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This wry memoir tackles twelve different spiritual practices in a quest to become more saintly, including fasting, fixed-hour prayer, the Jesus Prayer, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, and generosity. Although Riess begins with great plans for success (“Really, how hard could that be?” she asks blithely at the start of her saint-making year), she finds to her growing humiliation that she is failing—not just at some of the practices, but at every single one. What emerges is a funny yet vulnerable story of the quest for...
This wry memoir tackles twelve different spiritual practices in a quest to become more saintly, including fasting, fixed-hour prayer, the Jesus Prayer, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, and generosity. Although Riess begins with great plans for success (“Really, how hard could that be?” she asks blithely at the start of her saint-making year), she finds to her growing humiliation that she is failing—not just at some of the practices, but at every single one. What emerges is a funny yet vulnerable story of the quest for spiritual perfection and the reality of spiritual failure, which turns out to be a valuable practice in and of itself.
Praise for Flunking Sainthood:
" Flunking Sainthood is surprising and freeing; it is fun and funny; and it is full of wisdom. It is, in fact, the best book on the practices of the spiritual life that I have read in a long, long time." - Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath
Jana Riess reminds us that saints are different from most of us: They are special, we are barely normal. They get it right, we rarely get it. They see God, we strain to see much of anything. And, Jana is no saint.
Rather than climbing to the pinnacle and sitting on a pedestal to tell us how it could be, Jana slides right next to us and reminds us that sainthood is overrated. With humor and insight she whispers to is that our lives matter just as they are. She prods us to never let our failures hold us back. She calls us to something greater than spiritual success - ordinary faithfulness.
Flunking Sainthood is the book I’m giving to my friends who are seeking to make sense of their emerging faith. - Doug Pagitt, author of A Christianity Worth Believing
“Jana Riess may have flunked at sainthood, but she's written a wonderful book. It's both reverent and irreverent, and it will make you want to become a better Christian -- or Jew, or Muslim, or Zoroastrian, or Jedi, or whatever you happen to be.” - AJ Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically
"Warm, light-hearted, and laugh-out-loud funny, Jana Riess may indeed have flunked sainthood, but this memoir assures us that she is utterly and deeply human, and that is something even more wonderful. Honest and sincere, she will endear you from page one." -- Donna Freitas, author of The Possibilities of Sainthood
“With a helpfully hilarious account of her own grappling with godliness, Jana Riess proves to be a standup historian well-practiced in the art of oddly revivifying self-deprecation. She loves her guides, historical and contemporary, even as she finds them alternately impractical, harsh, or "infuriatingly jolly." The book is freaking wonderful—a candid and committed tale of prayers that resists supersizing and spirituality that has no home save the glory and the muck of the everyday.”--David Dark, author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
“Jana Riess's new book is a delight—fun, funny, engaging and a powerful reminder that the greatest work in our lives is not what we'll do for God but what God is doing in us.” --Margaret Feinberg, www.margaretfeinberg.com, author of Scouting the Divine and Hungry for God
“Flunking Sainthood allows those of us who have attempted new spiritual practices-- and failed-- to breathe a great sigh of relief and to laugh out loud. Jana Reiss’s exposé of her year-long and less-than-successful attempts at eleven classic spiritual practices entertains and educates us with its honesty and down-to-earthiness. In spite of Jana’s paltry attempts at piety and her botched prayer makeovers, God showed up in the surprising, sneaky ways that only God does.
Jana is the kind of girlfriend I like to have--hilarious, smart, stubborn, irreverent, and totally gaga over God. She writes in the unfiltered, uncensored way I’d write if I had the skill and the guts (Oh sorry, Mom, I meant gumption, not guts.)” --Sybil MacBeth, author of Praying in Color
You see that I am a very little soul who can offer to God only very little things. —ST. THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX
My friend Kelly went through a phase when she was about seven years old when she wanted quite desperately to be a nun. In the flush of religiosity attending her First Communion, she pictured herself in a sweeping black habit like the sisters who taught at her strict elementary school. Actually, I just made that last part up. Kelly was a kid after Vatican II, so the nuns probably wore jeans with holes at the knees and chain-smoked in the teachers' lounge. I'll have to ask her sometime. But the Sound of Music image makes for a better story.
I didn't grow up Catholic, or any other religion for that matter. My dad was an angry atheist who considered religion a crutch for people who were too stupid to know any better. My mom was considerably more charitable but no more interested in organized religion than she was in volunteering for a Stalinist gulag. So it's hard to explain why I was always drawn inexorably toward religion and religious people.
As a child, I looked forward to spending a Saturday night at my friend Gretchen's house not only for the thrill of staying up past midnight but also because, no matter what time we nodded off, we had to wake up early on Sunday to attend services at her downtown Lutheran church. I loved dressing up in different clothes on Sunday, sneaking multiple donuts during the coffee klatch, and learning Bible stories on flannel board. This innate religiosity followed me through childhood. Even when I was away from home for two weeks each summer at Girl Scout camp, I'd attend both the Saturday evening Catholic Mass and the Sunday morning Protestant worship. At home, I talked several times to the friendly, guitar-playing Reform Jewish rabbi at my friend Sara's synagogue. At ten, it seemed a good idea to keep all my options open.
