William Johnston’s little book, ‘Letters to Contemplatives’, is a wonderfully accessible introduction to his teaching. It is addressed to a range of ordinary people seeking to live a faithful life in a complex world and, although he admitted that the characters in the book are really facets of his own character, there is much there that will appeal to any religious person seeking an authentic expression of Christian spirituality in a pluralist world. I have a modest ambition to make Bill Johnston’s work better known and this book is as good a place to start as any.
In the first of these letters, Johnston sets out a vision for what he boldly calls a new school of Christian mysticism. It draws on the insights of the past but finds new expression in close and careful dialogue with Eastern religions and with the contemporary world. He cites people like Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths as pioneers of this approach and sets out this compelling description of the characteristics of this new school:
- This new mysticism is for everyone, not just religious professionals.
- It adopts a new language, drawing on insights from psychotherapy, science and other religious traditions, with a rich vocabulary with which to talk about consciousness and about energy.
- It strongly emphasises posture and breathing as essential spiritual ways.
- It emphasises faith – pure, naked, dark faith beyond reason. It is the prayer of the ‘void’.
- It talks also of enlightenment – a glimpse of the divine beauty, of transcendental wisdom, of holiness, of the vision of the God of love.
Johnston always rooted his teaching in the gospels, the Eucharist, the mystical writings of the saints, especially John of the Cross. He never flinched from the demanding nature of the life of faith and refused to separate the life of prayer from the life of active engagement with the world of pain and suffering. Above all, Johnston’s new mysticism is compelling because it is practical. By this I mean that he sees no separation between insight and practice. Christian spirituality is not a theory to be put into practice, but a practice from which we learn insight.