Simplifying the Soul
which has just been released by Ave Maria Press.
offers a unique answer to every Catholic’s question this time of year, “What should I do for Lent?”
I have to say that I have enjoyed this book immensely. I plan on using it to guide my Lenten observance this year and I’m hoping to share it with my husband and children. There have been Lents in the past where I’ve struggled to find focus and have felt overwhelmed by my overly ambitious goals. But, this book is really about the opposite. Even the structure of the book encourages simplicity. Can you tell me how this book helps people to live a simpler life and how that simplicity helps them in their spiritual journey?
WE ARE SO BUSY TODAY THAT WE HARDLY HAVE TIME TO CATCH UP WITH OURSELVES. THUS, EVEN THOUGH A LOT OF US ARE TREMENDOUSLY ATTRACTED TO THE NOTION OF SIMPLIFYING LIFE, THE THOUGHT OF WHAT THIS MIGHT ENTAIL CAN BE OVERWHELMING. THIS IS WHY I TRIED TO KEEP THE BOOK SMALL AND SIMPLE–EACH CHAPTER OFFERS TWO PAGES OF MEDITATION ON A DESERT FATHER QUOTATION, PLUS A SUGGESTED ACTIVITY FOR THAT DAY, PURPOSELY KEPT DO-ABLE. I WAS HOPING TO INTRODUCE SOME NEW CONCEPTS THAT MIGHT HELP ON THE PATH TO SIMPLIFICATION AFTER LENT IS OVER. THE SECRET IS THAT THESE ARE GRASPED NOT SO MUCH THROUGH THINKING ABOUT THEM OR READING ABOUT THEM–OUR MODERN-DAY TEMPTATION–BUT INSTEAD THROUGH ACTUALLY DOING SOMETHING. THE ANCIENT MONASTICS LIVED RADICALLY SIMPLE LIVES BECAUSE SIMPLICITY HELPED THEM FOCUS ON THE MOST IMPORTANT THING–GOD. I BELIEVE WE LONG FOR THE SAME KIND OF FOCUS, AND SIMPLIFYING CAN HELP US GET THERE.
What inspired you to write
THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK CAME FROM A WISE FRIEND, TOM GRADY, WHO CURRENTLY OVERSEES AVE MARIA PRESS. BUT ONCE HE SUGGESTED IT, I REALLY GOT EXCITED. WHY? BECAUSE (NOT BEING RAISED CATHOLIC) I’D NEVER REALLY UNDERSTOOD THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF GIVING UP SOMETHING FOR LENT. YET WHEN I BEGAN MY RESEARCH, I QUICKLY SAW THAT LENT, OF ALL CHURCH SEASONS OF THE YEAR, IS THE ONE MOST CLOSELY TIED TO MY OWN DEEP INTEREST IN ANCIENT SPIRITUAL PRACTICES LIKE FASTING, SOLITUDE, SILENCE, ETC. I REALIZED THAT LENT AS IT USED TO BE PRACTICED PROVIDED A BEAUTIFUL, CONCENTRATED OPPORTUNITY FOR DEEP INTROSPECTION, COMPUNCTION (A PIERCING SENSE OF REGRET FOR SIN), AND RE-CONVERSION OF LIFE. IT’S A CHANCE TO RE-CALIBRATE THE SOUL–YET WE WHO NEED THIS MOST HAVE BY NOW FORGOTTEN LENT’S ORIGINAL PURPOSE.
Throughout the book, you mention the Desert Fathers. I have to confess knowing very little about them or their ways of living. How did you come to learn about them?
