Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks – Fenton Johnson

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)KFASJ

This book is tiresome in places. OK, he’s a gay man who has obviously been hurt by the church but he repeats stuff that has already been done and said by Tomas Merton as if he was unaware (though Merton is quoted about half way through the book). The author was born ninth of nine children into a Kentucky whiskey-making family with a strong storytelling tradition.  He is aged fifty-nine, so most of his adult life was post-Vatican 2, yet the church he describes isn’t and it is as if most of the ferment of the 1960s passed him by – but small town American life before the internet might be an excuse.

Father James Wiseman, a theologian from Catholic University: in Christian traditions some authors say all anger is wrong, to be done way with, gotten rid of. But others, chief among them Thomas Aquinas, say anger is a proper response to injustice, and the fight against injustice rises from that anger.”

Blanche Hartman, abbess of the San Francisco Zen Center: I found this question of righteous anger and injustice coming mostly from the Catholics, who have a notion in their tradition of a just war,” she said.

I supported World War II but now I don’t feel as if war solves any problems — or at least that it makes more problems than it solves. My in­ternal experience of righteous anger is one of duality, separation ­”I’m right, you’re wrong.” That doesn’t mean I don’t grieve over injus­tice but I can’t fix it by being right and making someone else wrong. That’s power against power. . . . This is our challenge: how to be in the presence of anger without being caught up in it, a center of peace in the presence of turmoil.

Christians have invested so much in crucifixion and martyrdom that it is refreshing to see from another perspective: The monks’ murders were fresh in the memory of the Trappist who presented their stories, and he described their deaths as any devout Catholic would see them: the culmination of the spiritual ideal in martyrdom, in imitation of Jesus. And yet what is the worth of a life? For the sake of a vow, for the sake of one’s word, does one preserve life or give it up? An American ‘Buddhist rose to point out that a Buddhist might say that the Trappists, in deciding to stay and face almost certain death, had not helped anyone and had in fact brought more evil into the world by provoking their assailants to violence.

Some of the descriptions of nature and of scenery are very well-written and evocative.

There is much wisdom: the storytell­ing Japanese Zen priest: “How does one find one’s way forward in the dark?” he asked. “By reaching out and feeling for the way, one step at a time.”

What a sensible comment on the Roman Catholic magisterium: : “My own church has been arrogant in telling God where God can speak and God will not abide that — and so I have come to understand the importance of lis­tening.” He later admits that most RCs take little notice of the hierarchy because it is so out of touch and desperate to dominate rather than to serve people in their daily lives, lives that are so much more complicated that they, with their dogmas, understand.

One remark serves to resolve the distance between Buddhism and Christianity: Blanche Hartman – You don’t go out looking for suffering, but you don’t protect yourself from suffering that comes your way. Try to get close to it and be with it — try to be still and close?’ As she spoke the image, imprinted in childhood, of Jesus crucified rose involuntarily to mind and I thought, What is the crucifixion, finally, if not a visual metaphor for Buddhism’s First Noble Truth?

All of a sudden, the book launches into the (now inevitable where the Roman Catholic Church is concerned) discussion of child abuse. The usual suspect to blame for this, celibacy, is discussed. Bravely, the author asserts that most abusers are basically good and gifted men who have been abused by the system and teachings of the church which lead to sexual repression. The Western Church has been suspicious of desire whereas spiritually mature people have seen how desire and worship all knit together and how sexuality is a form of worship and vice versa. The author goes on to contrast Augustine with John Cassian, though I don’t think he grasps the concept of grace fully.

Then, the final section rambles around as if it is going to slot in bits that haven’t been said already, though much of it HAS been said already.

Despite its ragbag of an ending, there is some sound advice in concluding: A commitment to obedience does not mean blind adherence to the pro­nouncements of authority but devoting time and effort to cultivating, then heeding my conscience, that interior and intuitive guide that I so often ig­nore. A commitment to conversion of manners does not require me to sell all and retire to the desert or to refrain from sex. It requires rather that I ac­cord the spiritual equal weight with the material, that I practice not poverty but frugality, that I recognize the power of intimacy — the power of the body — and that I inhabit that power responsibly.

A product of a sex-, money-, and power-obsessed culture, I expected that the early monastic texts would focus on celibacy as the most challeng­ing aspect of the monastic discipline; instead they focus on the endurance of being alone. Properly understood and practiced, celibacy is less about sexuality than about entering and embracing a condition of radical loneli­ness. Aloneness is the first askesis, the foundational exercise, the entryway…to the understanding of the aloneness of the soul before its fate and in that overriding fact the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, through God alone….’Can I forgive the Paris nurse who ordered me to leave my dying lover’s room? Can I forgive the bishops and priests and sisters and monks and ministers of Christianity who have so often been oppressed by its institu­tions, and who provided me a foundation for faith constructed of guilt, re­crimination, and abuse?…”If you fill your life with anger against the church, you’ll waste your life,” a wise priest told me. “People find it very hard to live without enemies — we have a tremendous need for enemies.” Do I have the courage to live without enemies, to look within for the sources of my anger.

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