God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

A beautiful mind produces a luminous memoir.

Remember when the kid in Catcher in the Rye says something about how, after reading a book he likes, he wishes he could pick up the phone and call the writer? I rarely feel that way. I know better. Yet to read the newly published God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery is to want not only to phone the author, Danusha Goska, but to give her a big hug and sit up with her late into the night, sipping wine and talking about life, death, and the universe. She writes in a voice – conversational, confiding – that draws you in from the very first sentence. You feel you know her intimately and that she’s talking to you alone. She radiates candor and self-knowledge. Her book falls into the category of memoir/spirituality, but she’s no self-conscious spinner of lofty abstractions. Particulars preoccupy her. She is, among other things, a keen birdwatcher, binoculars ever at the ready – hence the title. She’s a devout Catholic, but she doesn’t reflexively embrace any theological tenet or heed any clerical authority.

At the center of her book is an account of her brief visit, several years ago, to a rural Catholic monastery. But she is skeptical about some aspects about the monastic life, and questions its value as a long-term lifestyle choice. She even acknowledges that she’s “no fan of Thomas Merton, America’s most famous monk,” an Ivy League Protestant who converted to Catholicism, moved to a remote monastery, congratulated himself for choosing a life of self-abnegation when in fact he was still doing better than most folks on the planet, and churned out self-celebratory bestsellers that were neatly tailored to the spirituality marketplace. No, I don’t like Merton either. I also share Goska’s lack of enthusiasm for Henri Nouwen, another writer of precious little volumes packed with lofty abstractions but lacking in so much as a single glimpse of his own actual daily life.

But I love Goska’s book. She’s the real deal. Born to cruelly abusive immigrants from Eastern Europe, she joined the Peace Corps, studied at Berkeley and the University of Indiana, earned a Ph.D. but, unable to secure a decent teaching job, endured years of poverty, loneliness, ill health, and bad luck. Her experiences might have turned her into a cynical misanthrope, but instead they have contributed to her development of a tough, brave, mature, and deeply reflective personal faith that rejects mindless credulity and seeks God throughout His creation. Jesus, she reminds us, “defied our anxiety about our physicality by becoming God-in-the-flesh. Jesus ate meat. Jesus drank wine. Jesus almost certainly farted.” If, she suggests, these thoughts make us uneasy – if we react uncomfortably to the idea of God-made-flesh – it’s “because we have trouble loving ourselves.”

Goska is ever alert to phoniness and pusillanimity. On the faculties of the colleges at which she studies and teaches, she meets professors who are scared to voice politically incorrect views. At the monastery, she meets a monk who, when she observes that Catharine of Siena, the subject of a book sold at its gift shop, behaved in a way that “contradicts what the church demands of women today,” timidly replies, “I can’t comment on that.” Even Merton was enough of a wimp to tell a think-tank audience that he’d like to write an honest book about Trappist monasteries but that he wouldn’t “be able to get away with it.” As Goska comments: “He’s saying right here that he doesn’t say, in his writing, what he really thinks. Isn’t telling one’s truth a writer’s number one job? Write the things themselves? Isn’t that how Jesus lived his whole life?”

Nor is Goska thrilled by Merton’s tendency to criticize “America, the West, and Christianity” for their supposed evils while indulging far more barbaric non-Western cultures. In one memorable passage, she describes her effort to explain to a classroom full of college kids that, despite their personal lack of religious faith and unfamiliarity with the Bible, they are the products of Judeo-Christian culture, and that, notwithstanding the multicultural mush they’ve been spoon-fed, that is objectively better than being the product of, say, Aztec or Spartan culture.

But none of this is what’s central to Goska’s book. What’s central is her visit to the monastery, which comes at a point in her life when she is a soul in desperate need. At first the retreat feels like a scam, a waste. The people she meets seem petty and inconsiderate. Is the monastery, she wonders, just one more institution, like the academy, that doesn’t live up to its proclaimed principles – and that, in this case, is all the worse given the exalted nature of its claims for itself? Then she meets an Episcopal theologian, takes a walk with him, discovers a rare and remarkable shared interest, and finds something, yes, holy in their interaction. This is a woman for whom a key scriptural passage is the one in which Elijah discovers that the Lord is not in the wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire, but in the “still small voice” that follows. Yet hearing that voice isn’t a matter of going to monasteries or churches but of encountering other people, giving them a chance, and paying attention.

This is a woman who cherishes Judeo-Christian civilization because of things like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a painting of “a girl, just a girl,” who “could be a nun or a streetwalker, a queen or the youngest daughter of low-status parents….All we have of her is her face and the soul shining through it. She appears to be lost in her own thoughts. The artist deems her worth seeing.” Yes, let experts spend their lives studying and collecting the art of the pre-Columbian era, and let the likes of Merton eulogize “Zapotec culture as Shangri La” (he did!): but, she asks, “[i]n 2,500 years of Mesoamerican art, did any artist find one random, daydreaming girl to be worthy of his time? Did any tribe see that work of art and say, ‘this, this anonymous girl, this we must cherish’?” Goska has yet to see any proof that they did. That’s part of the reason why she’s a Christian and an enthusiast for the Judeo-Christian tradition – to which her book is a quirky, luminous, and altogether beautiful contribution.