Simplifying the Soul: A Book Excerpt
Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
Simplifying the Soul
Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit
By Paula Huston
Beginnings: Simplifying Space
The desert dwellers used the image of a muddy pond or dirty mirror to describe a mind cluttered by distraction. They believed that what we cling to says a lot about the state of our souls. Their beliefs were rooted in Jesus' injunctions to stay focused on the one true thing—the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field.
Ash Wednesday: Clear Out a Junk Drawer or Closet
Abbot Pastor said: If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after awhile, they will spoil and turn bad.1
Recently, we moved from our rambling old place to a new one in the back of our property. We call the new place Acorn House. The two living spaces, one showing its scars and the other still smelling like lumber and fresh paint, sit 317 feet apart; they are connected by a trail that meanders through the pines and—in springtime—heaps of blue lupine. We have been on these four acres for twenty-five years. Acorn House is meant to shelter us through the next quarter century while our grandchildren, we hope, grow up as our children did: in the big battered house on the hill.
In this new little home, built for two, there are more windows than walls. A spectacular view gives us a sense of space we really don't have. Though there's a second bedroom and bath upstairs, we're committed to living on the first floor only, saving the upstairs for guests or someday a caregiver. Our goal in building the house this way was twofold: we were looking for a way to live more simply but also more contemplatively—that is, more deeply connected to God. In this case, our connection to God was strengthened by the peaceful beauty of nature. And so our life of twenty-five years has been shrink-wrapped into 925 square feet that includes a single bedroom closet, a few cupboards and drawers in the kitchen, and a slender pantry, lined with shelves.
In a house this size, there's no leftover space for a random junk drawer. Yet we had plenty of them in the old place—crannies stuffed with unrelated items, some of them beginnings: easily tossed but others evocative of life phases weathered and nearly forgotten. What were we to do with these stashes when it was time to move?
My husband's initial response was to pull his favorite junk drawer from a nightstand we were leaving behind and carry it through the woods to the new house where it sat on the floor beside the bed for several weeks. Though I was sorely tempted to cart it away, I instead decided to wait for Mike to surrender to our new reality; the days of heedless squirreling were over. Everything we carried on into the future had to be essential. Eventually, he accepted this fact. One day, the drawer disappeared.
The great third- and fourth-century flight made by thousands of Christians into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts stemmed in part from a similar impulse: to strip, to cull, and to give away or eliminate anything that might tie one to the past. The Desert Fathers and Mothers were on a quest for purity of heart, and they understood that physical items are never just themselves but rather symbols and reminders of the life we must, however reluctantly, be willing to relinquish if we are ever to change.