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Failure Worth Imitating: A Review of "Flunking Sainthood"

 

Riess could have approached the same project more realistically—test-driving a different spiritual practice each month, for instance, to see which ones best suited her temperament or offered her growth. The resulting book would have a different title and would perhaps offer different insights, though it must be emphasized that the insights in this book are compelling and useful.

Particularly important is the reason for Riess's flunking: "Every spiritual practice I've attempted so far has resulted in failure not because I didn't adhere to the basic requirements of each experiment," she writes in May, "but because the practices started pointing me to more profound issues below the surface that I couldn't quite face." Fasting doesn't release her from cares of the flesh but mires her in them more deeply, because you think more about a hungry body than a sated one. Lectio divina, a particularly intense way of reading and meditating on the Bible, disturbs her as she confronts Jesus' humanity, which is as messy as our own. "Why have I never noticed before how angry he is?" she asks.

By May, however, she grows "determined to dig beyond the superficial practice" of the month to the underlying spiritual concept. Two practices of the month—opting out of consumer culture and cultivating gratitude—help us understand the importance of not coveting, she realizes, of being happy with only what we truly need instead of being overwhelmed by more choices than we can realistically make or obligations than we can attend to. It's at points like this that the book is most inspiring, illuminating, and instructive: when Riess discovers within a religious directive an attitude or insight that helps her treats those she encounters every day in ways that increase everyone's happiness.

For instance, as part of her practice of Benedictine hospitality, a decree designed to help monks be ready to "welcome the stranger" who might be Christ, she decides that rather than continue to lecture her brother on the evils of smoking, she will

provide him with an ashtray to use on the deck, and bring forward the most comfortable chair. It's a small gesture, but I can tell he appreciates it. He knows I haven't suddenly embraced the fallacy that smoking is great for him, but I want him to feel comfortable in my home, to feel loved. And to come back.

In such moments it's clear that while Riess's experiment doesn't make her a saint, it still does what many interested in religion believe good religion can do: it forces her to evaluate and expand her sense of who is her neighbor, who is allowed to make claims on her, and increases the reserves of graciousness she has at her disposal when someone makes those claims. These successes are what make the story of her failed efforts at sainthood not only worth reading, but worth imitating.

11/10/2011 5:00:00 AM
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