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Flunking Sainthood

An amusing title and an even better subtitle, Jana Riess' new book entitled flunking sainthood is a funny, off the cuff and realistic venture into the plight of one author seeking to practice the spiritual disciplines of the Christian faith in a tangible way. Riess intends to use the year as a way to read the spiritual classics alongside practicing the exercises each month (2). At first, I thought this was going to be a lesson in humility for her after reading about her goal, for the spiritual classics are chalk full of austere practice and meditiaton.

In the month of February, Riess takes on the pledge to begin routine fasting. After engaging in the practice of fasting for a while, Riess realizes pretty quickly that the desert father and mothers methods in fasting were pretty radical. In a light hearted moment, her friend asks her, "So, have you have any visions yet," Riess responds by saying, "Only of casseroles" (14). As you begin to keep reading, you find more and more moments like these that make you laugh, and yet, Riess is careful not to make the book only laughable, she adds a bit of truth too. In trying to speak truthfully about fasting, Riess writes, "Fasting is not for visions or even for answers to prayer....Fasting is to help us on that painful road toward humility...That's why, in the Bible, so many of the instances of fasting occur hand in hand with mourning-the whole sackcloth-and-ashes bit" (16). Although at times it would be nice to enveloped by a dramatic vision, fasting draws into seeing our need for God's strength.

In the chapter on meeting Jesus in the kitchen, Riess sets out to embue daily life with 'daily life with a sense of God's presence' (25). I found it greatly amusing and challenging that she chose Brother Lawrence as one of her guides here. The Practice of the Presence of God was one of those books that I read in college and am still trying to put the art of seeing everyday tasks done to God's glory into practice. As Riess points out, Brother Lawrence was put on kitchen duty in the monastery and developed a huge sense of enjoying God's presence even in the midst of scrubbins pots, scraping floors, etc. We get a sense of God's repair of his own world in ther person of his Son, Jesus. Riess rightly comments that, "God doesn't stand around watching humanity go to hell in a handbasket; he gets his own hands dirty by sending his Son to heave us from the muck" (30). This theological truth stands upon the head of God's care for his creation from the beginning to the end. The combination of personal experience, failing to follow the spiritual practice, and seeing that God is using this experience for a specific purpose is what i find compelling in this book. Often if we fail we just throw in the towel of trying to carry out the spiritual disciplines, Riess makes the bold message in the book that it is in failing that we often learn the most.

Lastly, I thought the chapter on thanksgiving was very good in relating the desire to be thankful and the way we are obsessed with more stuff. Riess writes that even 'when we buy the little black dress, we might have a moment of euphoria, but the purchase also necessitates the little black shoes and the silver earrings and perhaps a manicure before the cocktail party" (104-105). Often, the urge and pull to want more is a desire that never ceases and only leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. More than polite cultural customs of please and thank you, gratitude is cultivated from a life of recognizing the love of God in all of life. It is the sense of the every moment being captured bringing with it a sense of profound thankfulness that thanksgiving finds it roots. This was a challenging chapter in that it calls people to set aside their previous notions of thanksgiving and reach for something deeper, something more akin to a life of thanksgiving finding its evidence in small acts everyday.

Overall, I thought this was a book of honest appraisal about an experience with the spirtual disciplines. Witty, humourous, and starkly honest, Jana Riess has written a book that will be of great use to anyone who has an interest into spiritual disciplines.

Much thanks to Paraclete Press for the review copy of this book.


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