But for twenty-five years now I've been a Christian, having sealed the deal with Jesus at a snowy winter youth group retreat during my freshman year of high school. In tears, freezing my ass off on a rock, I stared up at the stars and talked out loud to God like a crazy person. A peace washed over me when I knew God had marked me as his crazy person. That was it. I was no longer an outsider looking in on God's family; I had a place at the table. I just didn't know then that it would be impossible to maintain the same passion for God I felt at that singular moment.
I feel little romance for religion anymore. I don't yearn for quiet time alone with Jesus or think about him every hour. These days, Jesus and I are like old marrieds—sometimes I'm a nag, and sometimes he is emotionally distant. Maybe the extremes I'm contemplating with a year of bizarre faith practices are the spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped only in cellophane. I'm trying to pop a little zing back into our relationship.
I should backtrack and explain. I am about to embark on an adventure. At the suggestion of some publisher friends, I am conducting a year-long experiment into reading the spiritual classics. Although reading was the extent of their original idea, I immediately upped the ante to include a corresponding monthly spiritual practice to supplement the reading. I guess I am an overachiever.
But which practices? And which spiritual classics? Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. My girlfriend Donna tells me that she absolutely will not be my friend anymore if I don't spend at least one month reading Augustine. Since she's Catholic, she pronounces this August-eeen, and since she's the brainy by-product of about a kajillion years of Catholic education, she has strong opinions about his books. "Read The Confessions!" she exclaims. "No, read City of God! That's a really good one, and it's so neglected."
I'm not that interested in City of God, preferring more personal tales I can relate to. I decide to start with Thérèse of Lisieux, having bypassed Augustine in the hopes that Donna was speaking in the passion of the moment and will still be my friend even if I ignore the guy from Hippo. I spend much of January reading Thérèse's memoir, The Story of a Soul. The nineteenth-century French saint Thérèse is famous for bringing saintly wisdom down to the level of the hoi polloi, for calling herself the least of the saints—just an uncultivated "Little Flower" among all of God's gorgeous roses. I figure I can relate.
It doesn't go quite as planned, however. Instead of being the perfect kickoff to my year of trying to be a saint, the book makes me want to strangle the Little Flower. I'm puzzled by why so many people love Thérèse. In her memoir she calls herself "very expansive," which is one of the great understatements of hagiography. In our day we might use different words: drama queen. Thérèse decided at an early age that she was going to be a nun, and nothing would deter her. She was so bound for holiness that she went over her priest's head to the bishop to get permission to enter the convent in her early teens. When both the priest and the bishop failed to comply with her wishes, she actually went all the way up the chain of command to the pope himself and charmed his socks off in a personal audience. Actually, do popes wear socks? I do not know.
At any rate, the pope waived the age requirement for Thérèse so she could get her way and be the first in her class to join a convent. In the end, it might have been a good thing too, because Thérèse died in her early twenties of some appropriately nineteenth-century disease like consumption. But at least she had fulfilled her convent fantasy before she started wasting away in her cell. The book she left behind has inspired millions with its central idea that ordinary people can become "saints" too, wherever they are. I'm determined that this idea, at least, is something positive I will take away from Thérèse, even though I find her manipulative behavior annoying and have made a poor job of reading her book.
It's helpful that Thérèse left behind some instructions about DIY sainthood for ordinary people, because in my own quest for sainthood, I'm not planning to join a convent, wheedle the pope, or contract tuberculosis. In fact, I start keeping a list of extremes to which I will not go:
But if the opportunity arises, I will remain open to the following:
Although miracle working sounds exciting, I think that my spiritual practices will be more tried-and-true—like, say, prayer. I'm lousy at it and could use a whole new prayer MO. In lieu of fancy powers like bilocation, I'd be thrilled just to feel like God was accepting my calls.
I also plan a month to focus on reading the Bible, which is hardly going to win an extreme spirituality competition. But these tamer practices fit well with family considerations. I don't want my year of radical spirituality to be a hardship on my loved ones, though some amount of sacrifice on their part is inevitable. At least, this is what I try to tell my husband, Phil, when we are lying in bed one night in January and I outline the year for him.
"What I'm thinking," I announce, "is that there will be a month where I fast, and a month where I try not to spend money, and a month where I observe an Orthodox Sabbath." I can tell that he is listening, but in a halfhearted way as he attends to his Sudoku puzzle. I drop the bombshell.
"And then, of course, there has to be a month where I don't have any sex," I explain matter-of-factly. "That will be in November."
"Okay. Uh huh." There is a pause before his head snaps over to me with an alarmed expression. "No, wait, what did you say?"
"I said that in order for this to be authentic, there has to be a month where I give up sex. I mean, look at all the saints. Most of them were celibate their whole adult lives. Abstaining for a month is the least I can do. I think I can make it, so long as I have chocolate."
