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“Using the Christian tradition of solitude, silence and contemplation as her foundation, Huston offers one of the best books available on living the simple life.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“This book will give solace and guidance to those who, like Paula Huston, have felt the interior call to simplicity, the intense gravitational pull of the God within.”
—Bruno Barnhart, Camaldolese monk and author, Second Simplicity
An Invitation to a Simple, More Peaceful Life
Is leading a simple life possible in a world of chaos and complexity? Driven by this searching question, Paula Huston, a busy forty-something college professor, wife, and mother, embarked on a spiritual journey to find a peaceful, less cluttered kind of life.
The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life is the fruit of Huston’s arduous search. Two discoveries sustained her: that she herself could experience simple living just as a nearby community of Catholic monks did and, more important, that she could find the keys to such a life in the lives and writings of the great monastic saints. Drawing on these discoveries, Huston examines a variety of measures that point the way toward the practical, day-to-day simplicity of a life that so many desire.
I n t r o d u c t i o n
How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.
Jesus, in Matthew 7:14
We were walking down a dirt lane, pretending hard not to be what we actually were: tourists from California, out gawking at the Amish. It was still quite early—the dawn sky was a sober pearl gray—and we were hoping to do some undetected snooping before the world woke up and caught us in the act. Mike was there to check out the classic Pennsylvania Dutch barns (he’d just spent two years building a modern version on our four acres at home), while I greedily inspected tomato after fat heirloom tomato.
We both come from farming backgrounds—Minnesota Norwegians on my side and Kansas Scotch-Irish on his— but that doesn’t quite explain our ongoing fascination with this closed-off and seemingly antiquated culture. The capacious white farmhouses, the horse-drawn plows sitting idle on this Sabbath morning, the wooden water mills, the flower gardens spilling over with sweet peas and hollyhocks: these were strangely powerful images, symbols, perhaps, of a better way of life, one that seemed hauntingly familiar yet completely out of our reach.
Then from behind us came the measured clopclopping of hooves on pavement, and we realized to our dismay that the Amish get up very early indeed and that we were about to be engulfed by black buggies on their way to church. “Don’t turn around,” I whispered, embarrassed that these very private people had caught us on their private road.
Mike, equally uncomfortable, nodded, and we picked up the pace, just an innocent couple out for some morning exercise. Then the first horse, a sleek healthy bay with white stockings, trotted past. We allowed ourselves a single sideways glance; there sat the driver, a big man with a wide black hat and a beard that began at the edges of his jaw. Beside him was his wife. They did not look at us, nor did they smile, but as they passed by, each of them lifted a hand as though in benediction.
Framed in the back window of the buggy were two small blonds, perfect replicas of their parents, staring out at the strangers on their isolated lane. What were they thinking, these farm children of a bygone era? How must we have appeared to them? I longed to run after them and ask—yet at the same time I wished that we could vanish on the spot. No matter how I wanted to deny it, the modern world trailed along behind us, noxious and invisible and inevitably mucking up whatever it touched. Our innocent desire to momentarily join them in their seventeenth-century lives could only do damage in the long run. We needed to leave.
This, at least, was the easy way to explain the oddly wrenching impact of that Sunday morning scene. I couldn’t seem to forget about it; years later, the image was still rising in me, poignant and compelling. I finally decided that we’d been born in the wrong era; we were not meant to live in a society of blinking computer screens and jammed freeways. And certainly this discouragement with contemporary life was not entirely misplaced. Indeed, we do live in an anxious culture, a “culture of despair,” as some have called it. In many ways, we seem to have lost our moorings, while people like the Amish apparently still know who and what they are. Thus, my yearning for the simple beauty and order of their lives could not be dismissed as mere romantic fantasy.
But my sense of longing that morning could not have been generated solely by the problems of modernism. For centuries, people of widely varying cultures and times—some just as rural as the Amish—have struggled to get clear, to find a less cluttered kind of life. For the majority, it has been enough to simply read about and admire those (such as Buddha and Socrates) who actually managed to live this way. Others—“extremists” like Gandhi—could not rest until they put it into practice for themselves. Catholic history is literally crowded with this kind of saint.
For Mike and me, the Amish seemed to be guardians of a treasure long since forgotten by our own society: the secret to a simple, integrated life. I’ve slowly come to believe, however, that what was lost can be found again, that no matter what the existing circumstances, a decision for simplicity can be made. When this decision is taken seriously, it can provide a powerful alternative to the status quo.
