An Oblate Book Review

I have a row of books about simplicity on my bookshelves. Simplify Your Life by Elaine St. James. Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go by Richard Rohr. Soulful Simplicity by Courtney Carver. Any book with the word simple in it immediately draws my eye. One of the most helpful books on my simplicity bookshelf is The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life by Paula Huston.

            Paula Huston has a very busy, full life: she is an English professor at a local college, a published writer, and is married with four children. Though she longs for solitude and simplicity, how can she justify taking time for herself? She decides to start small by getting up fifteen minutes early every morning to go sit in the quiet of her backyard, which eventually leads her to begin to make retreats at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, near her home. (The Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine family was founded by St. Romuald in the late 10th century). These small tastes of solitude deepen her longing for a simpler life; she writes, “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 with God” (page xxiii).

An Oblate Book Review
An Oblate Book Review

            We follow Huston’s journey as she begins to learn about different aspects of what St. Francis de Sales called “holy simplicity,” practices such as solitude, silence, awareness, right livelihood, and integrity. At each stage of her journey, she encounters the writings of those who have travelled these paths before her: Anthony of Egypt, John Cassian, Benedict, Ignatius, Thomas Merton, Catherine of Siena, and Bede Griffiths, and she tries to integrate the lessons they’ve learned into her life. Huston is very frank about how far off from these holy traits she can be. For example, in pursuit of the virtue of silence, she tries to quiet the cacophony of her house of four teenagers by laying down some rules. When she complains to a colleague about the difficulty of achieving silence in her home, he asks her, not unkindly, “Have you ever thought about trying to silence yourself?” Initially embarrassed by his insight, Huston realizes that when she is around other people, she herself never stops talking. Instead of trying to change her children, Huston then examines her own need to dazzle everybody with her wit and experiments with less talking and more listening.

            Huston eventually becomes an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage, and just when she has simplified her life considerably, children grown and teaching load lessened considerably, she is called to a new stage: generosity. She writes,

“The path of holy simplicity leads inexorably to a paradox. We withdraw, we reassess almost everything we’ve ever believed in, we go through painful kinds of renunciation, … we taste the sweetness of silence and tranquility. Then, when we can finally see it, just down the road a bit and around a bend, our Eden evaporates. We realize to our shock that the path is looping back on itself, that we cannot get to the place we are longing for . . . unless we are willing to help others do the same.” (page 249)

Like Paula Huston, I have been blessed to find a monastery of holy people that opened its doors to seekers. Having travelled the road laid out by St. Benedict and St. Scholastica before them, the Sisters of St. Paul’s Monastery are generous enough to take the time to help those of us stumbling along on the road behind them. Paula Huston’s book, The Holy Way, is also a good aid to those seeking holy simplicity.

an Oblate Book Review

Julie Taylor OblSB, became an Oblate with St. Paul’s Monastery on October 4, 2022. She volunteers weekly at the Monastery’s front desk without fail and is an avid reader.