Are We Graded on a Pass-Fail or ….

These posts began as emails to an adult Sunday school class over 10 years ago.

It was probably about 1982 that I first read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Freedom of Simplicity and over the following years found more and more to read about spiritual disciplines/practices and later began to make the first attempts to incorporate such into my life. (I’ll spare you a lengthy bibliography here but maybe later ….)

By 1982 I had read more, attended retreats, workshops, discovered the Jesus Prayer, and Lectio Divina. By then I was a gung-ho advocate that we all should be very intentional about the regular practice of spiritual disciplines. I probably talked the ears off (and bored to tears) more than a few folk.

In the emails to our Sunday school class I tried to be more patient and gentle in acquainting our class with the various disciplines and started by sending an weekly email naming a practice and briefly describing it.

It was while I was such a gung-ho evangelist for spiritual disciplines that I heard of a book titled Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess.

Well, the title bothered me somewhat. No, it bothered me alot. I wanted to present spiritual disciples in as positive a way as possible. It already had too many detractors and I wanted folk to know how great it could be for them and any thought of “flunking” was not received well by me.

So, I did what I do with a lot of books that annoy me – I started reading it. After all, you need to know your opposition. Right? Not the best attitude with which to begin reading a book, but there is something to be said for beginning. Right? Even with a less than open mind? Right?

The book is a type of spiritual memoir in which Riess recounts her spending a year giving a full month to practice each of … well, here what is reported on the back cover of the book,

“… Jana Riess shares a year-long quest to become more saintly by tackling twelve spiritual practices, including, fasting, fixed-hour prayer, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, the Jesus Prayer, and generosity. Although she begins with great plans for success … she finds to her growing humiliation that she is failing – not just at some practices, but at every single one.”

NO! We don’t need to be writing about failing at these practices! We need to encourage folks to do them and share stories of success. — That was my initial response.

Then the next sentence on the back cover of the book,

“What emerges is a vulnerable story of the quest for perfection and the reality of failure, which turns out to be a valuable spiritual practice in and of itself.”

At the time, I was not at all sure I followed that line of reasoning, but it did intrigue me. A lot!

The following are Jana Riess’s words from the epilogue of the book and are not meant to be a spoiler but a way of seeing life and practices beyond the lens of success-and-failure.

“All through this project I’ve been hard on myself because of the practices I couldn’t do at all … the ones I did successfully but pridefully or for the wrong reasons … and the ones I didn’t see the point of. But in the end, many of this year’s practices helped me when I needed it the most: fasting helped teach me that this body and this life are not all there is … Sabbath keeping taught me about time out of time…. Sabbath time is like suspended animation …. Other practices, especially fixed-hour prayer, have this same undercurrent. Your schedule is all very good, these practices say. But you have to be prepared to drop everything for God, or others, for death….. I may have spent a year of flunking sainthood, but along the way, I’ve had unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy I would never have experienced without these crazy practices.”

With that in mind, I think I’ll take some time and let my mind wander a bit and see if I notice any “wild glimpses of the holy” that came at unexpected times in unexpected ways. Or better yet, came in spite of my schedule, my plans and my timing of things.

How about you?

{ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est}

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