The Common Good
November 2011

Practice, Practice, Practice

by Betsy Shirley | November 2011

How to deepen our spirituality, one step at a time.

SENSING HER spiritual life is lacking a certain oomph, Jana Riess tries an experiment: 12 spiritual practices in 12 months. Guided by the writings of folks such as Richard Foster, Phyllis Tickle, and Brother Lawrence, Riess attempts everything from centering prayer and fasting to lectio divina and welcoming the stranger. “We can’t really hear what God is saying, or let it sink into our souls and beings, until we have tried to do what God is saying,” she explains. “The practice precedes the belief, not the other way around.”

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At least, that’s the theory. But as she chronicles in Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving my Neighbor (Paraclete Press), Riess’ crash course in spiritual discipline is punctuated by more flopping failure than soaring success. By the time her year is up, Riess concludes that her holy experiment was more “delusional” than ambitious.

Known to the Twitter community as “The Twible Lady” for tweeting the entire Bible in snarky, 140 character summaries (Proverbs 27: “As iron sharpens iron, so friends sharpen each other. Please note that this is only a metaphor. Do not carve your friends.”), Riess leavens the pages of Flunking Sainthood with the same delightful irreverence. Mincing no words, she calls St. Benedict “a crafty old coot” and St. Thérèse of Lisieux a “first-class diva.” She swears during silent meditation. And when trying to find God in the daily tasks of life, such as cleaning, Riess considers whether “a quicker route to genuine religious experience would be to snort the spray cleaner and get high on fumes.”

Flunking Sainthood presents a lovely theology of failure. No, we are not always wrapped up in gushing ecstasies of Divine Love like St. Thérèse of Lisieux. And neither are we particularly patient when our feeble practice doesn’t produce instant “Eureka!” results. Somewhere amid Riess’ impatient and inconsistent efforts to implement each practice, there’s grace for all of us making fools of ourselves along our spiritual journeys (speaking for myself, of course).

There’s grace for failure, but before trying any of this at home, consider reading Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love, by Mark Scandrette (InterVarsity). With equal parts reflection and how-to, Scandrette invites readers to join “a path for discipleship that is more like a karate studio than a college lecture hall.”

Unlike Riess, who’s an unabashed newcomer to spiritual practice, Scandrette has followed this hands-on, try-and-see sort of spiritual formation for years in his own communities, including ReIMAGINE—a center for spiritual practices he founded in San Francisco, emphasizing creativity, community, and social action. Hard-earned wisdom from these communities illustrates Scandrette’s reflections on spiritual formation, along with stories of their successes and failures.

For example, after studying the gospels, Scandrette and some friends started an experiment in security and abundance they dubbed “Have2Give1” in which they sold, donated, or recycled half their possessions to benefit the world’s poorest people. “Doing a tangible experiment took us out of our heads and into our bodies,” writes Scandrette. “Gradually we came to realize that this kind of transformation is to be expected when we allow Jesus to be our Rabbi.”

Though he hopes these tangible experiments will help us imagine a spirituality that goes beyond Bible studies and discussion groups, Scandrette doesn’t minimize the importance of scripture. Echoing Riess on practice preceding belief, he writes: “the scriptures cannot be adequately understood apart from an honest attempt to apply them to the details of life ... The best goal for studying the scriptures is not to acquire connoisseur-level knowledge or complete understanding, but to gain the faith and inspiration to respond with obedience.”

As a practical way to help readers “respond with obedience,” Scandrette fills the second half of Practicing the Way of Jesus with a lexicon of ready-to-try experiments, including ideas for “classic” spiritual practices such as Sabbath-keeping, silent retreats, and foot-washing, but also some less-common ones, such as media fasts, looking into the eyes of everyone you meet, or administering a “gratitude and contentment survey.”

Both Practicing the Way of Jesus and Flunking Sainthood briefly delve into the relationship between interior practices, such as prayer and contemplation, and practices that are more outward or communal, such as service and social activism. According to Scandrette, the church often thinks of spiritual practice only as “solitary introspection,” forgetting that these contemplative practices “must be held in tension with the need for an active, communal pursuit of the way of Jesus.” And though Riess herself mostly attempts interior practices, she concludes she was an “idiot” for trying to learn spiritual practices solo: “Spiritual practices help the individual, sure,” she writes, “but it takes a shtetl to raise a mensch.”

Of course, to fully answer questions about inward and outward balance in our spiritual lives, it’s best to consult the experts: monastics. In her newest book, The Monastery of the Heart: An Invitation to a Meaningful Life (Bluebridge), prolific author and Benedictine Joan Chittister begins with reflection: “After more than 50 years of life in a monastery,” writes Chittister, “I have begun to sift and sort the effects of it all, asking myself, what—if anything—of monastic life is worth passing on to others in this day and age.”

As in many others of her well-loved books, Chittister explains how Benedictine values such as prayerful reading, good work, conversion of heart, and hospitality can be applied not only to life within a monastery, but also to spiritual “seekers who stand in the midst of a seething, simmering world.” What’s different about Monastery of the Heart is how Chittister has cleared away excess thoughts to produce pared-down prose that is almost prayer-like in form and tone.

“We do not all hear the same tones at the same volume, or see the same visions in the same colors, or seek the same goods of life in the same way,” she writes. “The search for God depends, then, on choosing the spiritual path most suited to our own spiritual temper and character.” And whether we’re saints or spiritual flunks, that seems like pretty good advice.  

Betsy Shirley, a former Sojourners editorial assistant, teaches English to refugees at Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia.

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