THE CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE. There are two stories Fenton Johnson told me when we spoke about his newest book, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey (Houghton Mifflin, $25), that seem important for understanding his trek--and maybe our own--through institutionalized religion.

In his rural Kentucky childhood home, his family, who ran the Sherwood Inn, would periodically get a knock at the back door. It could only mean one thing: It's time to grab a couple of beers from the bar and greet one of the monks from the Trappist monastery, Our Lady of Gethsemani.

The other story is, on the surface, a less-contradictory mix of the sequestered life with the worldly one, as it reveals Johnson's relationship to monasticism itself.

"I always think about the path many East Indian men will follow during their lives: They get married, build a career and a family. Then at 65, they turn all their worldly possessions over to their wife and go off to the mountains to contemplate."

These stories paint a picture of getting the best of both worlds. Johnson says that, though he's not planning to become a monk anytime soon, monasticism drew him in early on.

"If I were to fully follow the monk's life, I'd have to start my own monastery," he explains. "I'd take from the old models but definitely start anew."

This "do-it-yourself" contemplative life peppers much of Johnson's book. It's part memoir, part scholarly history and part report on the state of spiritual affairs in the form of interviews and observations of both the Christian monastic and Zen Buddhist life. His six-year investigation led him to live for stints at a time at the Trappist abbey in the hills behind his family's Kentucky home as well as the San Francisco Zen Center in the city hallmarked for its spiritual enlightenment--a city Johnson lived in for many years before moving to Tucson.

Johnson begins the book quoting Walt Whitman's poem, Facing West from California's Shores, and wonders whether it makes more sense for us to face east towards the rest of America rather than west toward Asia and its spiritual influences.

"I turn it around to suggest that we embrace what we have here on this continent." He adds, "Clearly we have a new-world religiosity developing. That's true among the right-wing set. But American Buddhism is experiencing a healthy development among liberals."

In the course of his research, Johnson discovered how Buddhism mixed with existing religions in this country.

"I'd meet Jews who would identify themselves as both Jewish and Buddhist. It was easy for them to hyphenate. But Catholics would go out of their way to denounce their upbringing in order to call themselves Buddhist.

"I'd joke with the Catholics that they couldn't embrace both faiths because Catholicism got to them so young--three days old and you're already baptized."

But Johnson is quick to point out that he's not critical of other people's spiritual identification.

"I'm a grazer myself. Really I'm a professional dilettante."

What seems more important to him is the ritualizing of faith.

"I meditate daily. It's a home-grown thing. And I go to church regularly. The meditation maintains an equilibrium, a way to deal with my own and other people's anger."

He adds, "I'm an emotional and volatile person at heart and ritualizing a meditative space where emotions and body can merge seems to smooth things out."

Johnson says that writing the book (and he hopes reading it as well) has been a heart-opening journey.

"It's hard to practice faith in the abstract. You've got to have rituals. And it's important to have rituals with the body. Otherwise it's all still held up in your head."

And for Johnson, "faith" is different from "beliefs." The latter is a set of doctrines that we cling to. "Faith," he clarifies, "is about letting go, about virtue."

Johnson's journey since he began writing the book has had some ironic twists. "I thought institutionalized religion was hopeless, that it was only a means to violence and dissention. But I've changed my mind about this.

"My post-enlightenment American self waged war with my inner faith when I could clearly see that people get to a level of peace through institutionalized religion. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., and even my mom. I realized it wasn't fair to snub religion intellectually--despite a complete awareness of the egregious policies of the Vatican on, say, gay people and birth control restrictions, to name just two."

So what does Johnson want the polarized groups--the died-in-the-wool skeptics and the ardently faithful--to get from his book?

"I hope readers find it challenging and exasperating. I don't have any answers. Just questions."

But he adds, "I'd like to think skeptics will emerge with a curiosity and respect for ritual usefulness. And I want believers to understand a new distinction between belief and faith."

Excited, if not tired at the thought of his upcoming, month-long book tour, Johnson's just a bit worried at the acceptance of his book in two particular areas of the country where scandals of sexual abuse by clergy have undermined people's faith.

"One of them is in Boston. But the other is the Ohio River Valley where I grew up. I couldn't gloss over what happened at the Abbey of Gesthemani, that monastery in my own backyard. And they can't deny what went on there either."

Fenton Johnson launches his book tour in Tucson this week at Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd., on Friday, April 25, at 7 p.m. For details, call 319-7887.

--Joan Schuman

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