Simplicity can provide that alternative because, first of all, it generates hope. In a consumerist society like ours, people who wish to live simply must make a series of intentional choices against what is habitual, like the unrestrained use of credit cards, driving when walking is possible, and the unchallenged notion that faster or bigger or newer is always better. In the process of saying no, they will discover that they can successfully resist manipulation by faceless commercial or political forces. They can retain their own power and dignity in the face of immense pressure to become objects instead of human beings.
Second, simplicity leads to greater unity, both within an individual and in society at large. When people control or entirely set aside materialistic desires, when they let go of raging ambition, and when they challenge media-generated paranoia, they no longer feel torn in a hundred directions. Interior chaos subsides; the psychic battlefield goes calm and silent. People can experience themselves as whole and at peace, at one instead of fragmented. They begin to see others as compatriots (“My joy!” as St. Seraphim of Sarov used to greet every stranger he met) instead of as competitors or, worse, wolves masquerading as sheep.1
Finally, when adopted with a whole heart and for a lifetime, simplicity leads to an often striking tranquility. This, in spite of the fact that such a life is not necessarily easy—many times, in fact, it is quite difficult. Certainly, convenience and comfort are not its core values. Hard work, both manual and mental, has traditionally accompanied intentional living. Security issues inevitably arise. Freed up from needless worry, however, people can think more clearly about what they do and how they do it. Thus, a genuinely simple life is one in which actions are more often rooted in principles than in the demands of the emotions.
At least some of the “good news” that Jesus brought had to do with this kind of liberation. The New Testament is filled with reassurances that this world is a safe place for us to be. Time and again, Jesus reminds us that God loves us and will provide what we need. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear,” he says. “For life is more than food and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:22–23). He continues, “Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:25–26).
Jesus doesn’t promise that we will find this a comfortable way to live, but he does assure us that even when human life seems to be a terrible struggle, we are not alone. He says, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). In other words: Calm yourselves. Be still. Listen.
In my own life, the yearning for simplicity preceded my first attempts to make any actual changes by many years. Like most contemporary women, I worked full-time. We had four children to support, a mortgage to pay, cars to fuel, groceries to buy, insurance to maintain, tax bills with which to deal. We had siblings (eight of them between us), elderly parents, friends, students, and social responsibilities. Along with my university teaching job, I was also a writer.
The hours were so jammed with activity that I often lay awake half the night prioritizing my responsibilities for the following day. The apparently serene and focused life of the Amish seemed miles and eons away from the one I was living. You can’t do this, I told myself, unless you walk away completely and become a cloistered nun or join a religious commune. The modern reality is that we can’t slow down for a minute, much less go back to milking cows. It’s hopeless.
Then, in Mass, I would hear it again, the call of the Gospels to a simpler, purer life:
“Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” (Luke 12:27–28)
“Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” (Luke 12:33–34)
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:27)
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)
Over and over, I heard that gentle, insistent urging to rethink my direction, to stop my anxious striving.
Eventually, thanks to a friend who invited me to come along with her, I was introduced to a simple-living community much closer at hand than the Amish: the monks of New Camaldoli Hermitage on the central coast of California. The white-cowled Camaldolese of Big Sur live in many ways as they lived a thousand years ago in Italy, where the order first began. Their day is ordered around the ringing of the bells, the multiple calls to worship and prayer that take precedence over whatever work they might be doing. I’d never seen anything remotely equivalent. Even during my first brief visit, I sensed that this, perhaps, was the place I’d been looking for, the place that might teach me what I’d been trying so long to grasp on my own.
A two-hour drive from my home near San Luis Obispo, the hermitage was close enough for frequent day trips—sometimes just for Mass followed by a picnic overlooking the sea, and sometimes, despite the winding road and evening fog, for a whole precious morning and afternoon. On occasion, I talked with whichever monk was on duty in the bookstore, asking as many questions as I thought he could bear, but most often I simply walked or sat watching from a bench. Eventually, I began to make retreats of several days, learning a little more each time about the disciplines of monastic simplicity. Inevitably, I tried to carry some of these home with me, down the mountain and back into what I called the real world.
