Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Jesuit Mystic William Johnston Passes Away

William Johnston, S.J.
This morning (Oct. 12, 2010) I received the news that Fr. William Johnston, S.J., author, translator, mystical theologian, and sought-after preacher, passed away at Loyola House, where he had been cared for. Bill, as we used to call him, had been sick for nearly two years, since the time he had a stroke, towards the end of the annual retreat he was making at the Kamishakujii Jesuit Residence. Luckily, someone found him and took him to a hospital, where he had an urgent operation and his life was saved. I wrote 'Luckily,' but perhaps he himself might have said, 'Unluckily,' for he loathed being bed-ridden and unable to speak. Although his life was spared, he could not speak for nearly two years--though some visitors felt he understood what was said and showed some signs of recognition.

Bill was much senior to me, and although we had met frequently, we never had close personal exchanges until the late 1990s, when a Toshiba Satellite brought us together. He had just returned from the United States, where someone had very strongly urged him to buy a computer and use it for writing. So he arrived in Tokyo, proudly owning a Toshiba laptop, and asked several people to help him. Almost everyone gave up, and then Bill came to me and said, "You are going to help me write my next book in a computer. Everything is set, for I got the computer with the help of an expert. All you have to do is to help me start." So I went to his room and examined the computer, and immediately realized why nobody was able to help him.

The computer was quite simply a 'lemon': (1) It was an old model, with a very small amount of RAM memory, and basically a DOS machine into which some old version of Windows had been installed. (2) It was a U.S. model, entirely in English. (3) It had no CD or DVD drive, either internal or external. (4) It had absolutely no application software. And (5) it had no printer. Bill couldn't even understand why nobody would teach him to write his next book in this wonderful 'new' machine. The problems, however, were nearly insurmountable: In Japan, especially in the 1990s, there was very little support for non-Japanese Computers, and so nobody, not even Toshiba, was willing to solve problems of a computer bought in USA. As the computer had no CD drive, there was no way to install any software programs, most of which were then available only on CD-ROMs. Moreover, in Japan only Japanese or bilingual software was available, but his computer won't take anything other than English! Most of the printers sold in Japan weren't suitable for an English PC either, and there were other problems related to cables, connectors, and so on. It took me nearly two weeks to make the 'lemon' somewhat useful as I managed to install a DOS version of Word Perfect 5.1 (English) and find a printer that could be connected to his Toshiba.

Then I started instructing Bill on how to use the PC, and he was one of the most diligent and humble students. Following my instructions, he always wrote down the basic steps I taught him and never tried to learn more than he could digest. He was neither curious nor eager to explore the Internet, and so he limited himself to using the computer only as a typewriter. Very soon, he started writing his first book on the laptop, and there were, as may be expected, many critical times when he practically lost whole chapters or didn't know where they went! My visits to his room were regular and frequent, and several times I brought back 'miraculously' (in his eyes!) some of the Chapters which he thought he had lost forever. Finally, the book was completed, and although I was away on sabbatical, he managed to have it printed and published with the help of others--under the title of "Arise, my Love...," the very first book he wrote using a computer!

Since our Satellite get-togethers, we began to meet more frequently especially over a cup of coffee around 9:30 AM. Frankly, I was more like a sounding board or devil's advocate than like a fan or disciple. We have discussed all sorts of topics about persons, state of the Church, state of Religious Life, theology, future of religions, sex, celibacy, sexual maturity of celibates, atheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., etc., and frequently we were more in disagreement than in agreement. Of course, all our discussions usually ended up peacefully, and even when we parted in disagreement, we would meet again to continue the discussion, when he would say that he had changed his mind or that I was biased. Actually, he would sometimes say that I was ultra-conservative appearing as a liberal and at other times say that I was ultra-liberal appearing as a conservative. Overall, he enjoyed the challenges I put before him, and, actually, he wanted to be challenged, for challenges helped him develop his inchoate ideas.

Bill upset some people with his autobiography, "Mystical Journey: An Autobiography," which they found to be too frank and too revealing. He was quite excited when writing it, and would often say that it would be shocking to readers. I would often provoke him by saying, "Come on Bill, now at your age, you can be honest enough to write anything and everything! No need to be fuzzy or vague. Tell us clearly what you think and reveal yourself fully!" As a good Jesuit, he gave copies of the pre-published manuscript to other senior Jesuits for feedback, and occasionally modified it. Overall he was pleased with the reception he got for his autobiography, which urged him to start another autobiographical project. Meanwhile he had got a new desktop computer and was eagerly working on his new project. He used to tell me that his new book would be even more revealing and shocking to people, and that he would be sending parts of it to persons he could confide in.

