Learning the Spiritual Disciplines from a Mormon Blogger
Jana Riess discovered she'd been changed by her attempts to practice the classic spiritual disciplines such as fasting, service, and prayer when she received a phone call informing her that her father was dying. He'd abandoned the family while she was growing up. She hadn't seen him in 26 years.
"Here's what I learned from my father's sudden reappearance and death: all of those unsuccessful practices, those attempts at sainthood that felt like dismal failures at the time, actually took hold somehow," Riess writes in her new memoir, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete). "They helped form me into the kind of person who could go to the bedside of someone who had harmed me and be able to say, 'I forgive you, Dad. Go in peace.'"
The call came shortly after Riess—known best for her long-running Beliefnet blog (which just moved to Religion News Service) and Bible-tweeting project—had spent an entire year sampling spiritual disciplines, one per month, accompanied by her reading of appropriate companion spiritual classics. The result, Flunking Sainthood, made the 2011 Publisher's Weekly Top Ten list in the religion category.
Riess writes with honesty and wit about auditioning these spiritual disciplines. During the month of October, for example, she elected to adopt a vegetarian diet, writing, "I'm going to spend a month avoiding my good friend, Mr. Porterhouse." Though a concern for animal welfare sparked the decision, she decided to explore vegetarianism as a spiritual practice. She read Bonaventure's bio of St. Francis, one of the most famous animal lovers of them all.
Riess learned that in spite of his animal-loving ways, Francis wasn't exactly a vegetarian. She learned the same thing 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 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 Sabbath-keeping, hospitality, generosity, and more. Some practices root bits of themselves into her life as she moves through her year. Others, not so much. Her June experiment with Centering Prayer was an exercise only in frustration. Midway through the month, 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."