When spiritual fiction author Roland Merullo addresses the audience Thursday at Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, instead of notes or an outline in hand he will have only a topic in mind -- his 2007 novel Breakfast With Buddha.
"I've given hundreds of speeches, and the two that I look back on with regret are the two that I wrote down and read," said Merullo, the author of more than 20 novels including Golfing With God and his latest novel, The Delight of Being Ordinary, in which the Pope and the Dalai Lama cast aside their religious robes on the spur of the moment and take a road trip through Italy as everyday men.
Merullo's appearance, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, is the first installment of Saint Mark's event series "The Wittenberg Foundation Presents," which the church will host annually each April.
Breakfast With Buddha is the story of Otto Ringling -- a publishing executive and Protestant living in New York with a wife and family -- who at the last minute is persuaded by his "flaky" sister Cecilia to take her guru, Volya Rinpoche, with him on a road trip to North Dakota to settle their parents' estate.
As the two make their way westward, Rinpoche, a Mongolian monk in maroon robes, speaks cryptically and inadvertently, and encourages Ringling to step outside his intellectual and spiritual comfort zones.
Merullo said the idea for Breakfast With Buddha began with a request from his publisher Algonquin for "another quirky spiritual book."
"You know, I've always thought North Dakota would be somehow spiritually evocative for me," Merullo recalled telling his editor. "I think I could drive to North Dakota and write a book about it.
"I've been to 45 states, and [I'd] never been to North Dakota," Merullo said. "[Publisher Algonquin] was not exactly enthusiastic about the idea and I was really winging it, but that's how it started."
In a free-form style similar to that of his public talks, he wrote the bestseller -- which still sells a thousand copies a week and has sold more than half a million copies since it was published in 2007 -- without an outline or set plan.
"I just tend to do things by intuition, not by planning," Merullo said. "I just start a book and let my intuition take me where it takes me. And if it takes me down the wrong road, I'll correct that in a later draft."
Merullo's own spiritual journey is a winding path. Raised just outside of Boston in a "very devout Roman Catholic" family, Merullo said his family and the people he knew were immersed in their religion "and very much lived out their faith," but when he got to high school and then more so in college the church didn't answer certain questions he had.
With the discovery after college of Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton, spiritual instructor Ram Dass and a variety of spiritual literature, Merullo said he had found other ways of explaining life, citing authors such as Walt Whitman as falling into the category of those he would consider spiritual -- those who don't "speak for any one religion but seem to be addressing the big questions of life."
These days, his daily meditation practice begins with a Catholic prayer and a Hail Mary, and then a Protestant "Our Father," before delving into a Tibetan/Buddhist practice into which he occasionally mixes in Catholic prayers, finishing with a prayer he created that expresses gratitude.
"It's very much a cafeteria faith for me," said Merullo, who said he respects any faith that "doesn't lead to hatred or violence."
The character of the monk, Volya Rinpoche, is at the heart of what makes Breakfast With Buddha work as a book of lighthearted enlightenment. Merullo said Rinpoche -- whose last name is an honorary title in Tibetan Buddhism -- is a fictional character but possesses a mix of the personality traits and eccentricities of spiritual teachers he has encountered over the years.
"[Rinpoche] kind of took over the book," Merullo said of the monk, who also appears in the other two books in the Buddha series: Lunch With Buddha and Dinner With Buddha. "He's a real character. ... In one place he jumps in a swimming pool and yells in happiness like a child would yell. He's got a really free spirit, he's very kind, loving, caring, wise human being, not always constrained by the rules of behaviour that constrain the rest of us, [but] not in a bad way.
"He can do [things] that look funny to the American eye but it usually has some purpose."
Fiction gives Merullo great freedom as an author that nonfiction writing wouldn't allow for, although Merullo said there is a "skeleton of nonfiction" in his work. The road trip that Otto Ringling and Volya Rinpoche take from New York to North Dakota is "absolutely true to life," according to Merullo.
"You could use [Breakfast With Buddha] as a road map if you made that drive," Merullo said. "Every description of the landscape, everything I heard on the radio, everything I saw out the window, every place I stopped to eat, those are all true. Over the skeleton is the flesh and blood and skin of the ideas, the conversations and the characters."
"You don't have to make up the entire world," Merullo said. "You only have to make up the ideas and the characters in the conversation. But there's a nice freedom involved in that."
Polly Deems, a member of the vestry at Saint Mark's and chairman for the series' inaugural event, said the idea of having Merullo as a guest began with several of those at the church -- Deems included -- having read Breakfast With Buddha.
"We thought it would be something topical for those who have read [Merullo's] books, but it would also consider people that haven't read them, and they could maybe take away something that they can incorporate into their life," Deems said.
The Wittenberg Foundation is stepping out with its name for the first time with this event, Deems said, and it "provides funds for outreach, engagement, education and enlightenment for those in the community that Saint Mark's church calls home."
Proceeds from tickets sales will go back into the foundation to bring the next speaker to town in a form of outreach to all faiths.
Meanwhile, Merullo plans for a healthy amount of question-and-answer time once he's finished speaking about Breakfast With Buddha.
"Religion is a very personal thing," Merullo said. "There are more wars and fights and family arguments over religion than anything except politics, and so I tread very carefully in that territory and try to use humor.
"I don't preach. I don't have the answers, and I don't pretend to have the answers, but I love the discussion."
Tickets for "The Wittenberg Foundation Presents: An Evening With Roland Merullo" are available at arkansasonline.com/merullo41918/.
Religion on 04/07/2018