I was prepared to dislike this.
I was almost certain I would, but I read it, still, because it was a gift and I am easy; if you give me a book with an attractive and clever cover, I can’t resist.
This is the copy from the back:
In her wry memoir, Jana Riess shares a year long quest to become more saintly by tackling twelve spiritual practices, including fasting, fixed-hour prayer, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, the Jesus Prayer, and generosity. Although she 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 practices, but at every single one. What emerges is a vulnerable story of the quest for perfection and the reality of failure, which turns out to be a valuable spiritual practice in and of itself.
That sounds good, right? Why so judgey?
Well, it’s a stunt book and I’m not an immediate fan of the genre. The writing has to be so good that I forgive or forget the intrusion of the stunt and find myself immersed in the story.
And then there was the whole premise: striving and failing to attain sainthood…in a year. It struck me as so glib and controlled and brought me back to the fact that it was a stunt. Fortunately I got off all that and just read it.
“Flunking Sainthood” is lovely and funny and I highly recommend.
The whole book is good. There is a good deal of snark – Reiss’s stock-in-trade – and yet she doesn’t hold back her own surprise and disappointment in her unrelenting failure. It’s informative as you travel with her month by month and practice by practice and I found myself wanting to incorporate at least a couple of the experiments myself, specifically some of the prayers.
The book culminates with Reiss rushing to the deathbed of her father, who has been estranged from the family since Reiss was a girl.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” I told a friend I had called from the airport. I was crying full tilt now, my life upended a second time by this man. ” I thought I had forgiven him and forgotten all this.”
“How could you forget it?” she countered. “He hurt you terribly. You were only a kid then, right?”
“I was fourteen then. I think I’m only about fourteen years old now,” I sobbed.
“If you turned around right now and went home no one would think less of you. You don’t owe him anything. You are a good person even if you can’t do this.” she said.
“I feel like this a test,” I confided. Today I find out whether I’m really a grown-up and a Christian. What if I fail?”
She does go and forgives again, but I’ll let her tell you the rest.
It was only a week or so after I finished the book that I pinpointed the root of my resistance to it. I was talking with Paul and started to cry, “I just feel like I flunked the fire.”
This wasn’t the first time this had occurred to me, I’ve been aware of it for over a year, have written about it privately and discussed with my sister, how not everyone frames everything as an opportunity to get an “A” or an “F” but it’s almost always either or for me, including the aftermath of someone burning my house down.
It was only when I unconsciously substituted Reiss’s word “flunk” for my own “fail” that I understood my initial rejection of her book was the assumption that she was holding back and making fun. I assumed she was detached and I don’t have time for detachment.
If you are going to tell your story, write to us from where your heart has been broken. And if you can tell it funny too, all the better. In “Flunking Sainthood” Jana Reiss does both.
* The Kindle version is only $1.99 on sale on Amazon, through Wednesday.