I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED TO THE DESERT FATHERS BY THE MONKS OF NEW CAMALDOLI HERMITAGE IN BIG SUR, WHICH IS A CONTEMPLATIVE CATHOLIC ORDER FOUNDED OVER A THOUSAND YEARS AGO IN ITALY. THEY HAVE A WONDERFUL BOOKSTORE THERE, WHICH IS WHERE I FIRST BEGAN READING ABOUT THE GREAT FLIGHT OF THIRD AND FOURTH CENTURY CHRISTIANS OUT OF THE BIG URBAN CENTERS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE AND INTO THE DESERT WILDERNESS OF EGYPT, PALESTINE AND SYRIA. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE, SOME OF THEM FLEEING THE GREAT PERSECUTIONS LAUNCHED BY ROMAN EMPERORS LIKE DIOCLETIAN, BUT OTHERS SIMPLY SEEKING SOLITUDE AND A WAY TO FOCUS ON THEIR SPIRITUAL LIVES. FOR THE MOST PART, THEY LIVED HIDDEN, ANONYMOUS LIVES AND LEFT LITTLE OR NO WRITTEN RECORD. WHAT WE DO KNOW ABOUT THEM COMES TO US VIA THE TRAVEL JOURNALS OF A FEW HARDY PILGRIMS WHO BRAVED THE HEAT AND DESOLATION OF THE WILDERNESS IN ORDER TO GET “A WORD” FROM ONE OF THESE HOLY PEOPLE. I JUST WISH MORE CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANS KNEW ABOUT THEM–BY ALL ACCOUNTS, THEY WERE INCREDIBLY WISE AND COMPELLING SOULS.
As I read the book, it struck me how much the idea of physical and spiritual simplicity is part of the Green 4 God ministry. The idea of rejecting today’s consumer driven culture in order to remove obstacles in your spiritual life can result in a more respectful and grateful attitude toward Creation. Would you agree?
ABSOLUTELY. SOME YEARS AGO, I HAD A CONVERSATION WITH ONE OF THE MONKS OF NEW CAMALDOLI ABOUT THE NEED FOR A CONTEMPORARY “ASCESIS,” OR SPIRITUAL PRACTICE UNDERTAKEN FOR THE PURPOSE OF BECOMING A LOVING, VIRTUOUS HUMAN BEINGS, THAT WOULD SPECIFICALLY ADDRESS OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO CREATION. WE TALKED ABOUT DELIBERATELY REDUCING OUR IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT THROUGH WALKING INSTEAD OF DRIVING, THROUGH USING CLOTH SHOPPING BAGS INSTEAD OF PLASTIC, THROUGH RECYCLING AND COMPOSITING, ETC. BUT AN EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, AS YOU SUGGEST HERE, IS A DECISION TO FOREGO MUCH OF WHAT IS ON OFFER IN OUR CONSUMER CULTURE. INSTEAD OF THINKING MORE, WE AUTOMATICALLY THINK LESS. THIS IMPETUS WAS EXACTLY THE SAME SEVENTEEN HUNDRED YEARS AGO DURING THE FLIGHT TO THE DESERT. THEN, IT WAS ABOUT GETTING FREE OF THE ENTANGLEMENTS THAT CAME WITH SOCIETAL COMPETITION; NOWADAYS, IT MIGHT ACTUALLY HELP US PRESERVE OUR PLANET.
Obviously, your connection to the monastic life has greatly influenced your perspective and your lifestyle. How did you come to be connected with monastic practices?
I WAS INTRODUCED TO THE MONASTIC COMMUNITY AT BIG SUR OVER TWENTY YEARS AGO BY A FRIEND WHO HAD BEEN GOING THERE SINCE SHE WAS A VERY YOUNG WOMAN. THE FIRST TIME I SAW THIS GROUP OF TWENTY-FIVE WHITE-ROBED GUYS FILE INTO THE CHAPEL FOR PRAYER, I WAS COMPLETELY BOWLED OVER. I WAS RAISED PROTESTANT–WE DIDN’T HAVE MONKS–AND BY THE TIME I ARRIVED AT NEW CAMALDOLI, I’D BEEN AWAY FROM CHRISTIANITY FOR A COUPLE OF DECADES. BUT THIS WAS SOMETHING I COULD NOT IGNORE–SMART, TALENTED PEOPLE WHOSE COMMITMENT TO THEIR FAITH WAS SO DEEP THAT THEY WERE WILLING TO LIVE THIS RADICALLY ALTERNATIVE, ESSENTIALLY ANONYMOUS LIFE. THE MORE TIME I SPENT THERE, THE MORE POWERFULLY I FELT MYSELF BEING DRAWN BACK TO MY CHRISTIAN ROOTS. AT THE TIME, I WAS A FULL-TIME UNIVERSITY TEACHER, A FICTION WRITER, AND THE MOTHER OF FOUR YOUNG ADOLESCENTS. I BEGAN MAKING REGULAR RETREATS AT THE HERMITAGE, WHICH IN THE MIDST OF MY INCREDIBLY BUSY LIFE, FELT LIKE THE MOST SANE THING I COULD DO. IN TIME, I BEGAN TRYING TO ADAPT SOME OF THE PRACTICES OF THE MONKS TO MY OWN SITUATION. IT WAS NOT EASY, AND SOMETIMES I GOT DISCOURAGED OR FRUSTRATED (AS MY FAMILY DID WITH ME)–BUT IT HAS CHANGED EVERYTHING IN TERMS OF HOW I SEE THE WORLD.
