'Flunking Sainthood,' Lessons From Failure

Despite the best intentions and plans for success, many New Year's resolutions fall by the wayside. Jana Reiss, author of the new memoir Flunking Sainthood, spent a year trying to reconnect with her faith. But she admits she failed at every step. Reiss speaks with host Michel Martin about what she learned from failure.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to continue talking about matters of faith and spirituality. It's the first week of the new year, and that means new year's resolutions for many people, but of course, not everybody can pull them off.

Our next guest, Jana Reiss, has some advice for those of us who reach for the stars and still fall a little bit short. Jana says she connected with God as a teenager on a mountaintop on one inspired snowy night years ago, but 25 years later, she said she felt she and her faith were as distant - well, taking each other for granted, like an old married couple.

So she came up with a year-long plan to change that. She decided to take on one spiritual practice a month. The result is the very funny memoir "Flunking Sainthood." And Jana Reiss joins us now to talk about some of her misadventures in the world of spirit and faith.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us. Happy New Year.

JANA RIESS: Happy New Year. Thank you.

MARTIN: So your original plan was to just read up - not just, but to do kind of some intensive reading in the different spiritual practices and the theologies and ideas of different faiths around the world. And then you decided to take it up a notch and actually adopt a practice. How did you come up with that idea?

RIESS: Yes. I decided that it would be boring for people to read about someone reading, and that I should do an accompanying spiritual practice for each reading that I did. And so I upped the ante, maybe a little bit to my dismay as the year progressed. And I found that I was failing at the spiritual practices that I tried.

MARTIN: How did the reading go, at least?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RIESS: The reading went great. I'm good at that part.

MARTIN: You're good at that part of it, but the practicing, actually putting into practice, not so great. So I know that you did a month-long fast, like the Ramadan fast that observant Muslims undertake. And I do want to mention that you picked February.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RIESS: Yes. That was not an accident. I chose February because I wanted to get it out of the way, for one thing. I thought it would be hard, and it was. But also because the days are short and the month is short. So February seemed like a really good time to fast.

MARTIN: But you still couldn't cut it, quite.

RIESS: Yeah.

MARTIN: What was the hardest part?

RIESS: Well, you know, with the fasting, my failure was not in the actual fast, because I didn't cheat on the fast. But I found that it revealed to me how shallow I was and that the fasting experience showed me that I was fasting for the wrong reasons, that I was either trying to lose weight or to manipulate God, you know, by praying.

MARTIN: See? Look how good I'm doing.

RIESS: Exactly. God, please honor this sacrifice that I'm making. And I think a lot of people approach spiritual practice in that way, and that may not be the best approach.

MARTIN: What are some of the other things that you tried?

RIESS: I tried to find God through housekeeping. That was in March. I tried a couple of different prayer practices. One is called contemplative prayer, or centering prayer. One is the Jesus prayer, which comes from Eastern Orthodoxy. Oh, I tried to be a Christian vegetarian for a month. I tried to raise $4,000 for charity. And to one degree or another, and in different ways, I failed at all of these practices.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? What happened? You got here on time, though. You succeeded...

RIESS: I did.

MARTIN: ...at that. Thank you. That was great. Fully dressed, wearing shoes.

RIESS: Thank you. I was on time. Well, I'm in the NPR mother ship today. I had to be on time to see this great place. Yeah. So why did I fail at all these practices? I think that we are human. I am human. It's hard for us to admit that. I think, here we are, sitting at the beginning of a new year. A lot of people are making resolutions, whether they are for finances or weight loss or spirituality, there will come a time during this year when we fall short of what we're doing.

And the decision at that point is to wonder, well, is it worthwhile to continue, to sort of pick up the pieces and continue and learn from this failure, or do I just stop here and quit?

MARTIN: Now, not being mean here, but there is an argument to be made that the skipping around is itself why you failed. You know, there's a saying, nothing's fun until you're good at it, and that these practices are, by their definition, things to be worked at over time and, in fact, over years. There are many practices from many traditions - you know, yoga, contemplative prayer, even fasting - that are enriched in the habit of doing over years, over lifetimes.

So, really, is it any wonder that you couldn't master it in a month? And, in fact, your thought that you could master it in a month is kind of very - a little shallow.

RIESS: It was naive. It was definitely naive. And, you know, you mentioned yoga, which is something I practice. It's not in the book, but I started doing yoga in my mid-30s. And now I'm 42, and I feel like I'm only just now getting it. I love yoga. I look forward to yoga and I have for years, but there's something deeper in that practice now for me. So you're absolutely right that people need to invest far more than just 30 days.

MARTIN: Now, at the end of the year - now, we're having fun with this and you've been a really good sport about letting me, you know, pick on you a little, tweak you a teeny bit about this. But at the end of the year, you had to deal with a pretty big spiritual challenge involving your father. Will you tell us a little bit more about that?

RIESS: Sure. Well, my dad left when I was 14 years old - left our family, took all the money. It was very traumatic. And when I was, you know - I had just turned in the manuscript for this book when I was 40 years old. I get a phone call from a hospital in Mobile, Alabama saying my father is dying, and he's all alone. Would someone from the family please come to be there, and also to make the decision whether to take him off life support, which as you can imagine, was - you know, out of nowhere for me and very difficult.

And so I had to make the decision of whether to go, and I did decide to go. What I discovered was that these practices that had felt like failures, in one way or another, had formed me into the kind of person who could go and forgive him from my heart and to pray for him and mean it.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, you do have a faith tradition of your own to which you adhere. You're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as I understand it.

Did your - I don't want to call it, dabbling because that's not exactly what you're doing. Did your trying these practices kind of loop back to your own tradition in some way and kind of deepen your practice for yourself or not? Perhaps not. I don't know.

RIESS: No. Definitely, I feel like I am a better Christian for having tried these practices, you know, some of which were from Judaism. The month I spent on the orthodox Jewish Sabbath taught me, informed me on how I keep the Sabbath. And I think, actually, that sort of weekly break is something that anybody could implement, whether they are religious or not. It's tremendously restful in a very hurried culture.

MARTIN: And anything else that you would recommend to anybody who, without - that doesn't necessarily want to flunk statehood. Sorry. Sainthood. Anything else you'd recommend?

RIESS: Yeah. Don't set out to flunk. Don't have that be your goal. I think the other thing that I would say is applicable for everyone is generosity, the sense of just giving for other people.

MARTIN: Jana Reiss is the author of "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor." She joined us at our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

RIESS: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you missed any of our conversation, you can hear it at npr.org/tellmemore.

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