one who cared about dinner: my teenaged helpers had melted away to their tents, Mike was studying the map, and my mom was writing in her journal. I couldn’t really blame them; I knew they were all famished, but even I wasn’t particularly thrilled by yet another one-pot meal. Then my head went up, and my nose began to quiver. Before I could even think about it, I was grabbing my backpack and heading back down the hill to town, a good half mile at least. But if I were right . . . I was! Golden brown, running with juices, a plump hen, squeezed in among her many sisters, was just making a final turn on the street-side rotisserie when I arrived. I handed over some money, the proprietor plucked the bird from the spit and wrapped her up in layers of paper, and back I went up that long hill with a succulent roasted fowl cradled in my arms. The moment my exhausted family caught the scent, they came back to life; that meal, consumed with fervent gratitude, was unanimously voted the best of the trip. People who are otherwise impressed by the holiness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers are often put off by their rigorous, sometimes extreme, lifestyle. Why would anyone choose to live in such a harsh environment where water was almost nonexistent and it was nearly impossible to grow food? Why put their bodies through such unnecessary hardship?

Though the answer is complicated, here is at least one good reason: they understood that those of us who live in a society of plenty often miss out on an important experience: the visceral sense of what our easy pleasures cost in actual human terms. What is so readily available more often than not gets taken for granted. When we always have more than enough to eat, the capacity for gratitude at mealtime is thus diminished. In a beautifully ironic way, the power of ascetical disciplines, meant to loosen the stranglehold of our desires, is not limited to showing us where we are weak and prone to sin. It does not even end at teaching us self-control. By giving us the opportunity to genuinely value what we would
otherwise take for granted, asceticism also has the power to enliven authentic gratitude and wonder.

We are all ready to receive some wisdom, and in this case Paul Huston who is a long-time Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage (New Camaldoli) in Big Sur, California, Benedictines, offers us some monastic insight for Lent. “simplifying THE SOUL: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit,” One of those books in that tradition of taking time out from the world without losing sight of the world, so as to enable us to keep we who are Christians following the wise and chaste Christ in the Liturgical season of the Church year, these pages offer solace and even a respite from sin. No doubt the author has mentioned sin in the book, for what is Lent without an admission or recognition of sin in one’s life. This is a way to cleanse and repent in a novel and even expressively creative and active way—the imaginative Paula Huston brings the reader along.
Of course, the work is published by a House founded in 1865 and located in the United States as owned and run by monastics of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. As a ministry in a monastic and Religious tradition, this Catholic publishing company that “…serves the spiritual and formative needs of the Church…” of which it is a part, fortunately speaks in this particular case to various denominations and for my way of thinking Christians in many walks of life. The House has fulfilled its purpose and role in helping “…others seeking spiritual nourishment.”

==Peter Menkin, Mill Valley, California
February 13, 2012



1.      The necessary first question is not that Lent makes such a good subject, but the way you as writer conceived the concept for the book. Will you tell us a little how you thought of it, and if you had trouble setting an organizational form? What is the form the book follows?

            I did not actually think of this idea on my own.  Instead, a longtime friend and publisher, Tom Grady of Ave Maria Press, suggested it to me. But as soon as he did, I knew that I wanted to work on a book like this because I had long been feeling like we’ve lost touch with the original spirit of Lent.  Those of us who still observe the season tend to think of something we are particularly fond of--say, wine or chocolate--and then vow to ourselves that we will not indulge during the six weeks of Lent.  There’s nothing wrong with this practice, but when it is disconnected from the original purpose behind such acts of renunciation, it becomes quaint and even a little meaningless in the minds of contemporary people.  Yet I believed that we might need this long season of introspection, compunction (a piercing sense of regret for sin), and conversion of life more than anyone before us.  Why?  Because we have almost no time anymore to think deeply about our own spiritual state.  We are so busy being productive and solving problems for other people that we are desperate for spiritual renewal.  The original purpose of the six weeks of Lent was to give people this kind of time.  As far as the structure of the book, it simply follows, day by day, the unfolding Lenten season, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending during the great Triduum of Holy Week.  On each day, the reader is offered a quotation from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a short meditation inspired by that quotation that takes the form of a story from my own experience ,and a suggested activity that can be completed within that 24-hourperiod.  It is meant to be used as a personal retreat.

