Flunking Sainthood

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I blame my mother for introducing me to the Gosselin family. During one of her visits last year, TLC was running a marathon of Jon & Kate Plus 8, and Mom was glued to the screen. I watched several episodes with her and was surprised to find that she knew each child’s history and personality. Watching the show for the first time gave me more than a few schadenfreude moments. I saw one episode where Jon and Kate take the kids to Disney World. I couldn’t imagine the stress of keeping track of them all, or scheduling their naps, or dealing with Mouse-induced meltdowns times eight. Those parents deserve a medal, I thought.

And yet the family has come under intense media scrutiny for, well, allowing the media to intensely scrutinize their lives. Americans just can’t get enough of the Gosselins. As our own families get smaller, we’re endlessly fascinated by ones that are supersized. We watch the Gosselins’ show in part because we know that although our lives might seem crazy, we’ll never be potty-training six toddlers simultaneously, on tiny toilets all lined up in a row. We’ll never have to hold back some of our trash from one week to the next just because our allotted bins are already full of diapers. We’ll never have half a dozen kids with fevers all at once. Thanks, benevolent universe!

If we haven’t gotten enough of the Gosselins yet (even with Jon’s well-publicized adultery and Kate’s disastrous recent turn on Dancing with the Stars), the Zondervan book I Just Want You to Know promises the dish on Kate’s kids, religious beliefs, and supersized life. I was prepared to cynically hate this book. And you know what? It’s actually not bad, and there’s a surprising amount of material on religion.


What would it be like to really know your neighbors, and vow never to leave them? To commit to living in your same house, in your same neighborhood, for the rest of your life?

That’s what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of The Wisdom of Stability (Paraclete, June), has vowed to do. Jonathan and his wife live in Rutba House, an intentional urban monastic community in Durham, North Carolina. No, they’re not celibate monastics–they actually have two kids–but they do resurrect some ancient Christian ideas about staying in one place, serving their neighbors, and slowing down.

FS: Jonathan, we live in a country where the average person moves every five years. In just one year when I was 21, I lived in four different states! “Stability” sounds so middle-aged and un-sexy. Tell us what’s cool about it.

Wilson-Hartgrove: I have a friend who likes to say, “Staying is the new going.” Maybe there is a movement stirring. But I hope it’s more than a fad–more than the “new cool.” The cool chasers have over-advertised to this generation of emerging adults, and I think a lot of us are tired of chasing promises that feel empty. The folks who find their way to our community all say the same thing: we want a life that’s real. That means knowing a place and its people. It means being known. And that means sticking around.

FS: Do you think that more people are becoming attracted to the “wisdom of stability” and the New Monasticism precisely because Americans are so transient and rootless?

Wilson-Hartgrove: This is the great paradox of our hunger for community. We feel the need for community all the more because we lack it–we’ve been starved by individualism into a desperate hunger. But the people who are most starved have the least resources to make community happen. This is why we need the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us. When we got into community, some of us thought we were doing it for the first time. It was a great relief to meet some Benedictines and learn that Christians have been doing this for over 1500 years.

FS: So can you walk us through a typical day at your house?

sm welcome to blog.jpgWelcome! If you’re here, I’m assuming it’s because you enjoy discovering the lighter side in the world of religion, or because you’re interested in reviews of new books and TV shows, or because my mother told you to come and you are slightly afraid of her. Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here.

The title for this blog came from a book I’m writing called Flunking Sainthood. It’s a memoir of the twelve months I spent in 2009 failing at every single spiritual practice I tried. What can I say? Failure is a ministry. I’m still writing the book, which was due to the publisher two weeks ago (failure again!). Although the manuscript is late, I’m having a great time with the project, and the best part has been meeting other people who try to be faithful but just keep screwing up in one way or another.

This blog is for you, my tribe of failing fellow saints. It explores the intersections of religion and culture in a broad and merciful way, trying always to find the humor. Reinhold Niebuhr said that “humor is a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” So there. A real, bona fide theologian agrees with me, even though he’s dead now.

Here’s a rough schedule of what to expect on a day-to-day basis.