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.