What conversations do you hope this book inspires, and among whom?
I taught literature and writing at the university for many years before taking up a quieter life of writing at home. Recently, I've begun teaching again, this time in an online MFA program. And I've been challenged in the most exciting, spiritually healthy ways by my smart and talented students, most of whom are at least twenty-five years younger than I am. I'd love to think of them sitting around in a cafe with this book, talking about what they'd learned about themselves as spiritual beings, simply through putting themselves and their comfort zones on the line by embracing some simple daily practices. I'd love to think of them taking these conversations back to their own churches or spiritual communities. I'd love to think that this book might lead to fruitful new disciplines in their lives.
What one or two practices from your book might your readers find particularly challenging?
Personally, I find that offering hospitality to a stranger, especially a troubled and/or needy stranger, is extremely challenging. We can't tell ahead of time what he or she might demand of us. We don't know how deeply we might need to become involved. The same holds true for the practice of visiting the sick; those who are suffering chronic pain or are devastated by the loss of their faculties, or are terrified by the prospect of an early death are usually in no mood for the social niceties. They want and need comfort, wisdom, and inspiration. They can't be fooled by platitudes. They call out of us our best and highest selves, but that can be scary.
How would you encourage a reader who comes up against a particularly difficult practice and wants to skip it, or stop altogether?
Rather than stop altogether, I would simply skip it and declare a day of rest. Monastic wisdom says you can't bend the bow too tightly; periodically, you have to loosen it up so it doesn't break; hence, the monthly "desert day" allotted to each monk in the community, meant to be a release of responsibility and an opportunity for unhurried reflection. If a person finds that a particular practice—say, forgiving—is raising too many dangerous demons, then it's time to back off and take a breath. But I sincerely hope that the next day, he or she will be back on the pilgrim trail.
Are spiritual practices just for Lent? When we have finished the retreat in your book and Lent is over, what's next?
This book represents a small collection of practices culled from the great treasure house called monastic tradition. People from all kinds of different Christian backgrounds, including those historically opposed to Catholicism, have in recent times become increasingly interested in "spiritual formation." Anyone who finds that this taste of the spiritual disciplines has been helpful can easily find books, videos, and even institutes devoted to recovering these ancient practices. A good spiritual director can be invaluable in this quest.
What spiritual practice(s) has been most meaningful to you personally this past year? What is the hardest practice for you to engage? And what practice(s) do you find yourself drawn to again and again?
Perhaps surprisingly, the most helpful practices for me have been centered around maintaining physical health—specifically, eating in the healthiest way I possibly can. I come from a food-loving family, and we can easily overdue it, especially under stress. I find that when I give priority to vegetable gardening and cooking from scratch, really thinking about and appreciating these time-consuming chores, other things—including daily devotions, meditation, writing, teaching, and spiritual direction—all stay in pretty good balance. The hardest practice for me during these past few years, which have been filled to overflowing with little grandchildren and elderly parents, has been getting away often enough on retreat. A practice I am drawn to over and over again is the discipline of study: reading scripture and theology.
For more on Simplifying the Soul, including a book excerpt and blogger roundtable on Lenten spiritual practices, visit the Patheos Book Club here.