Monthly Archives: July 2017

William Johnston and the new mysticism 3

The experience of being in the void comes from a long tradition most notably highlighted in St John of the Cross but William Johnston thought that dialogue with Buddhism can help us enter into this state and can inspire us to let go of all things – of all reasoning, of all thinking, in order to fall into what he calls the void of pure faith.

If the fervent Buddhist has a radical and naked faith in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, so the Christian contemplative can have a radical and naked faith in Jesus, in the gospel and in the church. The final characteristic of the new mysticism is its emphasis on the enlightenment that comes from such experiences.

Johnston highlights the famous visit between Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala in North India. Afterwards Merton revealed that the Dalai Lama had asked whether the monks’ vows were just a promise to stick around for life or whether they were leading somewhere.

Buddhist meditation leads to enlightenment but the destination for Christian contemplation is not always clear. Johnston who wrote about St John of the Cross quotes John’s goal as the vision of God. ‘Reveal thy presence, and may the vision of thy beauty be my death.’ The dazzling beauty of God would kill him, but what matter? For John of the Cross such a death would be the gateway to eternal life where, he says, ‘I shall see You in Your beauty, and You shall see me in Your beauty, and my beauty will be Your beauty and Your beauty my beauty…and we shall behold each other in Your beauty.’

But there can be glimpses even in this life: John of the Cross in his valley of tears has glimpses of the stunning beauty of God, but such glimpses leave him dissatisfied and frustrated, so that he cries out, ‘Henceforth send me no more messengers; they cannot tell me what I want to know.’ The goal of the new mysticism of contemplative prayer is God alone.

Most of us would be grateful for even the most imperfect of glimpses and William Johnston reminds us that such glimpses are not going to be everything but they are something. There can be glimpses of sophia or sapientia – wisdom which is the fruit of love and the gift of the spirit, and within such wisdom there are awakenings and moments of enlightenment.

Therefore the goal of Christian contemplation is towards an ever deepening wisdom and an ever-growing enlightenment into a joy that will culminate in the vision of God.

Johnston thought we needed to be grounded and rooted in Christ and the gospel and in an earlier book The Mirror Mind quotes Carl Jung and his love and admiration for Zen and yoga but alongside this there is Jung’s caution to Western people to approach them with care.

Jung did not like to see Westerners abandoning their own tradition so he wrote, ‘of what use is the wisdom of the Upanishads or the insights of Chinese yoga, if we desert the foundations of our own culture as though they were errors outlived and, like homeless pirates, settle with feverish intent on foreign shores?’

The new mysticism offers the chance to make something from both our inherited tradition and from others.

William Johnston and the new mysticism 2

When William Johnston was explaining to a correspondent about the new mysticism he outlined a number of characteristics: the first that it was open to everyone and anyone – not something practised only by monastics; the second was the holistic nature – in other words it included psychological awareness and philosophical understanding and so was acceptable to psychologists and philosophers; the third was an emphasis on posture and breathing; the fourth its emphasis on faith; and the fifth the emphasis on enlightenment.

Johnston thought that breathing and an emphasis on how we breathe is the gateway to the unconscious and can be used as a way to unleash a flow of energy. He was really writing about the practice of mindfulness so: ‘when I breathe I know that I am breathing. When I walk I know that I am walking. When I sit I know that I am sitting.’ Keeping the back straight and gathering strength in the lower part of the body and indeed reciting a mantra or a special word all lead to one-pointedness, and lead people to the door of the interior castle. But Johnston reminded his correspondent that then to ‘enter and meet the Inner Guest is the work of Grace alone.’

The faith of the new mysticism is not to do with words and letters and thought but rather a pure naked and dark faith. He says that in his experience from living in Japan he has been astonished by the totality of the Buddhist faith commitment – ‘even if it kills me, I will go through’ cries the Zen practitioner. The Buddhist he feels puts their faith into the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha – not because they’ve reasoned it out, rather it’s believed because it’s believed… She believes because she believes. She sits because she sits…

It’s a refusal to think and to reason; it’s about renouncing all thought, and through this all dependence on words and letters is given up. Again it’s somewhat similar to what Carl Jung thought about people attending the Catholic Church (it came up in a post several weeks ago) and this would be in the early part of the twentieth century. Jung thought that unlike the Protestants there was not an emphasis on what you believed and whether you believed what you were supposed to believe, rather people came because they were in it – they had faith without thinking it through.

So what happens if we stop thinking and give up reasoning? As Johnston says one enters the void. One becomes nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. This nothingness is in fact pure faith, naked faith, dark faith. Both Johnston and Jung understood how hard this was for Western-educated Christians. We seem somehow so caught in reasoning, and giving reasons as though we could prove the doctrines of faith by our reasoning. In the same way that the unconscious cannot really be proved but it can be experienced; neither can faith be proved but it can certainly be experienced. So this is what is meant by a leap in the dark.