2.      You, Paula Huston, have been an Oblate of New Camaldoli for about 20 years; they are Benedictines. Though you have written a number of books that reflect on your life and experience as a Benedictine Oblate, explain to our readers, What exactly is an Oblate, and what does one do? Are you ordained?

            I am an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, a Catholic monastic community devoted to solitude, silence, and the formation of a loving community.  The Camaldolese  came into existence in Italy about a thousand years ago when a Benedictine monk, Romuald of Ravenna, found that he was being called to a more contemplative, more eremetical life--the life of a hermit.  Yet everywhere he went, he attracted followers, so he wound up founding many small houses throughout Italy.  Today, the Camaldolese live by the Rule of St. Benedict and also the Brief Rule of St. Romuald.  As an oblate, I am a lay associate of this community.  This means I continue to live my married, family life in the world.  My focus is on my grown children, my six grandchildren, my husband and elderly parents.  I am also a full-time writer and lecturer, a writing mentor in an MFA program in Creative Writing, and a spiritual director.  All this keeps me very busy. But because of my oblate vow, I try to do all this in the same spirit that monks fulfill their various roles in a monastic community.  I try to always keep in mind the spirit of these two Rules and how I can apply them to my particular situation.  The monastery has been a wonderful anchor in my life, and I look to members of that community for spiritual guidance. But we are also, by now, dear friends--almost family--and I count that as a great blessing.  And to answer your question about ordination, though I made a simple vow when I became an oblate, I am not ordained in any way.

3.      In the book, you speak of living a life of Lenten experience during the Season, a kind of both meditative, a kind of living by giving something up, and a kind of living by adding something—even in an active sense. Where does this kind of way of following the chaste and gentle Jesus spring from? Also, how does it evoke in one the penitential and reflective process of Lenten practice?

            The concepts in the book--meditating on the wisdom of the past, voluntarily giving up that which distracts us, and engaging in activities that challenge us in some deep way--comes straight out of the past. I did not invent any of it, but only applied it to my own contemporary situation.  The rationale behind this particular approach to Lent is that we cannot begin to change our lives until we first know ourselves as we are.  It is too easy to live in illusion about ourselves, and we are often too busy to question our settled opinions about who we are. However, as soon as we try to give up something we truly value, or that we count on for our sense of security, we find out all sorts of things about ourselves: that we are, perhaps, quite a bit more self-indulgent than we thought, or that we are a lot more fearful than we ever suspected, or that we really rely on constant praise from others in order to feel worthwhile. So we learn something important.  Then we look at ways we can begin to change--and we can’t do this until we actually do something.  This was a major tenet of desert spirituality: that we don’t change by thinking about things (or, in our time, reading about them) but instead by doing something different than we’ve done before, something that really stretches us and teaches us who we are.  It’s a very pragmatic, practical way to deal with ourselves, quite psychologically sound, and it’s very consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who was constantly calling people into uncomfortable but dynamic new situations they would have preferred to avoid.

4.      This writer’s curiosity is piqued by some of the stories you tell in your book, “SIMPLIFYING THE SOUL.”  You were a writer of fiction for some years before turning to writing religious and spiritual titles. How did those previous years of work effect your development as a writer who today writes religious and spiritual works—especially in light of the story segments in your book about Lenten practice that has just released through Ava Maria Press?

