Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey

Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey

by Fenton Johnson

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Observing an encounter between Catholic and Buddhist monks in 1996 at the Abbey of Gethsemani, near where he grew up in rural Kentucky, Fenton Johnson found himself unable to make the sign of the cross. His distance from his childhood faith had become so great -- he considered himself a rational, skeptical man -- that he could not participate in this most basic ritual


Observing an encounter between Catholic and Buddhist monks in 1996 at the Abbey of Gethsemani, near where he grew up in rural Kentucky, Fenton Johnson found himself unable to make the sign of the cross. His distance from his childhood faith had become so great -- he considered himself a rational, skeptical man -- that he could not participate in this most basic ritual. Impelled by this troubling experience, Johnson began a search for the meaning of the spiritual life, a journey that took him from Gethsemani to the San Francisco Zen Center, through Buddhism and back to Christianity, from paralyzing doubt to a life-enriching faith.
Keeping Faith explores the depths of what it means for a skeptic to have and to keep faith. Johnson grew up with the Trappist monks, but rejected institutionalized religion as an adult. While living as a member of the Gethsemani community and the Zen Center, however, he learned to practice Christian rituals with a new discipline and studied Buddhist meditation, which brought him a new understanding of the deep relationship between sexuality and faith, body and spirit. Changed in profound ways, Johnson ultimately turned back to his childhood faith, now inflected with the accumulated wisdom of his journey.
Johnson interweaves memoir, the personal and often shocking stories of Buddhist and Christian monks, and a revealing history of the contemplative life in the West. He offers lay Christians an understanding of the origins and history of their contemplative traditions and provides the groundwork needed to challenge orthodox understandings of spirituality. No matter their backgrounds, readers will find Keeping Faith a work of great power and immediacy.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Keeping Faith contains some profound insights -- "forgiveness begins in the gesture made contrary to reason, the decision to choose love when anger is so readily at hand" -- and it is impossible to fault Johnson's intelligence. — William O'Sullivan
Publishers Weekly
Spiritual homecoming stories are often predictable in both form and content, but Johnson's account of his passage from skepticism to faith is exceedingly refreshing and pure in its honesty. Raised in a Kentucky community that is home to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Johnson, a novelist (Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock) grew up in a Catholic family that was intimately acquainted with the monastery's monks. But in leaving home and living as a gay man, he closed the door on religion only to come face to face with it again at Gethsemani in 1996. When, as an invited observer at an international gathering of Buddhist and Christian monks and lay contemplatives, Johnson was unable to lift his hand to join in making the sign of the cross, he became aware of a deep anger within. To delve into it, he set out on "a skeptic's journey" in which he explored both Buddhist and Christian monastic life. His quest recalls that of Thomas Merton, Gethsemani's most famous monk, who was known for his interest in Buddhist monasticism. Johnson's sensitively written tale is also notable for dealing with homosexuality in the Kentucky monastery, even as some Catholic leaders discuss banning homosexuals from priesthood. Because the faith Johnson has found departs from certain official church lines, this memoir is unlikely to resonate with traditionalist readers. However, its authenticity and depth will appeal to a varied audience of skeptics and believers. (Apr. 16) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and memoirist Johnson (Geography of the Heart, 1996, etc.) details his journey from bitter skeptic to man of renewed faith. Like the best writers on religion, Johnson never flinches at describing his own doubts, anger, and skepticism about its practices, but he is also scrupulously fair and open-minded. Raised Roman Catholic in a family of nine, he stopped believing in his teenage years and as a gay man is angry with his church for its attitudes about homosexuality and sex. Early in 1996, he accepted an invitation from a brother at the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky to attend an international convocation of Buddhist and Christian monks and lay contemplatives. He thought the experience might be useful for a novel he was planning, but instead found himself embarking on "a cross-country journey through the briars and thistles of faith, and (its traveling companion) desire," searching for "what it means to have and keep the faith." As Johnson records his experiences, memories of his past mix with accounts of his stays at Gethsemani and at two Buddhist centers in northern California. He observed and participated in the daily rituals, learning to meditate and work in silence with the Buddhists, attending the various services each day at the Monastery. Seamlessly blending personal experiences with historical and theological research, making numerous references to the Bible and Buddhist writings, as well as thinkers from Augustine and Plato, the author explores the connections among Christianity, Judaism, Greek philosophy, and Eastern religions. The early Christian church accepted women as equals, he writes, but today’s male-dominated organization has failed in its handlingof desire and sexuality. Despite such criticisms, as his journey nears its end, Johnson has regained his faith, understanding now that belief is not a narrow creed, but "a form for and discipline of the imagination that preserves and promotes faith." Richly allusive, impressively lucid, and unflinchingly honest: Johnson speaks as eloquently to the heart as to the head. Agent: Ellen Levine/Ellen Levine Agency
From the Publisher

