Tuesday, January 24, 2012

An Individual Retreat for Seeking Humility: Reviewing "Simplifying the Soul" by Paula Houston

True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit--it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us.
Tryon Edwards
Humility means knowing the good about yourself and the bad about yourself. It is about having proper perspective. It is only when we are truly humble that we can be Christ-like, obedient to God the the right spirit, and learn to love God selflessly.

I'm terrible at it.

I try. Sometimes I succeed (always through God's grace ... do I need to even say that part?). But mostly, I try. And forget. And fail.

So it was with a sense of relief that I saw the Patheos book club was going to be discussing Paula Huston's new book, Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit.

Though, to be honest, it was with a sense of "what? already!" that I realized Lent must be coming up if this book was considered timely.

I really loved Huston's book, By Way of Grace (excerpts and my comments are here), which took readers on a tour of the virtues via selected saints and Huston's own life. I knew I'd probably like this book. What I didn't expect is that Simplifying the Soul is an actual retreat-in-a-book. When she says "Lenten practices to renew your spirit," she isn't kidding.

Huston talks about the desirability of humility and then points out that Lent is like the Church's annual retreat for all of us to stop, take a fresh look at ourselves (with God's help), identify what is impeding our ability to follow Christ, and then to apply the antidote.

To this end, she sets forth the way of simplicity, following in the footsteps of the desert fathers and mothers ... those who dwelled in the desert, seeking God ... with daily quotes and practices to help us notice and shed our sins. Huston adds her own wise observations and examples from her life to help the reader have proper perspective.

Each week is unified under its own theme and practices follow suit. Thus "simplifying space" may call for cleaning out a junk drawer one day and setting up a special prayer place on another. "Simplifying relationships" may ask you to sit in silence with a friend and, later in the week, to forgive someone in person.

None of the practices are difficult although, naturally, some may need adaptation to live up to the spirit of the thing if something doesn't particularly apply to you. For example, I tend to dread social engagements of any kind (no matter that  I enjoy them a lot when I'm actually there), so asking me to cancel a social engagement is going to do nothing but make me happy, instead of inspiring the inward examination Huston hopes for. However, I bet my husband will be able to come up with an appropriate substitute.

There are some practices, however easy, that may make us quail. That's part of the point. It is one thing to think about carrying out good works and quite another to commit to actually doing them, even if for only one day. Work in a soup kitchen for a day? Scary to step out like that ... at least it is for me ... but I am willing to try.

I considered following this individual retreat myself during Lent. It is solid and has a great combination of "adding on" and "giving up" to help us know ourselves better while seeking God. However, I realized that the different daily practices actually would be playing into one of my main faults: jumping around from thing to thing. Although they are all contained within the larger framework of simplification, to jump from thing to thing is something that brings out the worst in me. My own nature requires being forced to stick with one thing.

I don't think this applies to everyone and I believe that Huston's retreat will be a great blessing for most readers. I will be reading along daily because even considering her "help at a soup kitchen" practice made me realize that there are members of my own family who I am not giving enough time to ... such as not visiting my mother-in-law enough. On that larger level, this retreat will work really well for me as a self examination of ingrained habits. Hopefully, I will learn enough from it that I can take on some good practices as a long-term habit.

Here's a sample to give you an idea of how a day looks. There is quite a bit missing from Huston's comments, because I'd have been typing for a long time, but as I say ... this gives you a flavor. Bon appetit!

third week of lent:

The desert dwellers believed that our souls need proper nourishment--spiritual food--in order to achieve clear spiritual vision. Jesus often withdrew into the desert or the mountaintops at night in order to rejuvenate his soul through prayer.

Monday: Spend a Day Without TV
A brother, possessed by sadness and melancholy went to an Elders and asked of him: "What am I to do? My thoughts present me with the idea that perhaps in vain I denied the world and that I cannot be saved."

Thoughtfully, the Elder answered as follows: "My child, even if we do not succeed in reaching the promised land, it is  better that we should give our carcasses to the desert than return to the Egypt of fearful enslavement" (Numbers 14:29-33).

I live in a busy place. With a garden, orchard, kitchen, and grandkids to care for, my mornings are filled with physical labor. By the time I sit down for lunch, I'm tired. But then I go to my studio, where I spend the next four or five hours researching and writing. When I get back to the house at six or so, it's time to cook the evening meal, eat dinner, and clean up the kitchen. As the working day draws to a close, I find myself fighting to stay awake. But 8:00 p.m. is just too early to go to bed. Instead, I look around for something that will not only keep me up but also distract me!

... After all what could be wrong with a little entertainment after a long day's work?

What's wrong is that a steady diet of over-stimulating or fantasy-inducing distraction eventually reshapes our perception of the world and prevents us from dealing with reality. ...

Jesus, however, links genuine freedom to our ability to recognize truth. "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32). Free from what? Misperception, melodrama, falsehood, artificiality, superficiality, and self-indulgent egoism--everything the entertainment industry depends upon to hold our attention. ...

Today fast from TV. If you are not a TV watcher, then choose another form of entertainment that you rely upon to keep you stimulated and distracted. notice what happens when this habitual method of reinvigorating yourself is removed. Do you feel restless? Bored? How deeply ingrained is the entertainment addiction? While you fast, pray for new insight in this area and for the strength to try new ways of dealing with mental exhaustion.
I am the light of the world Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (Jn. 8:12)

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