The reasons I might have set out on this course of simplicity are myriad: it is better for the environment; it is “fairer” to the rest of the world if I adopt a simpler lifestyle; the original Americans intended for us to live this way; it is healthier; it is infinitely more enjoyable; I am a nicer person when I let go of things. Certainly any of these are a compelling enough reason to give it a try. I’ve found, however, that to sustain the experiment, I’ve had to take my cue from the Camaldolese monks and the Amish farmers: I’ve had to anchor myself in a single, central reality—my longing for God—and allow everything else to arrange itself accordingly.
In doing so, I’ve made an interesting, if painful, discovery: the path to simplicity runs right through the middle of me. In other words, the world may be a complicated and confusing place, but even if it were as serene as a Japanese garden, I’d manage to stir things up for myself. I’ve developed a large collection of habitual attitudes over the years, and these hold me in complicated thrall no matter what the setting. Most of the clutter, in fact, has turned out to be internal rather than external, a result of the kind of person I am rather than the time and place in which I live.
It is extremely difficult to let go of these longtime habits of thinking, emotional response, and reaction. When Jesus reminds Peter that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, this is in part what he means. Too often we are tripped up not by serious temptation or dramatic sin but by ingrained patterns, some of which are so much a part of us that we can no longer even recognize a different approach. It is far easier, far more comfortable, to do what we’ve always done than to change our ways.
One of the first tricks I tried to play on myself was to pretend that some parts of me were exempt from this difficult transformative process, for example, my tendency to exaggerate. This trait, I told myself, comes with a writer’s personality—and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it if I want to keep on being a writer. God made me a writer, so who am I to change what he put in me in the first place? Besides, exaggerating has nothing to do with my spiritual life.
It did not take long to figure out that the quest for a simpler, holier life eventually must touch on every aspect of our nature, and that Jesus refers to the spiritual path as the “narrow way” for a good reason. It is sometimes wrenching to see just what a complicated muddle we’ve made of ourselves, and why it is we have allowed that to happen. It’s even more painful to realize that there are no “spiritual holidays”—that there is no division at all between the secular and the spiritual—when we truly understand what St. Paul means when he says, “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We put off the old version of ourselves so as to make way for the new.
For this reason I found myself leaning heavily and gratefully through the years on exemplars: particular people who had actually done what I was trying (so often unsuccessfully) to do. Christianity is a gold mine of such individuals. From the Desert Fathers to the medieval mendicants to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, the tradition overflows with proof that a simpler, holier life is indeed possible, and that this quest begins in pretty much the same way for all of us: in a sincere desire to change.
In addition to the powerful examples of the lives of the saints, one of which is discussed in each chapter of this book, there are the legacies that they left behind, often in the form of a new or reformed order: the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Franciscans, the Jesuits. Taken chronologically, the histories of these various foundations and reforms become to a large degree the history of Catholicism. I approached them here in a different way— thematically rather than chronologically—but found in the course of writing this book that they fell into a certain historical order after all. I have extracted from each order’s Rule that which best supports and explains the principle of simplicity I discuss in each chapter.
The word rule, as Thomas More points out, comes from the Latin term regula, which in Roman times meant “pattern” or “model.” Such models, I’ve found, can be just as helpful in their own way as the examples of saintly lives. The rules of each order were written in response to the reality of lived community experience. They were not theoretical, but practical, the result of much trial and error.
When I finally took oblate vows at New Camaldoli Hermitage—vows that formalized my by then longstanding relationship with the community—I promised to incorporate into my nonmonastic life, in whatever way I might best do this, the Brief Rule of St. Romuald: “Sit in your cell as in a paradise. Put the whole world behind you, and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. . . .”2 His little rule might be more appropriately called “Some Advice from St. Romuald for Struggling Neophyte Contemplatives,” and it is not the kind of monastic rule that communities actually adopt. Still, it has helped me redirect the flow of my days, as it no doubt also helped those eleventh-century Benedictines who became the Camaldolese, those long-ago monks who yearned for more solitude and silent prayer.
The more I’ve immersed myself in the Christian way of simplicity, the more I’ve come to see how much of that path we share with all the major world religions, for the simple life is most often taken up by those on a quest for holiness. Each religion adds or subtracts certain tenets, but the overall pattern is startlingly similar, whether the doctrine is Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, or Muslim, or whether one is looking at one of the major strains of Christianity: Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic.
