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.