Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Fenton Johnson on monastic wisdom and vows


This is a short excerpt from Fenton Johnson's 2004 book, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks.

Fenton Johnson is the author of At the Center of All Beauty:  Solitude and the Creative Life.  He is author as well of the novels The Man Who Loved Birds; Scissors, Paper, Rock; and Crossing the River.  In nonfiction, Johnson has published Geography of the Heart:  A Memoir and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks.



“Wisdom, I have learned, courtesy of the monks, is not a pearl to be found after constant searching but rather the search itself. It begins in an act of faith. Like faith, it is a process, not a product.

[John] Cassian tells us that monasticism cannot be learned from a book but only through living it out; the Benedictine commitment to stabilitas, oboedientia, conversation morum suorum can be a means to that end. A commitment to stability does not mean that I must live forever in the place where I was born, but that I take the trouble to learn and respect the particular characteristics and needs of the place where history has put me. A commitment to obedience does not mean that 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.”



For reflection: What does this excerpt bring up for you? How do you understand monastic wisdom, and the Benedictine commitments, as a part of your faith process? 


To view or make comments you must be logged in to Monasteries of the Heart. If you are not yet a member, you can create a free membership account at now. A real person authenticates each new member account to avoid spam accounts so you will not have immediate access. As soon as your account is verified you will receive an email with further instructions.