"Richly allusive, impressively lucid, and unflinchingly honest; Johnson speaks as eloquently to the heart as to the head." Kirkus Reviews

"KEEPING FAITH is a tour de force -- a moving memoir of an American boyhood as well as a deftly written exploration of Christian and Buddhist monasticism. Fenton Johnson's urgent inquiry traces religious impulse to its source in the very springs of human desire -- where he finds much longing, much trouble, and enduring beauty." --Patricia Hampl, author of A ROMANTIC EDUCATION

"Johnson's account of his passage from skepticism to faith is exceedingly refreshing and pure in its honesty..." Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

1 In Search of the Unfound

On this pleasant evening of July 1996, the long, narrow chapter room at the rural Kentucky abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani was filled with monks. Along the right wall, under an image of the risen Christ, stood our Trappist hosts, the “white monks,” dressed in white robes covered with black hooded scapulars and cinched at their waists with broad leather belts. Next to them, wearing black robes, stood the Benedictines, the “black monks,” the more publicly engaged, apostolic of the Roman Catholic contemplative orders. Among these monks were scattered a few women, most dressed in the white blouse and below-the-knee gray skirt favored by many post–Vatican II sisters. Along the left wall, under a batik banner of the seated Buddha, stood the Buddhist monks, some wearing maroon trimmed with saffron, others wearing saffron trimmed with maroon. A single Japanese monk wore dove-gray robes trimmed in black and white; a single Taiwanese nun wore saffron, peach fuzz sprouting from her newly shaven head. Among these Asians mingled the American Buddhists—some wearing black Zen robes, some wearing street clothes. Some of the Asians were Americans, naturalized priests and monks whose Buddhist congregations include American Jews and Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Christians and the American Buddhists were almost all Caucasian; the Asians ranged from Japanese ivory to Sri Lankan browned butter. Timothy Kelly, abbot of Gethsemani, and the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet stood at front center, focal point for this international convocation of Buddhist and Christian monks and lay contemplatives.
The assembly presented a picture postcard of institutionalized religion, East and West: a few men on the stage ran the show, while the women—a clear majority of those present—looked on. But one does not expect an embrace of gender equality from religious institutions, and I settled into the territory with a familiar interior sigh. I had been invited as a writer, which is to say as a kind of anthropologist whose job is to reserve judgment and simply observe. A significant aspect of that observation is to learn and follow local customs, and so when the time came to perform the first Buddhist bows, I followed the example of my neighbor and bent— although not too deeply; I saw myself as a skeptic and an American, inheritor and expression of centuries of Enlightenment rationalism. All people are created equal; liberty, equality, fraternity—this was my creed and my mantra, and I was not much given to bowing to anyone, whether to the pope or the Dalai Lama. But the writer does what he must do for the sake of the story, and so when the Dalai Lama passed I imitated my neighbor, ducking my head and joining my palms.
Then Abbot Kelly took the microphone and called upon us to pray, opening with the sign of the cross. Here I had no need to look to a neighbor; I have known this script since before memory—the fingers to the forehead, the heart, the left then the right shoulder, a simple gesture I once inhabited as easily as lifting my hand to wave goodbye . . . and I could not do it. All around me Roman Catholics made the sign of the cross, but my right hand remained at my side. The abbot’s prayer was brief; before long he closed it by repeating the gesture. Again my hands hung stubbornly at my sides, dead weight. Even for the sake of the story, the body refused to go where the mind willed.
Here among the believers, seated at the foot of the bloody Christ for longer than any time since the Lenten vigils of my childhood, I was stunned by the anger that simmered up from some repressed place. I was possessed by anger—the pit in the gut, the quickening pulse; I recognized the signs. I was angry at the institution of the church, any church; angry at myself for letting it get to me (all that therapy for nothing); angry at being so alone in my anger.
Or so I thought. Then across the following six days of this convocation of Christians and Buddhists from North America, Asia, and Europe, most of whom had dedicated their lives to contemplation, I discovered one word that arose so often that finally conferees agreed to a moratorium on the subject, and still it returned: anger.
Evidently I was not as alone as I had thought.
What was the source of this anger? The ready and obvious answer would be sexual repression or its aftereffects, but I am suspicious of ready and obvious answers. Desire in all its manifestations lies at the heart of what it means to be human—I know this from experience, and I would shortly learn that Buddhism posits as much in its first, foundational principle. But desire assumes many guises. Again and again the convocation participants returrned to the subject of anger, but they were discussing a symptom, not a cause; the cause might be more accurately described as longing, wittttth anger the result of its frustration.
But what were we longing for, and why was it yet unfound? I could not then address that question, but thanks to those hands, rigid at my sides, I understood this much: anger had taken up residence in my house, where it had dwelt long enough to take control. And—child of Western psychology—I understood that I must engage that anger if I was to find peace.

