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Published: 11/19/2011

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Giving spirituality a try Jana Riess set lofty spiritual goals, but felt she came up short as she wrote her book. But weeks later she turned to what she learned. Enlarge

Jana Riess is no saint. But she gave it a try, and that's the point of her new book, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor (Paraclete Press, $16.99).

The concept was for Ms. Riess to read spiritual classics, then share her observations through her distinctive writing style combining wit, theological wisdom, and a sense of whimsy.

The author, who has a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctorate in American religious history from Columbia University, lined up writings by such spiritual heavyweights as Brother Lawrence, St. Therese of Lisieux, Eugene Peterson, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and St. Benedict.

Before embarking on her literary journey, however, Ms. Riess decided that writing about reading is boring.

"I was excited about doing the project, but I thought it wouldn't be interesting to write about reading. I needed some corresponding action," she said in an interview this week. "I told the publisher, 'Why don't I try some of the spiritual practices related to the reading?' "

Ms. Riess, who lives in Cincinnati, mapped out 12 spiritual classics, one for each month, and selected specific practice to focus on, including prayer, fasting, keeping the sabbath, hospitality, and generosity.

She then embarked on a year-long quest to read the writings of the spiritual giants and put their lessons into practice.

While reading the "Desert Parents" -- third-century monks and nuns who were among the first Christian hermits -- on fasting, Ms. Riess abstained from eating from dawn to dark.

Although Ms. Riess faithfully kept the fast for 28 days, she said she never felt a spiritual breakthrough.

Instead, she said, she felt "rotten" for vainly hoping she'd lose weight, and admits to whining about being so tired and hungry that "I can't even think about the faith-related reasons I'm supposed to be fasting."

In June, Ms. Riess started out tackling "Centering Prayer," a form of peaceful meditation as taught by Father Thomas Keating.

But after fumbling through the practice she switched to the Jesus Prayer, a simple 12-word petition that takes four seconds to recite: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Ms. Riess faithfully recited the Jesus Prayer 50 times a day, yet never achieved its goal of experiencing "perfect love."

"What kind of loser fails at the Jesus Prayer?" she asked herself.

It was the same story each month: setting lofty spiritual goals, but falling short. But flunking sainthood is all about being human with the highs and lows and lessons learned.

Six weeks after turning in her manuscript, Ms. Riess was stunned by a phone call telling her that her father, whom she had not seen or heard from in 26 years, was dying in a hospital in Mobile, Ala.

He had left home, abandoning the family and leaving them penniless, when Ms. Riess was 14.

Visiting him in the emergency room, seeing him on life-support, Ms. Riess had to reach deep within -- and found strength drawn from those spiritual exercises.

"All those unsuccessful practices, those attempts at sainthood that felt like dismal failures at the time, actually took hold somehow," she said. "They helped to 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.' "


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