A BOOK BLOG BY REV. CATHY SWEENEY
I first read Jana Reiss on social media. She has a wicked sense of humor, as I learned when she undertook the task to tweet the Bible. Yes, tweet the Bible. Over a three-year period, Riess summarized the Bible into 140 characters a day. For example, her #Twible for Luke 2?
#Twible Lk 2: “Ma’am, we have no rooms available, but there’s a rustic barn out back that is, um, quite charming. The hay is free today.”
So it was that I began Flunking Sainthood, expecting a humorous attempt at …. something. Turns out, Riess had committed to a book on spiritual practices, and determined that her best research would come from self-imposed spiritual practices.
She begins with a thesis: We can’t really hear what God is saying unless we do what God is saying. That points to spiritual practices, and Riess vows to select twelve practices, continuing each for a month, to grow closer to God (the old-fashioned way, like the martyrs, but she adamantly cross martyrdom off the list of options).
First is fasting. Next, cooking as a spiritual practice. In both, she cannot complete the month. One gets the feeling – given the title of the book – that this failure will be a recurring theme.
Another attempt at lectio divina has her curious how one stays awake during the process, but she perseveres and learns to enjoy the silence. Abstaining from shopping, or practicing simplicity, is another monthly practice that doesn’t last.
Riess begins the summer months committed to contemplative prayer, returning often to her quieting phrase, “Peace. Be Still.” In this practice, she learns a critical component to any spiritual formation activity: make it your own. If contemplative prayer isn’t working, tweak the practice. Riess does this by reciting a prayer during the day, often: “Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We Methodists might change the words a bit (“Jesus Christ, son of God, pour out your grace on me.”) But in making the prayer her own, a short prayer can be prayed often during the day, and becomes a practice of its own: humility, confession, forgiveness, all at the same time.
There are lessons in observing a Sabbath, embracing gratitude, and practicing hospitality as St. Benedict encouraged. Eating as a vegetarian for a month becomes a tribute to St. Francis, who valued all of creation. Praying the hours could be a worthy spiritual practice, once we get past the absolute order of the clock’s mandate. Flex-time prayer becomes a more soothing practice. And finally, at year end, the practice of generosity is an appropriate end to the year, as she focuses on the spiritual practice of giving.
Of all the chapters, the epilogue is my favorite, so you must read to the end. Turns out, one of the best ways to be in relationship with God? Be in relationship with others. Don’t overlook the opportunities to love your neighbor, or your family. And perhaps, after a year of flunking sainthood, we might all realize that being a saint is not at all what God asks of us, anyway.