In an interview , reported in the Japan Times last March, the well-known atheist Stephen Hawking, was asked if the study of philosophy and theology was a waste of time. And he said with a grimace, “Yes, most of it is based on a complete disregard of observational evidence and modern science”.
While I cannot completely agree with Stephen Hawking - one of my great heroes is the Jesuit saint and scientist Teilhard de Chardin - I can admit that more dialogue between religion and science is necessary in our day. When I was a child I looked out on stars and planets floating around in empty space, but today I see a universe that came into being about fifteen billion year ago with what is known as the Big Bang ,an explosion of energy in the form of light at an extremely high temperature. The universe I now see as a field of energy penetrated by consciousness. And I must ask how this fits with Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve, the Apocalypse and the rest.
Furthermore we have all become familiar with the unconscious. Here Freud was the great pioneer who saw layers of unconscious beneath the conscious mind and attributed most of our psychological problems to repression of our unconscious, particularly of our sexuality. I myself did not go deeply into Freud. Having learned that he was an atheist, I felt that he would not help me much ; but I read and reread his disciple Jung who fitted in with the mystics whom I loved; and then I realized that the oriental mystics, particularly those who lived in India centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, had explored the unconscious in ways that resemble Freud and Jung. All this led me to a new world view.
And so I began to see that we live in an age of dialogue in which, from the religious view point, mysticism is of the greatest importance. Rather than mysticism perhaps I should say meditation since the word “mysticism” is still surrounded by a cloud of unknowing and is often associated with strange psychological events. Be that as it may, a theology that remains in the top level of consciousness , ignoring the deeper levels, will not answer the problems of modern men and women.
As I went deeper into my consciousness I began to see the distinction between the ego and the self or, in Japanese terminology between the small self and the big self. One who would be truly human must get beyond the ego which leads to self-centered egoism and come to the true self of which one of Shakespeare’s characters says powerfully: “This above all; to thine own self be true”
In other words get way from the ego and discover the true self which is open to all men and women. Remember how Shakespeare’s character continues:
“And it shall follow as the night the day thou shalt not then be false to any man”
Your true self, he seems to say, is united with the true self of all men and women.
But, you may ask, how am I to find this true self?
This may not be easy. It may demand years of self-discipline. One useful way I found of coming to the true self was by sitting in the lotus and breathing slowly. Ever so slowly breathing from the abdomen. Sometimes I recited the words, “I will breathe in; I will breathe out”. And when, alas, as the years moved on and I could no longer sit in the lotus, I sat on a chair, keeping my back straight and my waist stable as a rock. “I will breathe in; I will breathe out”. Sometimes I used an ejaculation like “Come, Holy Spirit” or “Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner”. This brought me down to deeper and deeper silence with the sense of God’s presence. I was coming to what mystics call the void. Eckhart, I have been told, said that God pours himself into the person who is empty. I resonated with this; and I came to understand the emptiness or nothingness repeated by the mystics whether Christian or Buddhist.
Sometimes I returned to the old way of talking to Our Lord, resonating with the advice of Jesus to “ask and you shall receive” or with his saying that when we pray with faith we could tell the mountain to fall into the sea and it would obey. But at other times I could not pray this way but felt that I must just remain in silence.
Praying this way in silence brings us into the presence of God and has its moments of great joy. There are times when like St Paul we exult that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 4:5). But our unconscious also contains painful memories, sometimes going back to childhood and even to our mother’s womb. These come to the surface and need to be healed by counseling or further prayer. In today’s world we are conscious as never before of the addictions that are forcing us to say with St Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…..But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom7:17)
For the sin that dwelt in St Paul dwells in all of us. In the past few years we at last have come to see that this sin, including sexual sin, dwells in priests and bishops and popes just as in everybody else. This has been a shock to many good people who looked on “the holy father” as someone without sin. But it has been a good shock and has given us some help in the delicate task of ecumenism.
An important task for one who would lead a spiritual life, then, is to discern the various motions that pass through the mind. This “discernment of spirits” , taught by St Ignatius, is still useful today. However, the mystics speak of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul, a time of special purification frequently accompanied by a very powerful energy.
I used to think of this energy as exclusively the action of the Holy Spirit as in the Acts of the Apostles where “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:2) and fire came down on them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. This is surely like the experience St John of the Cross who cries out: “O Living flame of love, that tenderly wounds my soul in its deepest center!” I associate it with the fire of love – incendium amoris – that is well known in the mystical experience of some Christians. The Jesuit scholar Herbert Thurston gives a remarkable description of this fire of love in the Catholic saint Philip Neri over whose whole body the fire spread so intensely that those who touched his hand found that it burned as though the saint was suffering from a raging fever. When young men complained about the cold Philip would laugh ,saying it was a shame for young people to feel the cold when old men like himself did not.
Now I find that dialogue with science helps me to understand this energy, especially as this extraordinary phenomenon is found in Buddhist and Hindu mysticism and is even more common in eastern Christianity than in the West. I begin to ask myself if all the energy in the world stems from the Big Bang from which the universe began. Is it thanks to this original phenomenon that the energy of the whole universe comes forth and is still coming forth? Is sexual energy one more instance of the energy that comes from this original Big Bang? And I believe that the origin of the Big Bang is God or whatever name you chose to use for the Ultimate Reality.
Yet with this we are faced with the terrible mystery of sin, in which the fire has become not “a fire of love” but a terrible fire of hatred and destruction. Is it possible that some of the arch-criminals of the twentieth century, like Hitler and Stalin and Churchill, were possessed by this phenomenal energy which in the mystics is love? And the powerful evil spirits who figure so prominently in the New Testament, hurling people to the ground until cast out by Jesus; where did they get their power? I think of that case in St Mathew where two demoniacs begged Jesus to send into the pigs the evil spirits that tortured them. Jesus said, “Go!” .” So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water” (Matt 832.
I take literally what Paul says about “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”. “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood”, he writes, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
But even more powerful and consoling is his exhortation to “take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation , and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:16,17)
My many years in Asia have let me see that Asians treasure silence much more than people in the West. Even in the electric train running through Tokyo most Asians sit silently with back erect and eyes downcast and while the western visitors keep chatting - or should I say blethering? - the Asians maintain their silence. I do not mean that they are meditating – they may well be sleeping – but their culture prepares them for silent meditation and lets them see that one can communicate without words. This is something that we Christians are learning in Asia.
(c) William Johnston
March 19, 2008