My daughter, Emily, was the one who lured me into the Buffyverse. I was late to the party, but I made a deal with her. I would buy the DVDs of the various seasons as they came out, I would watch them, and then give them to her to keep. So that is how I ended up watching all seven seasons, and how she got a complete DVD collection of them.
I have a fond memory of the time I took Emily with me to Sunstone for a little daddy-daughter bonding. The highlight was a session graced by Jana Riess. At that time I knew who she was and had read some of her work, but she did not yet know me from Adam. She began her session with a Buffy trivia quizz, which my daughter of course handily won. The prize was an autographed copy of What Would Buffy Do?, and although we each already had a copy and had read it, Emily was thrilled by the experience. And just the fact that I knew who Jana was and had access to someone as cool and whipsmart as that gave me major points with Em, and when your daughter is just beginning to emerge from the black hole of the teenage years, trust me, a father will take all the cool points he can get.
That was a long time ago, and in the intervening years Jana and I have become friends. I somehow managed to run into her twice on my recent vacation to Utah, first at the FAIR conference and again at a session of Sunstone–the only one I made it to this year. And at Sunstone, she gave me a treasure: an advance reading copy of her new book, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, forthcoming about the beginning of November from Paraclete Press. (Paraclete comes from the Greek word rendered “Comforter” in the KJV of the Gospel of John.)
I just this moment finished reading it. And it was what I expected: personal, insightful, and very funny.
I first learned about this project from a Facebook update Jana had written, in which she alluded to a Muslim-style fast she was undertaking for a new book project. I was a little bit confused, because it was February, and Ramadan did not fall in February that year. She explained to me that she picked February to make the challenge of the fasting easier, since it is a short month with short days. (This is clearer in the book, where the inspiration for fasting was clearly the Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers, and she follows Muslim practices just because the practices of the Desert Saints were so very extreme.)
The original plan was for Jana to spend a year reading great spiritual classics, but overachiever that she is, Jana decided not only to read spiritual classics, but to actually try her hand at the spiritual disciplines they encouraged. So she spent one month coming up with the plan and the next 11 months trying to live the disciplines. Here is the timetable of her year immersed in these practices (from the Table of Contents):
Januwary: choosing practices
February: fasting in the desert
March: meeting Jesus in the kitchen…or not
April: lectio divination
May: nixing shoppertainment
June: centering prayer, er, The Jesus Prayer, Look! a squirrel!
July: unorthodox sabbath
August: thanksgiving every day
September: benedictine hospitality
October: what would Jesus eat?
November: seven five three times a day will I praise you [imagine the seven and five are struck through]
The original idea was for her to write about her experience accomplishing these various spiritual disciplines. But there was a problem: On some level, she failed at all of them. She seemed to think at least briefly that the whole project was a disaster and the book would have to be scrapped. But her editor wisely told her no, there is also a virtue in sharing your failures, not just successes. That was a wise editor. I’m sure I enjoyed the book immeasurably more than I would have if it were just Jana conquering every mountain. The stories are accessible, because we can well imagine ourselves going through these experiences just the way she did. Her editor came up with the name “Flunking Sainthood,” which is now not only the name of the book but of Jana’s blog. I love the name, and it’s apparent that Jana does as well. A huge part of being a good author is having good editors, and Jana has been blessed on that score.
Personally, the chapters I enjoyed the most were the ones featuring the most concrete and understandable practices, such as fasting, cooking with Jesus, giving up shopping, keeping the Sabbath, hospitality, going veggie, fixed-time prayers, and generosity. The other ones were more abstract and harder for me to wrap my mind around, just as they were hard for Jana to grasp as well.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually met Jana’s husband, Phil, but she has written about him enough that I feel as though I know him as a friend. Which is why I felt his pain by proxy at this little trick she pulled on him as she was setting out the plan for the year:
“And then, of course, there has to be a month where I don’t have any sex, I explain matter-of-factly. “That will be in November.”
“Okay. Uh huh.” There is a pause before his head snaps over to me with an alarmed expression. “No, wait, what did you say?”
“I said that in order for this to be authentic, there has to be a month where I give up sex. I mean, look at all the saints. Most of them were celibate their whole adult lives. Abstaining for a month is the least I can do. I think I can make it, so long as I have chocolate.”
“But…but…” I definitely have his full attention now. “Are you serious?”
It would be great fun to see how long I can keep this going, but eventually I put him out of his misery and admit that I’m bluffing. He is immensely relieved, which makes me realize I’ve scored one point at least: anything else I subject the poor man to this year will seem like small potatoes compared to the forced celibacy I could have inflicted upon him. I will remind him of this fact should his enthusiam for my project ever flag.
On p. 66 in the shoppertainment chapter she is talking about how she needs to be hyper-aware of all the ways she seeks status and approval from others:
“Like being petted with praise when I speak at a conference and people applaud my ideas, my brain, my verbal quickness, my humor. I just eat that shit up.”
Wait a minute, I’m thinking, did she just say “shit?” As if to answer my question, she continues:
“And yes, I say ‘shit’ here because that’s what the potty-mouthed apostle Paul calls anything that we feel inordinately proud of but ultimately doesn’t point to God. The word he uses in Philippians 3 is skubula, which is not the most respectable way Paul could have phrased it. The Greek of his day had its own euphemisms, polite terms like poop and caca. Paul could have chosen any of those words, but he didn’t, presumably because he wanted to call attention to the foulness of all our status-seeking. We are sinners, full of shit, I most of all. There is excrement in me.”
Some Mormons may read this and be curious about why Jana would need to spend a month learning to keep the Sabbath. I mean good Mormons do that every week, right? Uh, wrong. Every Latter-day Saint should be required to read that chapter at least, so that they have some idea of what “keeping the Sabbath” really means in the Orthodox Jewish context. Our petty observances are a trifle compared to what they go through for the day. I really enjoyed reading about all the ways she had good intentions, but had not fully thought through everything, such as undoing the alarm in the morning so her dog could go outside and do its business. Within the space of mere minutes she had struck out three times on her Sabbath observance.
But on p. 99, it brought a tear to my eye when Jana and Phil laid their hands on their daughter Jerusha’s head to give her a Sabbath parental blessing. I’m not sure how much Jerusha appreciated it at the time, but just that image was powerful and filled me with a fair amount of sacred envy for such a tradition.
I also got a kick out of the details of shredding toilet paper as described on p. 101. You have to rip up pieces of toilet paper in advance, because cutting or ripping is not allowed on the Sabbath. And Jana has a helpful tip for us: always shred way more than you think you might need, because you can still use it later, but if you don’t shred enough, you’re in trouble!
I won’t share with you the details described in the epilogue, which I found both touching and powerful. Suffice it to say that all of that failure in the end may not have been failure after all. You’ll just have to read the book to know what I mean.
I realize that posting this review now is perhaps a little bit unfair, as the book will not be available until mid-October at the earliest. So you’ve got a couple of months to wait. But I did want to convey to you how much I enjoyed this book, and encourage you to adjust your book buying and Christmas present budgets and plans to take this publication into account. You won’t regret it, I assure you.