FLUNKING SAINTHOOD: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. By Jana Riess. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011. X + 180 pages.
If you’ve ever tried to engage in spiritual practices like centering prayer and fasting and found yourself floundering, ending up feeling guilty about your spiritual failures rather than drawing closer to God, then have I got a book for you. While there are lots of books on the market, from ancient classics to modern spiritual how-to books, that will introduce you to spiritual practices and describe the many blessings that will come your way as a result, Flunking Sainthood is a welcome tonic that will add a bit of grace to your spiritual journey.
Jana Riess, author of this book, is an author, book editor/publicist, seminary-trained Emergent-Mormon (though nothing is said directly in the book making this clear – understandably so) with a Ph.D. from Columbia University. She is also known to many who Tweet for her Twibles – brief synopses of biblical texts offered each day via Twitter.
Flunking Sainthood is something of a spiritual memoir, in which Riess gives an account of a one-year experiment in reading through the spiritual classics, while simultaneously undertaking twelve spiritual practices (one per month). The experiment was devised as part of this book project, only things didn’t work out as expected or at least hoped for. Rather than experiencing great spiritual success, she fell short in her quest. While not intended, her failures are a gift to us, a reminder that even the spiritual classics might not be all that helpful, and spiritual practices can be more of a distraction than an aid to spiritual growth.
The journey began in January with a period of discernment. While reading her first classic, St. Therese of Liseaux’s The Story of a Soul, she considered which spiritual practices to engage in over the next eleven months. What she discovered was that Therese was a bit of a drama queen. In spite of her less than successful encounters with the “Little Flower,” she persisted with the plan and got busy with her readigns and practices. Riess started in February with a “Ramadan-style” month-long fast, in which she gave up food, sex, and water from Dawn to Dusk, while reading those prime ascetics, the desert mothers and fathers. Her struggle was less with giving things up, but more with why she was fasting. Was it for health reasons or spiritual ones? Did she draw closer to God, or just go hungry? What she learned was that she neither was an ascetic, nor did she wish to leave behind community.
Over the next months she practiced lectio divina, tried centering prayer (didn’t care much for Thomas Keating), read Brother Laurence and tried to meet Jesus in the kitchen. She read Richard Foster’s book on simplicity and wrestled with consumerism. She tried an orthodox Jewish Sabbath (something that caused as much hardship for her family as for herself). She tried Benedictine hospitality and giving up meat (vegetarian not a vegan). She prays the Jesus Prayer (not to be confused with the Lord’s Prayer) three times daily, and in December she reads Catholic Socialist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, and seeks to practice generosity by giving to whomever asked, with a focus on fundraising, in part using Facebook Causes, 4000 in honor of her 40th Birthday. She notes that she doesn’t respond to every request, as she had intended, as it ends up being too overwhelming, but she meets her goal, and learns the value of generosity.
What she learned through all of this appears to be that it’s impossible to master any spiritual practice in thirty days and that it’s best to try this in a group rather than alone. She also learned that we can try too hard to be spiritual, that we can get caught up in the practices and miss the point. That is, in our attempts at being perfect we can miss out on the good. She may have not fully mastered the practices, but the attempts helped provide spiritual insights and growth. Thus, she might be a failed saint, but in the end she remains a saint. Oh, and she learned that some of the great spiritual writers were self-absorbed and not all that helpful.
Jana Riess is a writer who knows how to bring humor into conversation with serious spiritual issues. This is a spiritual memoir, so her story stands at the center, but not in a way that either lifts herself up as exemplar not is it so self-deprecating that you begin to feel sorry for her. If you want to find encouragement to pursue a spiritual journey that will lead to transformation, even if it is a slow, and at times a frustrating process, then you will find this book worth reading.