Paula Huston has much in common with Kathleen Norris and Henri Nouwen, two major stars in the constellation of contemporary writers on the spiritual journey. That’s good company for Huston and good news for us. At least on the evidence of The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, Huston appears to have the insight, integrity and originality necessary to make her own important contribution as a credible witness to what happens when God is chosen as the center of one’s life.
While she clearly writes in her own voice, Paula Huston, like Norris and Nouwen, is first and foremost a gifted writer. She has taught creative writing on the college level, pioneered an M.F.A. program and has a solid track record of publications before this bookand it all shows. She is well read, honest and most of all accessible to the general reader. Like Norris and Nouwen, she has a beguiling candor about her struggles as a seeker after God. Like Norris, who was at ease talking about her infatuations and sexual indiscretions at Bennington College, Huston discloses a misguided passion that led to a doomed first marriage at age 19 and a romantic fantasy that led to another failed marriage some years later. Help and healing came while reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, when Huston came to see that Augustine’s addiction to sexual passion and hers to romantic passion were made of the same stuffnamely, idolatry, or worshiping a false god, a god that did not exist.
Kicking the habit, though painful and possible only with supernatural help, led Huston (and Augustine) to the real thing. For Huston it ultimately meant a return to religion after a 20-year hiatus. The point of Huston’s revelations is simply to underscore that an invitation to live a spiritual life at some depth is available to everyoneeven those who have bounced over some pretty rough potholes along the way.
Huston’s journey back to God was aided by monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, Calif.a relationship not unlike the one Kathleen Norris has with the Benedictine monks in Lemmon, S.D., or what Nouwen had with the Trappists at Genesee, N.Y. The hermitage plays an important part in this book, because it is from the monks that Huston learns that her aching longing for a simplified life is a real possibility, even though her life circumstances are vastly different from theirs. She tells us at the start some of the reasons that prompted the quest for simplicity: it is better for the environment, it is fairer’ to the rest of the world, it is healthier, it is infinitely more enjoyable, and she finds herself to be a nicer person when she lets things go. The fundamental motivation, however, was an uneasiness about being possessed by the things she owned, of being deluged by objects intended to make life easier and instead complicated it, and of obligations that she consented to and then burdened rather than freed her. She wanted desperately to live with less in order to find more, and was willing to give whatever it took to achieve that goal.
Still, it wasn’t easy, and part of the strength and charm of this book is how Huston struggles with the ingredients and steppingstones along the waysolitude, silence, awareness, devotion, right work, integrity, generosity, tranquility, among others. She arranges her book so that each chapter is fleshed out with anecdotes from classic spiritual writers she has found helpful. Readers will find the references both interesting and helpful.
Her beginnings are shaky. Where is she to find solitude and silence at home with a husband and four children and on the 16,000-student campus where she teaches? She takes inventory and lays down some rules to limit noise around the house: laundry on the line and not in the dryer; music through earphones or in the quiet of one’s room; telephone always on the automatic answering machine. The plan works for a whilelong enough for Huston to find peace and quiet in other places and other ways. Living on a four-acre piece of property helps; so does an herb garden, which she tends at the college.
Huston’s honest confrontations with her own compulsions may remind readers, as it reminded me, of Henri Nouwen’s battle with his pettiness and insecurities while a long-term visitor with the Trappists at Genesee. Nouwen’s depression when his friends did not write, his upset when speaking invitations did not come and his irritation at the attention others received when he was so affirmation deprivedthese very real human experiences are a backdrop to equivalent ego-struggles with which Huston deals. She, like Nouwen, was unprepared to face messy, inconvenient desires and habits; but they popped out unbidden once solitude and silence allowed her time to see. To her credit she stayed the course and lived to tell the story, with a rare gift of battling her demons in public in a way that keeps her human and not a spoiled egocentric.
The trouble with silence and solitude is that they provide what they promise: opportunities for self-knowledge. In their company, Huston learned how othersher husband, Mike, for example, her children and some friendswere aware of how she liked things to be, and how they altered their behavior in imperceptible ways to please her or avoid conflict. She was stung by a colleague’s observation that it was she who had the gift of gab, not only those English department colleagues whom she labeled a colony of high-toned chatterboxes.
In a tough episode, she came to realize how her family was in serious financial troublemaxed out on credit cards and a special line of creditbecause of her need to have their two-bedroom house renovated ASAP, rather than in incremental stages. Of this period, she writes that it was a desire, at first rather innocent (after all, it had to do with the betterment of the family) that soon became a burning itch, dominating all my thoughts until it was assuaged.
Ironically, once she gains her footing in prayer, a judgmental bug bites Huston, and she evolves into a critic, hyper-conscious of the behavior of others in religious settings: the slovenly attire of those who slouch up to Communion in Harley-Davidson T-shirts; the voracious appetites of fellow parishioners who gorge on buttermilk donuts after Mass; and the thoughtless owners of S.U.V.’s who hog the church parking lot. It takes some soul-searching to resist the temptation to jump ship from parish life. Light dawns with a little help from her Camaldolese friends and the truth that we go to God not one by one, but together.
Huston leaves us with that truth, among others. We are inclined to trust the truths offered by this author because there is no denying they come from someone who has been there, done that. This is an insider’s story that invites into the deep recesses of our own insides.