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Issue Date:  June 6, 2003

Contemplation in a world of desires

KEEPING FAITH:
A SKEPTICíS JOURNEY

By Fenton Johnson
Houghton Mifflin, 324 pages, $25

Reviewed by RICH HEFFERN

The art of spiritual memoir began in our tradition with St. Augustine and continued through Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Kathleen Norris in our time.

A new addition to this crop is Fenton Johnson’s Keeping Faith. The author is a successful San Francisco-based writer, a regular contributor to Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine and author of two novels. Johnson was raised Catholic, growing up in Kentucky close to Merton’s home abbey of Gethsemane. He admits to being a thoroughly modern sophisticate and, as such, a skeptic about faith, yet open to possibilities.

His book begins in the early 1990s when he attended a meeting between Catholic and Buddhist monks at Gethsemane Abbey.

This encounter inaugurated for him a journey of discovery. He then divided his time between the monks at Gethsemane and the Buddhist Tassajara Zen Mountain retreat center in central California and Green Gulch, the center’s organic farm near San Francisco.

As he recounts his personal odyssey, he instructs us in the history of contemplative spirituality in the East and West. Both Buddhist and Christian monasteries, he writes, “are the remnant, carried forward even into contemporary times, of a community of people committed to the search for wisdom.”

What relevance does the ascetic journey have for a secular society? Answering this question is the book’s task.

An important question for the author becomes: What does it mean to have faith? As he practices Zen meditation or “just sitting” at Tassajara it occurred to him: “I was finding first and foremost that I worry too much about the future at the expense of the present. I was learning, to my dismay, just how very little faith I possess.”

Through his encounter with Catholic and Buddhist monks, Johnson says he learned that faith is not at all the same as belief. He quotes Zen philosopher Alan Watts: “Belief … is the insistence that the truth is what one would … wish it to be. … Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. … Faith is the essential virtue of science and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

A gay man, Johnson reflects on the wisdom monasticism can bring to the exploration of sexuality’s link to spirituality.

“How does one hew to a middle path between Puritanism and obsessive de-sire?” he asks. “The question presupposes a possible balance between discipline and desire, though institutionalized religion has so demonized desire that any frank discussion of the subject easily dissolves into smoke and mirrors.”

Johnson identifies the church sex abuse scandals as a result of this neglect of the search for that balanced middle path. The Zen center’s abbot, Norman Fischer, tells him that the situation is the same in Asia: “Always concubines or acolyte boys they fool around with.”

“These acts of abuse, and the institutional silence surrounding them, call into question the very profession of being a holy person, of dedicating one’s life to the search for purity of heart,” Johnson states.

A monastic brother offers the author a point of view from the cloistered halls on the relationship between sexuality and faith:

“Sexuality,” the brother says, “is a sensual experience that goes right to the roots. A monastery wants to do the same thing. Poverty, chastity and obedience -- those set the boundaries of freeing the will. You have to get behind those things which are key to understanding the self and are at the heart of existence, the key to being alone with the Alone. Your sexuality has to be challenged in some way … and once you’ve tasted the experience of God/ultimate reality/Zen nothing, it’s hard to take sexuality lightly.

“There’s absolutely a connection between spirituality and sexuality. … People see religious ecstasy as sublimated sexuality -- a form of sexual desire -- when I think the reverse is true, that sexual desire is a form of religious ecstasy.”

American Buddhists, Johnson learned at Tassajara, are considering reintroducing the vow of celibacy as an option.

While celibacy is seen as a defining characteristic of a monastery, Johnson writes that, for him, the commitment to poverty is at least as dramatic in our consumer culture, wherein we are urged to be slaves to our desires, and told that the best of all possible worlds will result from serving these desires. Set against this selfishness is the concept of the vow, “which implies submission of one’s desires to a larger ideal, whether it be monasticism, marriage, right conduct toward one’s partners or friends.”

Contemporary society solves this contradiction neatly by making it easy to break vows, probably not the best way. Johnson asks: “Why should I turn to an institution to hold me to my promises? Because over time I am not strong enough to keep them without help.” Johnson thus affirms the value of community among faith-seekers and those wanting to live a moral life.

In the end, he asks what does the contemplative model offer a world “suffocating under the environmental and social costs of corporate capitalism, which requires for its sustenance that each of us give first priority to our individual desires?”

Johnson can’t imagine masses of people flocking to Benedictine or Zen monasteries, but monkish poverty-worship “offers one enduring model of successful collective human endeavor. Through reflection and action based on the Rule and other time-tested guides, we may come to see ourselves not as conquerors of nature and competitors with our neighbors but as creatures capable of living in harmony.”

Johnson’s book is a welcome addition to the category of spiritual memoir. By recording our individual spiritual explorations and bouncing them off the experiences of others for fresh illumination, we move forward in a worldwide community of seekers. Johnson brings fresh insights to age-old spiritual searchings.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Forest of Peace) and Adventures in Simple Living (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003

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