This particular leg of my journey began a few months earlier in my Kentucky hometown at the Sherwood Inn, the hotel-tavern acquired by my great-grandfather Thomas Hardin Johnson in the mid-1870s and run by my family in the century-plus since. On a bright spring afternoon in March 1996 I was visiting for the celebration of my mother’s eightieth birthday and standing on the Sherwood porch when my aunt poked her head out the door to tell me there was a knock at the back door.
At the Sherwood “a knock at the back door” usually means one thing, so I cut through the bar, grabbed a couple of beers, and went out back to greet one of the monks from the nearby Trappist monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani, a crow’s mile across the Kentucky hills. Brother Paul Quenon, tall, ascetically thin, and slightly grizzled as befits a poet-monk, had hiked over the steep hills that the locals call “the Knobs” to let me know that in the approaching summer Gethsemani would host an international convocation of Buddhist and Christian monks and lay contemplatives, with the Dalai Lama of Tibet in attendance. Almost thirty years in its ripening, the Gethsemani Encounter was the fruit of a 1968 meeting between the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton, author of The Seven Storey Mountain, the bestselling autobiography of Merton’s journey toward joining the Gethsemani community as a Trappist monk.
I did not know Brother Paul well. We first met because someone recommended his poetry to me and I was curious—what would it be like to be a poet inside the enclosure? He’d joined Gethsemani in the early 1960s, had Merton for his novicemaster, and taken solemn vows in 1968. But Paul was among the more private monks, not one who came to town to buy hammers or nails and who occasionally visited community families. On that particular spring day he wasn’t delivering pressing news—a thunderstorm or a wrong turn on the path and I’d never have received it. I’d have been back in San Francisco, struggling with my next book, which I was certain would be a novel.
I accepted Brother Paul’s invitation to attend the Gethsemani Encounter partly as a means of dodging the looming terror of beginning that novel. I’d been considering creating a Buddhist doctor and a Trappist monk as its principal characters, but I knew little about Buddhism and not much more about monastic practice. What better way to learn about these, I told myself, than to spend a few months researching an article about the contemplative life?
Years later I see with the crystalline vision of hindsight that my decision to attend the Encounter was not a casual detour but another step in an unfolding path. After all, my fate is so common the French assign it a name—le donné, the youngest child who is given to the church. Until recent times the progression among sons was clear and unyielding: the oldest male inherited the property; the second went to the military; the third went to the government; the fourth went to the church. Ninth of nine children, fourth of four boys, bookish, homosexual, I had “religious orders” all but engraved on my forehead; I was destined for the church.
But I also came of age in the 1960s, those tumultuous years in which all traditions were open for questioning and in many cases dismissal. For reasons this journey will bring me to reconsider, I determined early on never to set foot in a church except to please my mother—and sometimes not then.
A visit with American Christian and Buddhist monks would provide a quick look at the road not taken—that was how I justified my decision to attend the Encounter. I would go as a tourist, someone who rents a car, checks into a hotel, spends a day or two driving around, and returns home filled with tales about the quaint and charming ways “they” do things. I’ll learn Buddhism in a few months, I thought, pick up a few stories from the monks, and combine these for a quick article. Then I’ll get back to the novel and my comfortable life in my beloved San Francisco, city of self-satisfaction.
But one embarks on an interior journey at peril of one’s whole way of being. What I’d planned as a quick week’s visit turned into a cross-country journey through the briars and thistles of faith and (its traveling companion) desire, with no compass save for an inquiring but ignorant heart. What follows is a chronicle of a skeptic’s journey into the wilderness, a casual excursion that transformed itself into a search for what it means to have and to keep faith.

Copyright © 2003 by Fenton Johnson. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

FENTON JOHNSON is the author of two award-winning novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock, and a memoir, Geography of the Heart. A contributor to Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times Magazine, he currently teaches at the University of Arizona.

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