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.
Shirley du Boulay’s autobiography is called ‘A Silent Melody’ and I suspect the title is influenced to some extent by that of William Johnston’s book, Silent Music. Du Boulay refers to that book in a number of places as having a particular influence on her when she read it in the mid ’70s. Both books talk a lot about meditation and it is the practice of meditation that has remained with du Boulay as she has travelled first deeper into the Christian church and then further away from it until she finds herself saying – not without pain – that she can no longer call herself a Christian.
Shirley du Boulay has been influential in the religious life of these islands for many years, first as a producer of religious programmes for the BBC and then as the biographer of Cicely Saunders, Desmond Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda. So her autobiography is a fascinating survey of contemporary spiritual life as it is experienced by increasing numbers of people. Drawn first of all by the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then becoming a Roman Catholic and finally practising Zen Buddhism for over 20 years, she has travelled a long way from her conventional Anglican origins. She writes eloquently and with humility about the complexity of describing a fixed religious identity and talks about how this is true for many people through history. The notion of ‘dual belonging’ or even multiple belonging is not a new one and it is unlikely that the early Jewish-Christians were the first hyphenated believers! Du Boulay makes a strong case for the fluidity of our religious belonging and, in a world where unshakable certainty about religious purity leads to such violence and exclusion, I find it hard to disagree.
But why is it that, given this willingness to embrace plurality of religious identity, she no longer wishes to identify with the Christian church? It is not that she has ‘lost her faith’ or that she does not wish to see the churches flourish, but there are two major factors in her coming to the place where she now finds it impossible to claim that belonging. The first is that the church has failed to meet her spiritual needs. Bill Johnston frequently said that the church must be mystical if it is to make sense to modern people. If the churches do not offer an experience of spiritual depth and a practical approach to exploring such depths, then spiritual seekers will find it cold, doctrinaire and dislocated from their spiritual longings. The second is that the churches have tolerated the abuse perpetrated by members of their own clergy while strongly condemning the loving, committed relationships of their gay members. The commitment of many Christians to justice and peace and to the practice of compassion and inclusion has not been sufficient for people like Shirley du Boulay to find a way past this clear and appalling contradiction. For many people, yes, Christianity has become a toxic brand.
What is the way out? I think that nothing less than a death and resurrection will suffice. A death to the old ways of privilege, exclusion and judgementalism. A death of self-interest and introspection giving way to a new life of humility, service, spiritual depth, openness and joyfully embraced pluralism may be what is needed to present this profound tradition of spiritual truth afresh for our generation.
The world needs contemplatives. The world needs those who have the courage and the imagination to see beyond the superficial, to see through self-interest and to see that life in all its fullness is possible. The world needs contemplatives because we are all too easily seduced into thinking that all that matters is our own productivity, our own security, our own success. It needs contemplatives who refuse to discard any single person as nothing more than an instrument (or impediment) towards my own fulfilment. There is no tolerance of collateral damage in the contemplative life.
So what does it mean to be a contemplative of this sort? In a hastily written letter to a Cistercian Abbot of a monastery near Rome, and in response to a request of Pope Paul VI for a message of contemplatives to the world, Thomas Merton offered some powerful suggestions. The fact that he took so little time over it accounts for its directness, spoken straight from the heart of one committed to the contemplative life, one who was also well aware that his thoughts were incomplete. Here is one long, but magnificent, sentence that sums things up rather well:
“O my brother, the contemplative is not the one who has fiery visions of the cherubim carrying God on their imagined chariot, but simply the one who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in the nakedness of pure trust, that is to say in the surrender of our own poverty and incompleteness in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist.” (The Monastic Journey p.173)
This, I think, is a useful corrective to some of the more banal accounts of meditation as a soothing escape from the trials of life. More importantly, it is an account of the contemplative life that underlines the fundamental truth that it is not a matter of self-absorption but self-forgetting, not a turning in but an expansive, outward movement, albeit one that is fostered in fearless ‘interior’ struggle. There really is nothing more important than this calling.
The call of the Christian in today’s world is the call to contemplation. The call to contemplation is not a call to passivity or withdrawal, quite the opposite. The call to contemplation is a call to attend.
When Thomas Merton was approaching the beginning of his permanent move to the hermitage in the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey where he would spend the last short years of his life, he wrote the following words:
The ‘work of the cell’ is attention. What this means is not only attention to inner grace but to external reality and to one’s self as a completely integrated part of that reality. Hence, this implies also a forgetfulness of oneself as totally apart from outer objects, standing back from outer objects; it demands an integration of one’s own life in the stream of natural and human and cultural life of the moment. [A Vow of Conversation, June 8 1965]
The call of the Christian in today’s world, then, is a call to integrate all of life in the life of faith. Indeed, I would go further: it is to see that there is no kind of separation at all between the life of faith and the life of the world. Merton’s words here show something of his debt to Zen Buddhism in his insistence that there is no distance between self and what, illusorily, we imagine to be ‘outer’. I think he took the rest of his life (and beyond) to work out the full implications of his own words and I am not convinced that most Christians today have yet fully joined in sharing his insight.
If we had, we would not persist with our exceptionalist views of our own religion; we would not continue in the folly of seeing questions of justice as an add-on to questions of faith; we would not continue to justify our refusal to see the equality of all people; we would not continue to talk about ‘the world’ as if it were something other. And if we did begin to live in tune with this insight that there is a complete integration of all things in Christ, we would cherish every work of art as a sacrament, every living creature as a sister, every human person an incarnation of divine life, every breath from every mouth as an act of praise to Life.
We don’t gain this insight from the intellectual work of theology but from the ascetical practice of giving attention. It is as if we should see on every street corner a deacon proclaiming the invitation of Orthodox Liturgy – ‘Wisdom! Let us attend!’