I have to say that I giggled a bit when you told the story about taking the TV out of the house when your children were fairly young. I can only imagine what my own children’s response might be! I really admire your decision and the strength it took to stick with it despite their protests. Any advice for those of us still living with a television in our households? Or maybe I should just ask for your prayers!
IT WAS DEFINITELY A BIG DEAL TO GET RID OF THE TV, AND ONE OF THOSE TIMES WHEN THE KIDS PROBABLY WISHED I’D NEVER MET THOSE CRAZY MONKS. BUT LIFE WITHOUT IT WAS INFINITELY MORE PEACEFUL. AT SOME POINT, WE GOT A STUDIO MONITOR AND A VCR PLAYER SO WE COULD SHOW OCCASIONAL MOVIES, AND THIS IS ALL WE HAD FOR MANY, MANY YEARS. FINALLY, LONG AFTER THE KIDS WERE ALL OUT OF OUR HOME, MY HUSBAND MIKE SAID HE’D REALLY LIKE TO JUST TRY IT OUT AGAIN–HE MISSED THE NEWS AND FOOTBALL GAMES. SO (VERY RELUCTANTLY, ON MY PART) WE GOT CABLE AND WATCHED OUR FIRST REAL TV IN ABOUT 20 YEARS. WE WERE ABSOLUTELY ASTONISHED–FELT LIKE PEOPLE WHO’D JUST DROPPED IN FROM MARS. WE COULD NOT BELIEVE WHAT FOLKS WERE NOW WATCHING, AND WHAT PASSED FOR SERIOUS NEWS. BUT SOON ENOUGH, IT BECAME OLD HAT, JUST PART OF THE EVENING LANDSCAPE, AND I FOUND MYSELF REALLY LONGING FOR THE DAYS WHEN WE READ OR PLAYED MUSIC INSTEAD. THANK HEAVEN, HOWEVER, JUST AFTER CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR, MIKE ANNOUNCED HE WAS THROUGH WITH THE EXPERIMENT. WE ARE ONCE AGAIN CABLE-FREE! I WOULD SAY THAT IF YOU REALLY CAN’T CONVINCE YOUR FAMILY TO GIVE IT UP, AT THE VERY LEAST, DON’T LET IT BECOME PART OF THE LANDSCAPE. TRY YOUR BEST TO BE INTENTIONAL WITH IT–TO CRITIQUE IT IN FRONT OF YOUR KIDS, AND TO NOT LET THINGS JUST FLOAT BY AND BECOME PART OF THE ATMOSPHERE. IT CAN BE A GREAT TEACHING TOOL IF YOU ARE WILLING TO SPEND THE TIME POINTING OUT WHAT KINDS OF VALUES ARE BEING PROMOTED, WHAT SORTS OF PERSUASIVE TRICKS ARE BEING USED, HOW NEWS IS BEING DELIBERATELY TURNED INTO SOAPBOX OPERA ENTERTAINMENT, AND HOW ADS WORK. IF YOU CAN’T PROTECT YOUR KIDS FROM IT ENTIRELY, YOU CAN CERTAINLY HELP ARM THEM AGAINST IT!
Paula, thank you again for spending some time with me at Green 4 God. I hope that you continue to be blessed as your book is a blessing to those who read it.
Do you want to win a copy of Paula’s book? Just leave a comment in the comments section by February 26th and a winner will be selected at random. You will be notified by e-mail if you are selected as the winner, so make sure your e-mail address is correct.