Fenton Johnson grew up in the shadow of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the youngest of nine children born in a Catholic county surrounded by a Protestant sea. For years his family home had been like a second home to monks from the abbey, who walked over for conversation, a beer or for some spare parts from Johnson’s father’s scrap pile.
Named after one of these monks, Johnson later left home and faith to find his place in the larger world as a writer. Leaving his faith was fueled by, among other things, his anger at the homophobia he found so often expressed in his religion. His skeptic’s journey began in 1996, when on one of his trips home, a monk invited him to attend an international convocation of Buddhist and Christian monks and lay contemplatives to be held at Gethsemani. Listening to these monks stirred in him “some intimation of the power of faith...how faith is the proper human response to the awe plus terror plus beauty plus agony that together make up the mystery of what it means to be alive.”
The journey leads him to Buddhist monasteries in California where he learns mindfulness through zazen, the practice of sitting meditation, and to extended periods of prayer and reflection at Gethsemani itself. In the course of these years he interviews monks of both traditions, reads voraciously about Christian and Buddhist monasticism and comes to faith.
Readers who make the journey with Johnson can learn a great deal about the monastic tradition, East and West, and about Johnson’s own inner struggles. At one point he realized: “I was seeking not so much a history of monasticism but rather access to purity of heart, [monasticism’s] reason for existence.” He is a brutally honest writer who faces his own demons and names them. At the international convocation, he was struck by the number of times anger was mentioned. In the course of his own practice he comes to appreciate that his anger at the institutional church is depriving him of a fuller life and that his rejection of this church had not erased the imprint of years of Catholic upbringing that helped make him who he is.
On the journey we meet a number of monks, Buddhist and Christian, male and female. Johnson seems to have won their confidence, so they reveal themselves, warts and all. He has such wide sympathies and such a strong desire for the truth and for purity of heart, in spite of his skepticism and tendency to assign motivation for historical choices, that I can well imagine myself telling him the truth. These interviews bring him into contact with the underbelly of monasticism, the psychological and sexual immaturity and abuse of power that led some monks to sexual abuse of others. Johnson’s treatment of this subject is profoundly honest and healing. He notes his own reluctance to confront this issue when it was first raised by a woman who had been abused as a child by a monk of Gethsemani and realizes that the reluctance was motivated by his wish to keep monks a breed apart. “[S]o long as I perceive holiness as some exotic and extraordinary quality, I am absolved of the responsibility of cultivating it; I am absolved of the challenge of defining, then keeping, faith. But through the gift of this woman’s story...I had been brought up against my own elaborate scrim of myths and illusions surrounding what it means to be holy.”
Facing the issue of sexual abuse by monks brings Johnson to the insight that desire is “the life force that sets in motion our search for union, whether union with another, with the Other, or with God.” The reluctance to face squarely this desire, with its erotic and sexual components, leads, he believes, to the abuses that have come to light in recent times and especially to the abuse of power. “[T]he church in all its forms will not be healthy until it embraces this truth: desire coupled with reason is what brings us to God, who is love.” Here he expresses a profound truth that church leaders and members neglect to our peril.
From his own practice of meditation and prayer the author learns that body and spirit must be brought into harmony through discipline, a discipline he finds in meditation and in ritual. Only through the body will we be brought to faith, he asserts. For him this meant returning to the community of faith he had left in anger, but now as a free adult able once again to make the sign of the cross and to receive Communion.
This is an important book. Though I do not agree with everything Johnson writes, his honest search touched me deeply. I learned so much from the reading that I am profoundly grateful to him for undertaking the journey and for having the courage to write about it with such personal depth. I’ll end with one more of his insights, namely that belief, by which he means belief in doctrines, is a means to faith in God—a necessary means, but nonetheless just a means. Moreover, Johnson notes, trouble begins when “communities understand belief not as a means to faith but as a means to establish identity”—for example, as Catholic, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim. “These are powerful labels, easily used to identify and take up arms against the Other.”
Sad to say, the trouble has happened and continues to happen.