Lessons From a Spiritual Failure

Author Jana Riess spent a year attempting twelve different spiritual practices—from fasting and praying at fixed hours to mindful cooking and charity. And she failed at every one. A lesson for our times, perhaps—Riess reports her findings on failure in a terrific memoir entitled Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving my Neighbor, out this week. I talked with Jana about the book.

Failure. How timely. What spiritual lessons are we to be learn from it all?

Growing up, I was a perpetual overachiever. I always felt that if you fail, you shouldn’t shout it from the rooftops. And in writing this book, I didn’t set out to fail: I set out to write about reading the spiritual classics and undertaking one-month trials of spiritual practices they recommend. But my year ended up being a difficult one. I could never pull it all together. When it was all over, I confessed to my editor: “I have not managed to succeed.” And she convinced me to call the project “Flunking Sainthood.” So this ended up being a project about failure instead. It was very freeing.

I could really sense the pull of everyday life in your chapters. Isn’t that one of the greatest sources of failure—or at least distraction—for everyone?

Yes. And compounding daily distraction was loneliness. My attempt at fasting every day until sundown was my first realization of how stupid it was to attempt spiritual practices by myself. When we commit to a spiritual community, it’s not that we have other people to pick up the slack. But we do have other people to bear our burdens with us. I could have used some of that.

That insight reorients the purpose of spiritual practice, I think. One sets out to do practices thinking they may discover or develop in themselves a deepened spirituality, but they inevitably lead to an encounter with our individual limits and a hunger for good company.

And when you fail, you want someone standing there telling you that you are okay, you are still beloved.

Many memoirs take themselves so seriously, but yours has this wonderful Midwestern pragmatism and humor. It’s delightfully unpretentious for a serious spiritual undertaking. And your impatience with some of these spiritual practices is plain. Like the practice of mindfulness in cooking recommended by the contemplative Brother Lawrence

I did not connect with Brother Lawrence. I love cooking but it’s not necessarily a chance to connect with God. I think about my day and listen to NPR.

But NPR is the voice of God, right?

Absolutely. With Brother Lawrence, my Midwestern pragmatism really comes into play. I wanted a checklist. He dives in and assumes that if cooking worked for him as a path to spiritual insight, it will work for you. If I were his editor, I would tell him we need more detail on the process.

In Flunking Sainthood, you talk about classic spiritual practices like prayer, fasting, gratitude, charity. I am dying for a clear voice to give the world some guidelines for spiritual practice on the internet. You’ve earned your failed sainthood. What advice do you have to dispense?

First, take a digital Sabbath. I need to have time to read and reflect and connect with people instead of a machine. Second, I’ve learned the hard way that many people who react vitriolically to something I’ve written are in great pain. As much as I’d like them to see me as human, I must try to remember that they are human too. Third, I try and be open to criticism, which is sometimes based in truth. Finally, I realize I can’t blog all things for all people.

Sometimes, one fails—yes? There is a kind of peace in accepting this?