As Jesus said ‘blessed are those who have not seen but believe.’

Blessed are those who have no reasons but believe.

The new mysticism… William Johnston

The Jesuit priest William Johnston (who died in 2010) wrote extensively about mysticism and what he called the new mysticism – the rise of a new school of mysticism within Christianity.

He realised  that a new mystical contemplation was gradually coming to birth and distinguished this from the medieval Christian model taught to him as a novice, and was also different from –although influenced by – traditional Buddhist or Hindu mysticism. He called it a third way and one arising from the influence and dialogue in Christianity with Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.

Religions that stress meditation, teach a path of liberation, and lead to transformation and enlightenment have helped Christians search and re-find the contemplative roots of Christianity. As Johnston says the most basic and important mysticism is that of Jesus himself, followed by that of John and Paul; he sees the whole New Testament as a storehouse of mystical law, drawing the reader to higher consciousness. He also stresses contributions of enlightened mystics of the Western world – the so-called apophatic school of dark mysticism which inspires so many and will never die.

One of the characteristics of the new mysticism, which unlike earlier forms is open to everyone, is that it is holistic and so it can appeal to psychologists like Carl Jung and thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin. It includes awareness about the ego and the self, or between the small self and the big s/Self, and is indeed filled with awe and wonder not only at the mystery of God but also at the mystery of the self. So the new mysticism understands that the human person is multidimensional with layers of consciousness including higher consciousness, cosmic consciousness and Christ consciousness and with the energy of love as the core and centre of all mystical contemplation.

Interestingly in E. A. Bennet’s account of his meetings with Jung, he includes a description of an example of the mysterious nature of the mind when he describes C.G.’s visit to Ravenna where he and Toni Wolff first visited a tomb and then went into the nearby baptistery where they looked and spent time talking about some huge mosaics each depicting a baptism scene. Jung had commented that he couldn’t remember seeing them before but they were remarkable because they were so striking, but when they tried to find postcards of them in the nearby shops they had no luck. When a colleague said that he was intending to visit Ravenna C. G. asked him to bring back pictures or photos of the mosaics from the baptistery. On his return the colleague told Jung there were no mosaics of the kind he had described. When Jung told this to Toni Wolff she responded that it was ridiculous because she’d seen them with her own eyes and they had discussed the scenes in each mosaic for 20 minutes. ‘Nevertheless’ Jung said ‘there are no such mosaics’.

The point was how mysterious the mind is, how little we know of it and how futile it is to ‘explain’ the manifestations of the psyche away when they do not conform with what we are accustomed to call reality.

The spectrum of human understanding whether of ourselves or of God is infinitely varied; we cannot look on one attitude as right and another as wrong in our attempts to explain things beyond our comprehension.

John Chapman on meditation and contemplation

Writing in 1920 John Chapman reassuringly explores difficulties in meditation and contemplation with one correspondent.  And it makes sense nearly 100 years later…

He looks at what happens to the imagination when one is consciously involved in meditation and how for some people – the more unemotional and unimaginative people, there is no effect, whilst others may have all sorts of feelings.

This means that for most of us the imagination and the emotions must have something to do while we try to be focused on God. He says that if the imagination – the flights of fancy that can take us away from our focus when we are trying to be silent are not wilful, they don’t matter in the least. But if the will has to run after them, to bring them back, it has to detach itself from God to do so, and besides we often find the imagination is interesting and dwell upon the diversions with much pleasure. This is where using a word or a phrase can be helpful.

A contemporary analytical psychologist (Jungian) said to me that he believed it was impossible not to think; so some sort of activity will always be going on.

In the same way whom we are at any one moment is about how we feel… ‘Who am I? ‘How do I feel?’ The corollary of this is that if we can be silent and as far as possible ‘emptied’ of most of the constant thinking then it may be that we can become available – like Mary – a receptacle for God.

Chapman thinks that being aware of the imagination is central but it is about not moving to understand what is going on. This means not being attracted to the thinking part of our self and disconnected from the purpose of trying to meditate. He thinks trying to intellectualise or to understand contemplation is a contradiction in terms, and prefers what he calls analogical descriptions. Here are a couple:

‘I am in our Lord’s arms; so close to his heart but I cannot see his face.’

And the second:  ‘I am in a dark room; saying words – which mean nothing – to someone who is not there.’

Ideally one can’t put one’s mind to 2 things at the same time.

When we try to understand contemplation we can’t do it. Chapman reminds his correspondent that whilst it is ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God… He is infinite wisdom and infinite love all the same… But if all this was explicable, it couldn’t be a contact with the Infinite!’