People of all faiths have long taken note of a “perennial philosophy,” a common wisdom that grows naturally out of the practice of various age-old disciplines. Unfortunately, contemporary Christians—unless they happen to be monastics—do not hear much about this anymore. Those who wish to find out what these practices are often have to do some serious digging. I certainly did, and this in spite of the fact that so many people these days seem to be searching for the same lost treasure.
The bedrock of this perennial philosophy is lived experience in such areas as solitude, silence, asceticism (fasting, for example), chastity, poverty, and meditation. The principles of simplicity discussed in each chapter of this book are rooted in these disciplines. Some of them—solitude, for example, or right livelihood—will no doubt seem more or less compatible with contemporary values. Others, such as the ancient forms of asceticism or chastity, can seem antithetical to modern notions about self-fulfillment.
Taken together, these disciplines reveal an integrated picture of human nature, a sort of anthropology that is both very old and surprisingly current. First, they help bring into focus our common identity, the fact that we are, every one of us, made in the image of God. Bombarded as we are with examples of human evil, it is very easy to forget or even deny this central spiritual truth. The quest for holy simplicity, however, is founded on the notion that there is something better—something actually divine—at our core. We have lost sight of this wonderful fact because we are often hopelessly distracted by needless anxiety and tyrannous desire.
When we experience ourselves in the light of these ageold practices, we understand who we are as individuals. We recognize—and even cherish—that heavy bundle of attributes and defects that will bend our backs throughout a lifetime. Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov calls this burden of individuality our “personal cross,” defining it as a “combination of what is given and what is desired.” The disciplines of simplicity, rooted as they are in the larger spiritual disciplines, have the uncanny ability to reveal that cross and hence “the facts of our destiny.” 3
Though at times this can be painful, the alternative— not to know who we are, why we are here, and what we are meant to do—is more agonizing by far. Only in retrospect can I see that my wistful yearning for a simpler life held this at the center: I could not rest until the vast clutter of shoulds and oughts and want-tos, fears and angers and addictions, had been cleared away long enough to glimpse what I am in relationship to God. Though I’m starting to grasp that this will be a lifelong process and that we humans always see through a glass darkly, when it comes to the most important truths, the path itself provides me with enough meaning to keep at it.
As Evdokimov says, the spiritual journey “introduces order, reveals the rhythm of its own growth, and requires a progressive march.”4 It keeps us moving toward instead of away from. Even when it drags into view our deepest and most shameful wounds, our most fiercely guarded secrets, it does so in service of that forward movement, that progress toward the light. Without seeing ourselves as we are, we can never see ourselves as we were meant to be.
The seventh-century ascetic St. Isaac the Syrian, steeped in the hard-won wisdom of this same spiritual path, reminds us that there is nothing more important that we can do with our time here on earth. The willingness to look at what we have become in the world and then do our best, in partnership with God, to change that borders on the miraculous for St. Isaac. If we can only stay with it, this lifetime struggle ultimately teaches us that it is the “simplicity of God [that] unites” while it is the “complexity of evil [that] disperses.” 5 This is why he insists so strongly that “[he] who sees himself as he is, is greater than one who raises the dead.” 6
St. Paul urges the same quest upon us in his letter to the Ephesians, the quest so clearly taken up by the Amish, the monks of New Camaldoli, and everyone throughout the ages who has ever heard and responded to the thrilling challenge of the Gospels: “Awake, O sleeper, / and arise from the dead, / and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14). My hope is that in these complicated times of ours we can rediscover the joy and peace that accompany this difficult journey; and that somewhere along the way we can reclaim our lost simplicity.
Part 1: Withdrawing and Taking Stock 1
1. Solitude: The Way of the Hermit 7
2. Silence: The Way of the Cenobite 33
Part II: Cleansing and Finding Strength 59
3. Awareness: The Way of the Ascetic 65
4. Purity: The Way of the Celibate 93
Part III: Discovering a New Community 117
5. Devotion: The Way of the Psalm Singer 123
Part IV: Facing the Demons 147
6. Right Livelihood: The Way of the Laborer 153
7. Confidence: The Way of the Mendicant 183
8. Integrity: The Way of the Reformer 211
Part V: Returning to the World 241
9. Generosity: The Way of the Servant 245
10. Tranquility: The Way of the Contemplative 275
11. Beginning 311