Friday, November 18, 2011

"Flunking Sainthood": Who Can't Relate?

During my recent trip to Mepkin Abbey, I realized I hadn’t packed well in terms of books. While I had brought some great novels, I found myself with a craving to read something more spiritual. How had I got to Mepkin Abbey without Kathleen Norris or Thomas Merton in my bags?

Happily, Mepkin Abbey has a great gift shop with a marvelous selection of books. I decided to splurge on a book purchase, even though I know I could get that same book for a cheaper price on Amazon. I’ll happily let Mepkin Abbey keep those profits.

I also decided to buy because I have time to read at Mepkin Abbey, unlike during other times of my life. I chose Jana Riess’ Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor. I had read a good review, and it looked like something I would enjoy.

It’s a delightful book, although if you want something dense and chewy for your brain, you might want to go back to that Thomas Merton. Jana Reiss zips through religious practice after religious practice, without ever really mastering any of them.

Her book is structured in much the same way as Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Each month, Reiss chooses a different religious practice to try. She also reads at least one book about the practice.

So, for example, in September, she explores the practice of hospitality. She tells us about her experience dropping in on her mother’s cousin David, a Benedictine monk, with very little notice. She talks about how generous he was: “Before I hung up the phone, David had made me feel like he had woken up that morning just hoping against hope that a ragtag band of loosely confederated idiots would descend on his monastery that very day, and he simply couldn’t wait to show them around” (114). She reads the Rule of Benedict. She contemplates pet sitting and Facebook in terms of hospitality. She realizes that “making guests feel welcome is about allowing them to be who they are, not who you want them to be” (125).

She sprinkles each chapter with great quotes, and she includes a section of notes that explain some of the quotes and that gives a reader who wants more information on the practice some additional resources. The book gave me enough information so that I felt fed, but not so much that my brain hurt.

What I really liked was her sense of humor. But it’s not a nasty sense of humor. It has a piercing insight to deliver, even as I’m laughing. For example, she says, “We believe we fall short and need to repent, but we don’t dwell heavily on the idea that we are born sinners. That’s even more true in American culture, where the only time we’re likely to hear the word sin is in a sentence about a particularly rich chocolate cake” (pp. 150-151).

I also appreciated that as she tried each practice and failed, she kept going and trying. At the end of the book, she realizes that most of these practices would have needed more than a month to take root, and more time for her to practice. She also realizes the value of attempting these practices within a community, rather than by her solitary self.

It’s a quick read, but a satisfying read. It’s relatively short, at 171 pages, which I value these days—it means I’m going to actually finish the book.

Here are some more quotes:

--“In a brilliant book about the theology of housekeeping, Margaret Kim Peterson says that it’s precisely the never-ending nature of household tasks such as cooking that makes them ‘so akin to the providential work of God’” (p. 30).

--“In Jesus, God is cleaning his house” (p. 31).

--“The problem isn’t shopping. The secret problem is coveting” (p. 61).

--“Christians absolutely can be thankful and unhappy at the same time. In fact, we ought to be because this world is not as God intended it. When we are in despair about a child getting leukemia, God is right there beside us feeling righteously pissed” (p. 110).

--“I do know one thing: the world would change tremendously if more Christians would tithe” (p. 161).

--“It occurred to me as I dropped everything to be at my father’s bedside that when we truly keep the Sabbath, God can mold us into the kind of people who don’t make an idol out of work, which is a particular temptation for me and perhaps a lot of other Americans” (p. 170).

--“And if I did it all again, I would try to stop practicing charity from a distance. One of my greatest failures this year was my careful refusal to get involved” (p. 170).

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