On Tuesday the 16th of July the Spiritual Reading Group met for its monthly meeting in the Carmelite Library. Susan Southall presented this short introductory paper on the American writer Fenton Johnson and his book ‘Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks’.
Fenton Johnson is a spiritual writer who is also a novelist and a gay man. He grew up in a religious Catholic family as the youngest of nine children, and he knew the church would reject him as the person he really is. He left his home in Kentucky, in the conservative American South —located so near to the Gethsemani Monastery where Thomas Merton had lived that the monks would often eat at his family’s table and the family would visit the monastery — for the more open and accepting society of San Francisco. He also left his family’s expectation that he would enter the church for his life as a writer. At the age of 34, he met Larry Rose, a high-school English teacher, who was the only child of Holocaust survivors and was HIV positive with an active case of AIDS in 1987 when that diagnosis was a death sentence that attracted severe discrimination, as Johnson would discover.
Johnson knew that in Larry he was facing the reality of mortality, but it didn’t register with him. He says, “My bent sexuality gave me insight into some way of being other than boundless American optimism, but for many years I’d lived in California and I’d acquired the prevailing denial of darkness and death.” He was young enough to trust in his own immortality. However, in his book Geography of the Heart, he states that the first lesson of love is “how love chooses us, if we will let it, rather than the other way around.” Johnson chose the way of love which lasted three years as Larry weakened and died, and his partner was refused the right to see him even on his deathbed. He didn’t count as family.
Johnson describes the reaction of the church to the AIDS crisis this way: “Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I helped some of the most virtuous men of my acquaintance as they died of HIV, when silence was the best the dying and their caretakers could hope for from institutionalised churches. Many priests and ministers suggested the sufferers deserved their fate, and almost all helped spread the disease by blocking or criticising frank discussion of sex or sexuality…After Larry’s death, in a desperation of grief I considered returning to the church of my childhood — what was religion for but to offer solace at such dark moments? But crashing a party to which I had been so explicitly disinvited seemed a fool’s invitation to more pain.”
Johnson was invited to the Gethsemani Encounter by Brother Paul, whose novice master had been Thomas Merton. Merton, as we know, had an interest in bringing Asian spirituality to light in the West, and the Encounter was a result of his inspiration. Johnson decided to treat the event as a journalist: to find things out. The first thing he found out was that although he had “expected that religion would explain the world, then I rejected it when its explanations failed the test of logic.” He saw the error “not in religion’s faulty explanations but in my faulty expectations…religion might serve some purpose other than to satisfy reason’s demands to know why.”
On listening to the Buddhist speakers he began to understand that some of his anger at religion had its roots in envy. He noted that he was “born healthy and white and male, an English-speaking citizen of the American Empire — these great advantages I owe entirely to fate but take for granted, even as they surely outweigh the challenges of being born working-class and gay. Now I was listening to a man whose life had been one long confrontation with violence and death” in South East Asia, “and yet his simple presence projected peace into the room….a man of great faith, who seemed free from the anger about which he spoke with such eloquence and which had so readily seized me.” Johnson determined to learn more about Buddhism and especially about meditation, and at the same time he wanted to ask some questions of his own church: “How had it evolved from the teachings of Jesus...into a place where outsiders have to fight to be allowed to participate?... How did it come to be an institution of power and exclusion? And ... where was the place of the contemplative life?”
Johnson spent time interviewing monks and participating in the life at Gethsemani and the three campuses of the San Francisco Zen Centre, where he explored a practice of meditation that he still follows today. During those early meditation sessions he says, “I began learning … to live in dialogue with my body rather than as its overlord … To understand the physical body as the seat of memory, to grasp how life is the accumulation of gesture, how I become what I do, how every moment contains and expresses the sum of my history as it contributes to shaping my future — this was for me the beginning of change.”
“The bad, or at least the tough part: intensive zazen is not an undertaking for the faint of heart of weak of knee. The practice reveals my self to myself, and…what I learn is not always what I’d like to know. In my case I was finding first and foremost that I worry too much about the future at the expense of the present.”
He notes that Aquinas meets Zen in the statement ‘The most marvellous of all things a being can do is: to be.’ “Aquinas, meet Suzuki Roshi.” When Johnson asked his Tassajara Zen teacher, “What is the goal” of meditation, the answer was, “The goal is to have no goal. The goal is to take a few minutes just to be.”
Johnson found the choir at Gethsemani the heart of monastic life. “Music doesn’t lie, and it’s impossible to fake faith, and so (he finds) the twentieth-century hymns sound false to the ear and the heart. What does it say of our culture, I wondered, that we have lost the ability to sing praise?” He asks, “How much of Gregorian chant was about being a community saying a mantra together? In switching to another form of music are we really aware to what we’ve done, how much music was a part of the culture?”
Johnson notes that “an essential aspect of the sacred… is that it cannot be bought or sold. Whether gesture or thought, almsgiving or prayer, the sacred act is done not for personal gain but for the sake of the doing.” Monasticism, he says, “is about making time sacred, removing it from any possibility of a price. And this is because monasticism and monastic time trace themselves not to the linear time of the later prophets and the book of Revelation but to the round time that came before. Monastic time is feminine time — monastic space is an essentially feminine space — anyone who troubles to spend even a weekend at a monastery will perceive this… though at Christian monasteries more tangible evidence abounds in the current and historical predominance of images of the Virgin — or, as the women of my family have taught me to name her, the Holy Mother. As institutions dedicated to round, feminine culture, monasteries give the community priority over the individual.”
Monasteries, says Johnson, “are overflowing with retreatants … because they offer a refuge from the cultural obsession with masculine (and, he thinks, Protestant), linear time, in which individual achievement takes precedence over all other considerations and in which everything, most particularly time itself, is quantified and measured, usually for the purposes of being bought and sold.”
A Zen teacher told him: “If a layperson is whole-hearted, sincere, reverent, grateful. Isn’t that the same as being a priest or a monk? He gives the example of jazz musician John Coltrane. “He’s a musician who puts heart into every note — no single note is more important than another. I heard him talking on radio — in every word you could hear gratitude, reverence, awe. He couldn’t wait to get back to the studio.”
Johnson wants people to get in touch with the preciousness of their lives.