Book review: 'Simplifying the Soul' by Paula Huston

Back in 2007, as the housing market was plunging, writer Paula Huston and her husband, Mike, turned to their emergency plan to cover some sudden expenses: They sold off a house that they'd been using as a rental.

The problem was, it provided only temporary relief: Soon Huston was worrying again about their financial future.

At the same time she discovered something else, something far more positive: She was blessed.

Her daughter's family had moved so they could all live close to one another in Central California, everyone was healthy, they still owned a lovely piece of rustic property, and they had wonderful neighbors.

"We might not have money in the bank," she explains in "Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit," "but we were knee-deep in blessings."

What is this, blind optimism? A silly cliché? Hardly. The author has spent much of her adult life finding ways to incorporate monastic wisdom into our busy daily lives — that was the goal of her 2003 book "The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life," which arose from her connections to a Big Sur monastic community. The housing crisis challenged Huston to take what she had studied and really put it into practice.

"Simplifying the Soul" is the result of that challenge — and it's encouraging reading for people struggling with big challenges or the smaller daily distractions that upset our peace of mind.

Though the book is cast, as the subtitle indicates, as a Catholic preparation for the holy season of Lent, which begins on Feb. 22, the lessons she presents on spiritual (if you're not comfortable with this word, try "inner" instead) discipline are broad and ecumenical, generous and inviting. Huston has given us a book of insights very much in company with what the reader finds, for example, in Ram Dass' "Be Love Now," James Martin's "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything" or Thich Nhat Hanh's "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life."

Most of the daily practices here — organized for each of Lent's 40 days — are aimed at restoring our sense of gratitude in a hectic rush of days that doesn't allow much time for deep thinking.

Some suggestions are familiar, others are less so. Of fasting, for instance, she recommends refraining from certain foods, but she also reminds us that fasting can take many shapes. Spend a day without TV and stay centered on your life, she says, or give up a day of email and Facebook because the "electronic chatter" you find there often dilutes "the holiness of words." Wear old clothes or cover the mirrors in your house to be mindful of vanity. You might even give up bathing for a day (though she doesn't recommend forgoing deodorant!).

Huston's book retrains us in fundamental skills that many of us may have forgotten: an ability to sit quietly, to listen, to be patient. She even reminds us, in discussing prayer, that most of us cling to extremely simplistic, two-dimensional notions of prayer. Many of us, who have been raised in religious households, probably believe that prayer requires some kind of prostrate body position, folding one's hands, reciting some hymn or making some petition with tears in our eyes.

It requires none of these. Huston's discussion, which draws upon her own reading of the writings of Andre Louf, a Cistercian monk, will be a revelation for many. She describes her own experience of needing to sit quietly each morning, before her day begins, and how Louf has explained that prayer exists in this silence: It is "something we always carry about, like a hidden treasure of which we are not consciously aware — or hardly so. Somewhere our heart is going full pelt, but we do not feel it."

Don't we all crave a little silence from time to time? Huston's book is an encouraging guide that suggests such things are attainable to all people, believers and non, by embracing a simple approach. Sit down. Stop talking. Listen.

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