One Diocese - One Season - One Book       Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess

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Flunking Sainthood is the story of the author’s exploration of a variety of spiritual disciplines and the ways in which she succeeded, struggled and found the presence of God in the midst of it all. This guide is designed for the congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York as we read the book together through the season of Lent. The guide is set up for an hour-long weekly gathering. Each week covers two chapters of the book. Each congregation should feel free to adapt the guide to fit their own particular needs. The synopsis and questions are intended to be a starting point for conversation, with the hope that each group’s conversation follows the interests and needs of the members of the group.
The book begins with an overview of how the project that led to the book started. The author was combining reading some spiritual classics with trying a spiritual practice connected with that book or person for a month. One of the things the author reflects on before getting started is the scene in Exodus after the people of Israel get the 10 Commandments and promise to obey them with the words: “All that you have said we will do and hear”. Some rabbis have taught that we can’t really hear what God is saying until we have tried to do what God is saying. So, one of the purposes of spiritual disciplines is to connect us with and open us to God so that we can more clearly hear him.

• What spiritual practices do you know about?

• Have you tried any of them?

• Are there any that are a part of your life now?

The author decides to start the project with fasting. Fasting in some form is a part of nearly all religions. She decides to do the Muslim style of fasting – where the person fasting doesn’t eat from sunrise to sunset. The spiritual underpinning of fasting is a focus on moderation, humility and having a mind to those in need. The main focus is
the make us more humble and draw us away from the world. But our competitiveness, the abundance that we take for granted and our weight-obsessed culture can get in the way.

• What kind of fasting have you tried?

• How did/does the practice of fasting work or not in your life?

• Other than food, what kinds of things might we fast from?

Brother Lawrence in his writings talks about allowing his deep love for God to come out in everything he did – even scrubbing pots. The author tried to practice the presence of God by being mindful of God in all things. She started with cooking, which she enjoyed – but quickly realized that “doing all things for the love of God” went well beyond that. One realization she had was that the never ending nature of household tasks is very much like the way that God works with us.

• What daily, or weekly or monthly tasks do you do?

• Which ones do you find enjoyable? Which ones annoying?

• How might they change if you tried to do them holding in mind the love of God?

Lectio Divina is the practice of discernment through reading and prayer, becoming one with the will of God through the reading of scripture. Eugene Peterson talks about spiritual reading being like a dog gnawing on a bone – it starts with joy and play and moves to turning it over and over and burying it and coming back to it. Michael Casey describes lectio as a basic four step process – read the text, meditate the text, pray the text and contemplate and live the text.

• Have you ever practiced lectio divina?

• What did you find helpful? What did you find difficult?

• What difference to you find reading or not reading the Bible makes in your life?


The focus of this practice is differentiating between wants and needs and spending only on wants. It is a way of living into dying to self and trying to live simply. One of the challenges that the author finds is that it is not only spending our money but our time and how much time we spend on not necessary things. The author also struggled with the balance between simplicity, which connotes joy and austerity, which connotes scarcity. • Think about the things that you bought last week. Which are needs and which are wants?

• Think about how you spent your time last week. What was necessary and what was not?

• How do you find a balance between excess and scarcity?

Centering prayer is not about praying for things, it focuses on being still and being attentive to the presence of God. The challenge many people find with centering prayer is truly being still. Part of the practice is not allow stray thoughts to take hold. Many people use a word or phrase to refocus on prayer.

• Have you ever tried contemplative or centering prayer?

• What did you find meaningful? What did you find difficult?

• How do you deal with distractions in your prayer life?

• How is silence a part of your life?

• How do you hear or experience the presence of God in your prayers?

The practice of Sabbath comes from the 10 commandments – that we keep one day a week holy. In Judaism and early Christianity it is Saturday. For Christianity today it is often Sunday. The author tries to keep a Sabbath according to the laws of Orthodox Judaism. The practices of Sabbath are meant to help us carve out holiness
in our lives.

• In what ways do you try to keep Sabbath time in your life?

• What works? What doesn’t?

• What might a Sabbath day look like in modern American life?

Gratitude is the practice of being grateful for all the little things in our lives. One of the challenges the author finds in trying to practice gratitude is how often she is grateful to be in a better place than other people – which doesn’t seem like quite the point. One of the other challenges she discovers is how easy it is to take things for granted and how we adapt very quickly to good things in our lives (as well as bad) and come to take them for normal.

• Off the top of your head, what things are you most grateful for?

• What are the things in your life that you take for granted?

• How do you express to others and receive gratitude from others?

The spiritual practice of hospitality is rooted in finding the presence of God in each person who comes into your life. The practice of hospitality is about making the visitor feel as if he or she is at home. One of the comments the author makes about hospitality is: “Hospitality is about more than seeing to visitor’s nourishment and comfort, although that’s a hugely important start. It’s about welcoming the stranger so that the stranger is no longer strange. He or she becomes known as a person. When that happens, lives can be changed, friendships formed- even wars averted.”

• Can you remember a time when you were the recipient of hospitality?

• How do you practice hospitality in your own home?

• How does your congregation practice hospitality?

The author started a month of vegetarianism thinking that it might be a practice of St. Francis of Assisi. She discovers, however that St. Francis was not actually a vegetarian. She wrestles with her own sense of ethics and her relationship with food as well as with animals.

• How much do you think about what you eat?

• What ethics do you have about what you eat or where your food comes from?

• What do you think is the connection between what we eat and our spiritual life?

Fixed hour prayer is the practice of praying at set times. Our offices of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noonday prayer and Compline all come out of the fixed hour prayer tradition. One of the struggles the author has is a suspicion of rote prayer. Another is turning things around so that prayer orders her daily life instead of fitting prayer into spare moments. The author finds that fixed hour prayer brought the psalms back into her life and that liturgy can be rich and freeing and can connect us to a wider experience of church and prayer.

• Have you ever tried to pray part of the Daily Office regularly?

• How did you experience fixed hour prayer?

• What is attractive to you about the idea of fixed hour prayer? What is off-putting?

The spiritual practice of generosity is giving without counting the cost. The author decides to practice it by giving to whoever asks her for something. She also tries to raise $4000 for charity. She finds that she gets overwhelmed by all of the causes and that it is difficult to avoid burnout and resentment.

• What is the difference between generosity and giving?

• How do you decide what and how to give?

• How does the giving of time fit into the concept of generosity?


• How do your spiritual practices impact your faith and your relationship with God?