In Paula Huston’s latest book, "One Ordinary Sunday," it is obvious from the first page that what she is presenting to the reader is anything but ordinary. Subtitled “A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass,” this book is both catechesis and prayer, with a good dose of spiritual journey woven throughout. It is like a deep conversation over coffee with a good friend, talking about the things that matter most.
Huston is a convert to Catholicism and so came to the Mass somewhat late in life, which is one of the features I found most appealing about this book. Because she is looking at every part of the Mass with “fresh eyes,” even lifelong Catholics can discover new insights into a very familiar form of worship. By spending significant time reflecting on each prayer and reading and gesture, she emphasizes that everything that takes place is there for an important reason; nothing is accidental.
The framework for the book is indeed, one Sunday – specifically the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (from the readings – which she includes in the text – it is Cycle A in the Lectionary.) As a lector in my own parish, I particularly appreciated the lengthy explanation she gave regarding both the meaning of Scripture and its history. She weaves in, for instance, a trip to Italy and how Michelangelo’s statue of David allowed her to explain this ancient king’s significance to a young exchange student who had grown up in what amounted to a spiritual vacuum – a vacuum, she points out, which is beginning to pervade all of Western society. In fact, she fills in quite a bit of both the theology and spiritual culture contained in what we know as the Liturgy of the Word. For Catholics who feel that they are somewhat lacking when it comes to grounding in Scripture, her chapters on the four readings at Mass will be most welcome and informative.
Her teaching background remains evident in the rest of the book as well. Nothing is mentioned which is not explained fully. For instance, when talking about preparing the altar for the Consecration, she includes a short vocabulary “lesson” about everything the priest will use. When talking about the offering of bread and wine, she explains how these elements “represent a cooperative effort between God and man” and why the Eucharistic prayer is formed the way it is.
From beginning to end, her grasp of history is thorough and her grounding in theology is sound. In spite of that, however, she is not afraid to share with readers her own struggle to understand and live out the faith she so strongly professes. There is always the sense that she could be the lady sitting next to you in the pew.
Which brings me to the final strength of this book; everything she says takes place in the context of a real Mass celebrated by real people. By the end, we feel as if we know her fellow parishioners almost as well as she does. Not only does she share their names with us, but their individual ministries, a bit of their personal history and why she feels so close to them. Consequently, when she reaches the epilogue, written a year after the rest of the book comes to an end, we can both feel at home with those who are still at St. Patrick’s and mourn those who have passed on.
“'One Ordinary Sunday' began as an attempt to explain the mysterious power of the Mass in my own life,” Huston says in the preface to this book. In doing this so splendidly, she has helped us reflect on its meaning and power in our own as well.
About the author
Like many converts to Catholicism, Paula Huston’s journey to the faith was long and not always straight. “The first time I attended Mass I was nearly 40,” she admits in the preface to "One Ordinary Sunday." “And, like a lot of Sixties’ kids, for 20 years before that, I’d been away from church entirely.” But the “Hound of Heaven” she added, quoting from Francis Thompson’s famous poem of the same name, “was clearly after me.”
Huston eventually became, not only a Catholic, but a vowed oblate of the Camaldolese Benedictines. The fiction writing she pursued as a National Endowment for the Arts fellow grew into spiritual non-fiction, and her first project was "Signatures of Grace," for which she was both contributor and co-editor. She has also written "Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit," "A Season of Mystery: 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing a Happier Second Half of Life," and "Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving."
She and her husband, Mike, own a small, four-acre farm on the central coast of California. She divides her time between that, her four young grandchildren, mentoring MFA students in creative non-fiction at Seattle Pacific University and the Camaldolese.
- Published in Reviews