So, I have a stack of books that I’ve been meaning to read. I get to them when I am able, although my ability to fly through them has been slowed in recent weeks by a rather busy fall schedule. This is precisely why, while directing a retreat this past weekend at Glastonburt Abbey outside of Boston, I deliberately told myself that I would not buy any new books while perusing the shelves of the Abbey bookstore and gift shop. I did however take a look at quite a few books, some I might never have stumbled upon unless I was faced with a physical store with actual books on real shelves (a disappearing reality). One book that caught my eye was this well-designed book with a catchy title: Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete 2011). Written by Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood is surprisingly hilarious. It is one of the better-written popular spiritual books that I’ve read in a long time and the style of writing invites the reader to flow quickly through the book. I randomly opened to a section on St. Francis and food near the end of the book and, quite literally, laughed out loud in the bookstore as I read Riess’s reflection.
The basic premise of the book is that Riess set out to live a year trying different spiritual practices and reading spiritual classics. She would write about that experience month-by-month for a new book (originally what became Flunking Sainthood). What happens rather quickly is Riess’s discovery that she is “failing” at nearly all of her attempts. In what began as a memoir-meets-spiritual-travelouge, became a self-deprecating, funny and, yet, insightful book on the struggle to live a Christian life.
Riess is direct at times in her language and in her comedic jousting, so those who seek a “more traditional” spiritual read where you won’t come across passing references to the reality of marital sexuality, the spiritual struggles of consumer culture and honest reflections on things like body image and social pressures — go read something else. I think these aspects of direct and honest engagement with the fully human qualities of Christian living provide the book’s charm.
There are times throughout the book that the so-called failure to connect with the spiritual classic or properly exercise the given spiritual practice can become disappointing for the reader nearly as much as it was in the moment for Riess, but there is something refreshingly straightforward about an author “telling it as it is” when it comes to the spiritual life and the everyday struggle so many people have with prayer and faith.
I will refrain from quoting the book if only to leave the humorous tales and witty, self-deprecating comments to stand for themselves. Take my word that it is an enjoyable read, if only for the excellence in writing style. Riess, who was previously the religion editor for Publishers Weekly, certainly knows how to use language well.