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 handling of 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.