"But ... but ..." I definitely have his full attention now. "Are you serious?"
It would be great fun to see how long I can keep this going, but eventually I put him out of his misery and admit that I'm bluffing. He is immensely relieved, which makes me realize I've scored one point at least: anything else I subject the poor man to this year will seem like small potatoes compared to the forced celibacy I could have inflicted upon him. I will remind him of this fact should his enthusiasm for my project ever flag.
Even though I don't quite know where this project is taking me or what this year will bring, I'm glad that I've decided to bring spirituality down to earth by trying to actually live it and not just read about it. In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner points out a scene in Exodus 24 where the Israelites get the Ten Commandments and promise to obey God. The odd part of the story is the word order of their response: "All that you have said we will do and hear." Wait a minute, we think. Shouldn't that be the other way around? How can we do what God commands until we've heard it first? Some biblical scholars say this is just a scribal error, and it's certainly possible that we're all reading too much into this particular bout of biblical dyslexia. But I prefer the rabbinic explanation Lauren gives: some rabbis have taught that we can't really hear what God is saying, or let it sink into our souls and beings, until we have tried to do what God is saying. The practice precedes the belief, not the other way around. Interesting. It's like what Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi we'll meet again in chapter 7, has to say about spiritual practice. Although he's speaking here specifically of Jewishness, it's applicable to spiritual practice for everyone:
A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his needs, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God.
I'm not sure I'll be feeling much of the "ecstasy of deeds," but I do know there's a common thread in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament of walking with God. Enoch and Noah (Gen. 5 and 6) were righteous because they walked with God, not because they believed the right things about God or passed an orthodoxy litmus test. (Just FYI, in the interest of full biblical disclosure: the Bible makes this observation about Noah's righteousness before the guy gets totally wasted and curses one of his sons. After Vineyardgate, the Bible has no comment about Noah.) Walking with God comes up again in Deuteronomy 10, in the Exodus, and in Micah 6:8, one of my favorite Scriptures. To paraphrase, Micah says God has already shown us what is good: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. I like that. This year is going to be about walking with God and taking a leap of faith with spiritual experiments.
And really, how hard could that be? I'm about to find out.
A fat stomach never breeds fine thoughts. —ST. JEROME
5:57 PM. I'm seated in a straight-back wooden chair at a suburban Cracker Barrel, counting the minutes until the sun sets at 6:04 and I can break my fast. Say what you want about the Cracker Barrel, but when the chips are down, it's the soul food of any self-respecting Midwesterner. You can keep your arugula and sashimi. Pass me the mashed potatoes.
"Could you please bring the biscuits before the meal? And some jam? And a glass of chocolate milk?" I congratulate myself on keeping the edge of desperation out of my voice.
"Sure thing, hon. Be right back," promises the waitress as she dashes away. However, she doesn't return for a full fifteen minutes. The place is jammed with customers, and the smell of their meatloaf overpowers my senses as I gesture unsuccessfully to recapture her attention. I busy myself with my iPhone and try not to notice each minute ticking past on the digital clock in its top right corner.
"I'm so sorry, hon. We got slammed all of a sudden," the waitress apologizes as she shoves various items on the table. I smile her way but don't speak because I've already crammed a biscuit in my mouth. I demolish the bread, the milk, and what passes for vegetables at the Cracker Barrel. Nothing has ever tasted so delicious.
I hate fasting. How am I going to make it through a month of this?
This month, for my first grand experiment, the plan is to read the Desert Fathers and Mothers about fasting and see what wisdom the ancient sages might have to offer me, a relative newbie to this ancient art. The Desert Parents were some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition. We call them "parents," but that's only in a spiritual sense; they were celibate monks and nuns of the third century onward who fled family life and the city so they could meet God out in the hinterlands. They lived simply, selling all their possessions, and they usually embraced solitude. Or at least, they tried to. Solitude was hard to come by, because some of the Desert Parents were like rock stars in their day. Ordinary folks had the annoying habit of knocking on their caves for marital advice, miraculous healings, or a nice pithy aphorism or two. And such intrusions were actually a good thing, because sometimes the groupies took the trouble to write down the Desert Parents' teachings.
As ascetics, the Desert Mothers and Fathers had a great deal to say about fasting, and I'll be reading those teachings this month. But the twist is that I am going to do the Christian fast like a Muslim during Ramadan. Although I like the Desert Parents in theory, I'm not keen to emulate their actual fasting practices, which included severe self-denial. Some didn't eat or drink for days or even weeks on end. This seems to me like an engraved invitation for psychosis, so I'll pass. I need a more moderate fasting practice that I can implement from day to day. I've always admired the annual Muslim tradition of fasting from sunup to sundown and wondered if I could do it. This is my chance to put it into practice. It seems far more sensible than outright starvation.
Excerpted from fLunking sainthood by JANA RIESS Copyright © 2011 by Jana Riess. Excerpted by permission of PARACLETE PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 21, 2012