In his book “Arise My Love . . .”: Mysticism for a New Era published in 2000, William Johnston described Christianity as being “locked in a dialogue with Asia . . . that will have incalculable repercussions on the world of the third millennium.” From the Christian side, there would be perilous journey between one extreme – “that of preaching a Jesus who is so divine, so ethereal, so unworldly, so sinless, so different from us that he no longer seems human. To this Jesus we cannot pray with the intimacy that is so distinctive of the Christian tradition.” The other extreme would be “that of seeing a Jesus so human that he is no longer divine.” I would most likely find myself in the second group. The only people (my italics) who can successfully trace a course between the two extremes, says Johnston, are “men and women who have met Jesus at the very core of their being.” I would like to find myself among this seemingly rather exclusive group, but who dares to claim that they have met Jesus at the very core of their being? Yet I am convicted of the need to believe and trust that this is not only possible but should be the vocation of every Christian and every human being.
Johnston explores the ways in which Indian mystics pursue the ideal of advaita or non dualism and claims that “Jesus experienced non-dualism in a preeminent manner.” The gospel of John expresses the non-duality of Jesus and God, Jesus being one with the Father and yet not the Father. Turning to Bede Griffiths, Johnston names a second dimension of non-duality expressed by John – that neither is Jesus separate from us, expressed in his prayer for his disciples “that they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, also may they be in us” (John 17.21). Bede Griffiths comments, “This is the destiny of all humanity, to realise its essential unity in the Godhead.” The author of the fourth gospel is a profound mystic who points to Jesus the mystic.
Johnston says that John the mystic, after “many years spent in prayerful reflection and profound mystical contemplation . . . under the guidance of the Spirit” achieved a state of non-dualism, able to make no distinction between Jesus the man - the Jesus of history - and the Jesus of glory, the Christ of faith, between Jesus who had lived on earth in the here and now and Jesus who lives in the non-dual here and now of interior presence and existential essence. The heavenly realm is no longer seen as another world from which we are excluded (by our sinful state, in some theologies) but as a subtle dimension of this present reality. There can be no here and there, us and them, saved and unsaved, in a non-dual awareness. If the Holy Spirit was responsible for the apostle John’s state of essential unity, then the Spirit is as much guiding within John’s experience as guiding from elsewhere, beyond. The non-dual state ceases to make such a distinction. It is remarkably difficult, it seems, for human beings to overcome our addiction to dualism and recognise the flow of energies between our particular, western, twentieth century construct of reality and a mystical essence to the universe and our experience (to name another potential duality).
St John’s mystical gifts and William Johnston’s non-dual path can look as if they are only achievable by people born with a most unusual gift or called to forsake life of family, work and social networks to live in a monastic community. The path of non-dualism, risk-taking, playful, irresponsibly adventurous and counter-cultural, is obviously at odds with our societal needs for a continuing work ethic and a life lived as independently of State support as possible. No room for non-dual mystics in a highly-pressured society where people, clergy included, are subjected to regular assessment. How would you assess a Christian’s achievement level of mystical status? The Church of England in 2019 presents a whole range of other parameters by which we are assessed.
William Johnston falls into this trap of church-institution-think by pursuing questions about the authorship of John’s gospel. Was it, as Christians Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant believed for almost seventeen centuries, the work of the apostle John, or a fictitious story written in the second century by an anonymous Christian, as Enlightenment scholars began to believe, or written towards the end of the first century, or possibly as early as 65 CE as John Robinson speculated? Was John really an eye witness of the crucifixion as the gospel claims? Did he really see water flow? I was inducted into a Christian faith in which such truths and proofs, underpinned by academic research, really mattered. They still do to many. But this addiction does nothing to break down the dualistic mind set which is so detrimental to interior, mystical, experiential faith.
It is seeing inwardly, subtly, seeing and feeling and experiencing and loving with an unconditional love, truth, wisdom and compassion, that enables us to integrate the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith internally into a non-dualistic awareness of us and God, arriving at a place where we become somewhat indifferent to proofs and facts because being, living, experiencing without borders is IT. And what is “IT”? Is it an awareness, an understanding, a transformation of consciousness, a vision, that formed in the lives and minds of the first Christians from which gospels and letters were written, a consciousness so radical that it seemed to be inexplicable without the active involvement of an outside agent – outside our contemporary experience of the universe or creation?
My intuition, the internal voice, the Spirit guide in me, has been telling me for a long time that IT is all a seamless unity, despite appearance or teachings to the contrary or the commonly held assumptions and mind-set of the institutional church that we live in a dualistic creation.
Did Jesus really say and think and do all the things recorded in the gospels, or is the witnesses or the authors, the gospel writers, or Mark, Matthew, Luke, John and Paul, who imagined from their experience the ideas and events from their own experience? I’ve arrived at the point where I think it doesn’t matter. “IT” just “IS”, awareness and consciousness and intuition knows. Within our heart and mind and body and soul experience is transformed. William Johnston identifies a starting point, as does Genesis 1 and John 1 and Matthew and Luke and even Mark: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” It starts with God, they all say. But for the mystic, it just “ IS”. It is also happens to be true from a different perspective that nothing actually existed until humans became conscious. To a non-dualistic consciousness, it makes no difference whether it ‘started’ with God or with human experience. They are a seamless unity.
To release Jesus the mystical integration of divinity and humanity from the myriad dogmatic, doctrinal, creedal frames, the hymns, images, traditions and orthodoxies, preachings and teachings within which he is trapped by the church, is my challenge. The studies of clergy and theologians and academic Christians are lined with books, acquired over the years, exploring in detail the bible, a biblical book, and theological theme, a historical enquiry, all searching for truth or accuracy about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. I’m working now in such an environment.
The challenge is to give the self to the present moment, to personal, interior experience, to the ‘simple’ presence of the sacred, the now, the only place where we can be in the truth, immersed in and infused with unconditional love, discovering how to be more fully alive now.
The practice of meditation and contemplation is really simple. It just involves taking some time out from physical or mental activity, being in our place for a period of time, breathing, being deeply at home with ourselves and with our innate, divine, sacred energy, God within and God enfolding and God coming from left field. This is what Jesus the mystic and John and Mark, Luke, Matthew and Paul, all mystics, did. They could not have been inspired to teach and write what they did without the practice of silence and presence.
In practice (and practice is what is required) human beings find each of these elements of meditation somewhat challenging. If you haven’t started, all you need to do is begin. If you have started, maintain your practice and be as gentle with yourself as God is gentle with you.