|A Brief Review of
By Michelle Van Loon (www.michellevanloon.com )
There have been a slew of books in recent years where the author tries something new for a set period of time and documents his or her life change in the process. Julie Powell’s 2007 blockbuster book-turned-hit-movie Julie and Julia: My Year Of Cooking Dangerously is a perfect example of this trend.
Writing about the challenges and questions raised by a radical change-up in lifestyle with the goal of seeking spiritual transformation is an evergreen topic in books about the Christian life. Think Henri Nouwen’s 1981 Genesee Diary: Report From A Trappist Monastery or, more recently, Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey Of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do. Dobson’s book was based on Jewish author A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible.
Part of the expected narrative of these types of stories is an ending proclaiming “See? I am a changed, chastened and wiser human being, thanks to this experience.” But what if an author dedicates a year to seeking life change via the practice of various spiritual disciplines – and no change of note happens in her life?
Author Jana Riess’s memoir Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor tells the story of a twelve-month span in which she immersed herself in auditioning spiritual disciplines, one per month, accompanied by her reading of appropriate companion spiritual classics. For example, during the month of October, she decided to abstain from meat – or, as she puts it, “I’m going to spend a month avoiding my good friend, Mr. Porterhouse”. She read St. Bonaventure’s bio of one of the most famous animal lovers of them all, St. Francis.
She discovered that in spite of his animal-loving ways, Francis wasn’t exactly a vegetarian. She also realized something about herself:
After two weeks of semi-virtuous eating, I am seriously craving a burger…I don’t want any more waif food, no greens or granola. I miss the four-way at Skyline Chili. I want fried chicken, and if I can’t have that, I’m going to have (the Golden Corral’s) macaroni and cheese along with green beans that were probably boiled with a nice chunk of ham for flavor. The specter of ham technically violates this month’s principles, but since it is only a suspicion, maybe I’m not morally responsible for the welfare of Wilbur, or whichever pig might be gracing my vegetables today.
Riess tackles lectio divina, Sabbath-keeping, hospitality, generosity and more in a delightfully frank and funny manner. Some practices are more successful than others, rooting bits of themselves into her life as she goes. Others, not so much. Her June experiment with centering prayer/the Jesus prayer was her biggest frustration. She writes, “Although I’ve failed to varying degrees at the five spiritual practices I’ve tried so far this year, I’ve never stopped cold turkey before. I am exhausted by the artificiality of trying to pray this way.”
Riess’s honest, funny words are a balm for those of us who’ve dug into the spiritual disciplines in attempt to become a little more like Jesus and found that the process isn’t always so instantly transforming as we’d hoped. She cheerfully admits that a month isn’t enough time for any of these disciplines to take root in a person’s life. Her big take-away is a renewed appreciation for God’s mercy, which is bigger than her good intentions and failed resolutions. She notes that “a failed saint is still a saint.”
This is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of spiritual formation.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com