            Those years of writing fiction have turned out to be extremely important for the kind of writing I do today.  I had to learn how to describe character, how to write dialogue, how to handle setting, how to recognize theme, and how to employ other novelistic techniques most people aren’t required to learn unless they really want to write fiction.  Maybe more than anything, I had to learn what makes a good story.  In order to write fiction, you have to develop a certain kind of observing eye and listening ear--and you have to have a genuine interest in what makes people tick.  So my years of training in those skills have proven to be invaluable in this other field of writing.  I’ve found that people tend to react a little defensively when spirituality is taught in a didactic way.  They don’t particularly like the sense that they are being instructed by some kind of “spiritual master.”  But they do respond eagerly to other people’s stories.  They can glean what they want or need from them without feeling as though they are being argued into something against their wills.  Instead, they are allowed to empathize--to actually form a relationship with the writer.  I know this because I receive many letters from complete strangers who are willing to open up their personal live to me because I have done the same with them through my writing. That’s a wonderful, and unexpected, kind of friendship--a real gift that would not come my way without those stories acting as a bridge.  So I am very grateful for my years of fiction writing and hope that someday I can do some more of it.

5.      I suppose people are often curious how a writer gets published. Tell us how you came to Ava Maria Press and something of your editor on the project and your work and relationship with the editor on the project? Did he or she suggest you join the Ava Maria Press book club, whose website is here and where the book, “SIMPLIFYING THE SOUL”, may be purchased: Were you picked for the book club, or was it not like an award of some kind?

            SIMPLIFYING THE SOUL is my sixth book, so by now I know a lot of publishers and editors.  After thirty-five years in any field, you develop a lot of relationships with people, and in this case, I was asked by a dear friend who had once been my literary agent but is now the president and publisher at Ave Maria Press, if I would be interested in doing this particular book.  As for my editor there, he was a wonderful help as we put the book together.  Since it is so easy to self-publish today, lots of new writers head that direction without realizing what they are giving up by trying to go it alone.  A good editor is priceless.  He or she sees things in the work that the writer cannot--both strengths and weaknesses. He asks you to clarify things you think are perfectly clear.  He argues with you, and forces you to be more logical in the way that you present your ideas.  With this particular book, my editor, in conjunction with the publisher of the company, came back to me after the book had already been signed off on and scheduled for production.  They had seen something I completely missed—that we needed to tie each meditation and activity to a particular day during the Lenten season.  It was not enough to give the reader “Week One,” “Week Two,” etc.  We needed to make it extremely easy for someone to actually start this personal Lenten retreat on Ash Wednesday and follow it through all the way.  Though it took several days of last-minute work to reshuffle everything, I think that the structure is maybe the best thing about this little book.  And without a good editor, it never would have happened.  As for SIMPLIFYING being selected for the Ave Maria Press Book Club, I honestly do not know how that occurred.  That was an internal decision--but one I am very grateful for!

6.      Thank you so much for your time, and the opportunity for this writer to further his relationship by getting to know you better. I am especially delighted to learn something of how your work goes and how you work. But readers who have made your acquaintance through this interview may want to know what it is that wasn’t asked about. Please add here anything you’ve not been asked that you’d like to talk about now.  Our interview by conversation by phone is coming to an end.

            One thing people frequently ask is what they should do if they are unable to handle a particular activity on any given day--either they don’t have the time, or they are simply put off by the suggestion. My best advice is to simply, without guilt, let it go.  My goal in offering a different activity for each day of Lent was to introduce people to a practice they’d perhaps never thought of before, something rooted in ancient spiritual wisdom but modified for modern life.  I’ve found that we are usually most drawn to what we are already good at, and most put off by what seems overly challenging, however, so I’d also add that if you can bring yourself to overcome your nervousness or doubts, you might find that the activity you would never do on your own is the one that turns out to be most spiritually efficacious.  In my case, this has proven to be some version of fasting.  It was not natural to me (I’m a devoted foodie, an organic gardener and a cook), but once I tried fasting, I realized how much of my time and attention is devoted to eating, and this got my attention.  Now, I try to fast in some way every day by eating primarily for health rather than for pleasure. The irony is that I love food even more than I used to--but now I have more of a handle on my once-obsession with it.  So think of this Lenten retreat as a way to increase spiritual health in the same way that fasting helped me foster physical health.  And God’s blessings on your practice!

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