It's clear from the start of this sparkling and very funny memoir that Riess means well. But as she readily admits, she's a spiritual failure. She intended to devote an entire year ("a year-long experiment") to mastering 12 different spiritual challenges, including praying at fixed times during the day, exhibiting gratitude, observing the Sabbath, practicing hospitality according to the rules set by St. Benedict, abstaining from eating meat, and amply demonstrating her generosity. But nothing turned out as planned. Rather than being moved by Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul, she instead dismisses the saint as a "drama queen." And Reiss is unregenerately practical. The best month to fast, she reasons, is February, at the height of winter; conveniently, it's also the shortest month of the year. Furthermore, at best, she's a "lukewarm vegetarian." Although her spiritual quest falls far short, she can still proffer spiritual lessons. Anyone who has failed to live up to expectations, which means most everyone, will love this book.
Booklist, September 15, 2011
STARRED REVIEW - Publishers Weekly - Punchy humor and unpretentious inquisitiveness combine in this absorbing memoir in which former PW editor Riess (What Would Buffy Do?) commits to both adopting and studying a new religious practice each month for a year, while simultaneously reflecting on her spiritual progress. Choosing such diverse disciplines as fasting “like a Muslim during Ramadan,” exploring lectio divina, observing an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath, practicing Benedictine hospitality, and engaging in the Liturgy of the Hours, the author shares frustrations and insights in a manner likely to amuse and comfort readers, especially those who have attempted such exercises and also found them challenging. For example, Riess’s description of her internal dialogue during Centering Prayer, concludes, “ ‘Shut the hell up!’ yells Spiritual Mind,” while her experience of practicing mindfulness, with annoying help from the never sainted Brother Lawrence, leads to a sympathetic observation that he’s “an underappreciated housewife.” Supporting quotes from saints and writers (St. John Chrysostom, Dorothy Day, Thornton Wilder) pepper the text. The author’s declared “failures” make her a sympathetic witness, while such “successes” as her description of how “[g]ratitude practically tackles me,” prove genuinely moving. A witty, inspiring read.(Nov.)
I enjoyed this book very much and could identify with the author’s longing to cultivate good habits and to deepen prayer life. I laughed aloud, and nodded my head in solidarity. I, too, have craved closeness with God, and tried many practices suggested by spiritual leaders. The chapter on praying the liturgy of the hours (or divine office) really struck home. I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to read morning psalms and then the compline prayer service at bedtime each day. Rather than feeling frustrated when I forget to do this, I enjoy the prayer time when it happens. After all, the quiet time is a gift to myself, and not an obligation in any way.
The chapter on Benedictine hospitality sent me straight to the library so that I could reread the Rule of Saint Benedict. How I long to be able to live the instruction that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'” As Jana Riess experienced, it is not easy in our fast-paced culture to slow down and enjoy our unexpected encounters with people.
While I read Flunking Sainthood in two eager sittings, I appreciated that the book could be picked up once a month, taking one chapter at a time and trying a spiritual discipline alongside Jana Riess. For this reason Flunking Sainthood would make an ideal read for the start of the new year, when many of us try to adopt positive habits. Perhaps you long to try lectio divina, centering prayer, or a deeper sabbath observance. With Flunking Sainthood, you can enjoy the companionship of Jana Riess as you experiment and journey.
The honesty and sincerity in the writing of Jana Riess provide encouragement, inspiration, and laughter. I am excited to see that Paraclete Press has published a useful companion volume, Flunking Sainthood Every Day: A daily devotional for the rest of us. —Lisa, Light to Read By
About the Author
Jana Riess is the author or editor of nine books, including What Would Buffy Do? Although she is a spiritual failure and was never able to climb the rope in gym class, she has a doctorate from Columbia University and teaches religion at Miami University. She blogs at http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/.