Review: ‘Simplifying the Soul’

My copy of Paula Huston’s “Simplifying the Soul” arrived only a week before the deadline for review, so I must base my review of her Lenten Practices to Renew the Soul (that’s the subtitle) on reading alone and not following each day’s practice. This is a little like reviewing a cookbook on the pictures without making the recipes or a home remodeling book on the grammar without following the advice. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I am sadly puddingless.

I am, however, looking forward to using her guide in the coming Lenten season.

Huston practices her Catholic faith as an oblate to a monastic community in California’s Central Coast. As closely as a recovering Evangelical – turned –Anglican like me can figure out, an oblate is a lay person who has made a commitment to practice certain aspects of an order’s rules.

Huston divides the forty days of Lent into seven sections. Each has a theme, such as “Simplifying Space” or “Simplifying Relationships.” Working with the theme, she offers a reading from the Desert Fathers, a meditation based on her own experience and a practice to teach the spiritual lesson. Some are relatively easy, such as skipping the day’s shower to bring home our tendency toward self-pampering. Others are much more challenging, as in spending a day with no cell phone.

As I read through the book, I recognized many lessons (take a break from FaceBook, volunteer at a homeless shelter) as something I have intended to do for years, just as soon as my busy life allowed. This is, of course, the very definition of spiritual discipline: Making room to do the things we know we should do by choosing the eternal over the insistent.

Huston comes off as all-too relatable to the modern woman of faith: A mother of four with career aspirations (like me, a writer) and high domestic goals (she describes ambitious landscaping designs that would realistically require a full time gardener), she knows the soccer-practice-driving, deadline-driven, coffee-fueled merry go round that is modern womanhood. Yet she found it important and beneficial to tone down some of the busy-ness to practice spiritual disciplines.

As a child of the freewheeling Jesus-people churches of California in the 80s, I find myself hungry for connection to the faith’s past, so learning about the Desert Fathers and disciplines like Examens of Conscience or meditation feed a spot in my soul. Huston is Catholic, which I am not, so certain days exercises will have to be tweaked: Attending a worship service instead of Mass, praying the Lord’s Prayer instead of the rosary. Still, her call to apologize to someone who is angry with you or forgive someone who has wronged you will apply to all practitioners of Christian faith. I suspect they are equally challenging for all of us.

The forty days of faithfulness challenge will be hard to pull off, but as Huston says, “if not us, who else?” We are the representatives of Christ in this place and time.

With an earnest attempt to work through her steps, I expect a heart well prepared for the joy and miracle of Easter morning.


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