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.