It was at this stage that one of the promising Jesuits of Japan, Roger Downey, wound up in a Tokyo hospital, suffering excruciating pain due to his throat cancer. As the doctors, both in USA and in Japan, had given up on him, he was simply waiting for the inevitable, being tenderly cared for by the nurses but unable to speak or move freely. Johnston would regularly go to see him, and often tell others of the pain that Roger courageously suffered. The painful last days of Roger touched Johnston so deeply that he often prayed for Roger's early death and wished that his own life would not be prolonged artificially if ever he had to end up in bed like Roger. He often said that he wanted to die quietly and quickly, without being placed in a medical facility for too long. Paradoxically, soon after Roger's death a stroke paralyzed Johnston, and what he most disliked, he had to go through--perhaps in a mental state that was much less lucid than that of Roger.

Bill Johnston
William Johnston was born on July 30, 1925, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His childhood memories were colored by the 'religious' wars then prevalent in Northern Ireland. His family later moved to Liverpool, and he entered the Society of Jesus on September 20, 1943. He arrived in Japan as a missionary in 1951, all set to convert the Japanese to Christianity. Gradually, however, he got interested in mysticism, Buddhism (especially Zen), and interreligious understanding. He was especially touched by the pioneering interreligious activities of Fr. Enomiya Lasalle, S.J., of whom he wrote: "I see Lassalle as a prophet of the twentieth century, ranking beside Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths." After his theological studies in Kamishakujii, Japan, he was ordained a Priest on March 24, 1957.

In 1958, Fr. Johnston left by ship from Yokohama for Rome, where he tried to pursue his studies at the Gregorian for a short period of six months. Though his stay there was short, he underwent substantial changes in his character and outlook, thanks to the persons he met there. Recalling his experiences, he writes: "Those seven years [in Japan] had changed me completely; but my short stay in Rome would change me even more. It was nothing short of a revolution in my life." His next major stop was Lumen Vitae, the Catechetical Institute in Brussels, where he studied for another six months. It was here that he entrenched himself deeper into studies of mysticism and was exposed to various Asian and exotic mystic traditions, such as the TM (Transcendental Meditation) of the Indian Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

After a brief detour in New York, Johnston returned in 1960 to Japan to teach at Sophia University. Having no higher academic degrees, he felt uncomfortable for some time, but then after browsing through a copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, he decided to write a doctoral thesis on that book which, he felt, mesmerized him. His doctoral thesis was successfully completed under the direction of Fr. Tony Evangelista, and was published with an introduction by the eminent Thomas Merton, under the title of The Mysticism of "The Cloud of Unknowing." Regarding the success of this book, Johnston himself says, "After forty years, it is still in print with Fordham University Press and some people have told me it is my best book. I don't agree. But they say it."

His next major project was the translation of Endo Shusaku's Chinmoku 'Silence,' which he did against much Jesuit opposition (because the novel dealt with a Jesuit apostate!). Although not a professional translator, Fr. Johnston did an excellent job of translating, and, thanks to his translation, many people around the world came to know who Endo Shusaku was. His translation was critically acclaimed and is still being sold. With rumors floating around that a Hollywood movie will be made of the novel Silence, one may expect Johnston's translation to be on the market for some more years. Endo and Johnston remained good friends, and Johnston officiated at the memorial Mass for Endo.

Johnston's illustrious career includes numerous books on mysticism and mystical theology, such as The Still Point: Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism , Silent Music, Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion, Mystical Theology: The Science of Love, and Christian Zen. Even towards the end of his career, he was very much sought after for retreats and spiritual talks, and he would get occasional calls for interviews or video sessions. Until the stroke deprived him of free movements, one could see him spending hours meditating in quiet areas or reciting repetitive vocal prayers like the Jesus prayer or the Rosary. Among the Japanese he baptized is the current Archbishop of Tokyo, Rev. Okada, who will be present at Johnston's funeral.

Johnston has been one of the few recognizable names associated with Sophia University and the Jesuits of Japan. I have heard his name mentioned in numerous countries--especially in the English-speaking ones--and I was always amazed at the admiration people had for him and at their curiosity to know about his character and spirituality. People seem to like his English style and intelligible approach to mysticism.

Towards the end of his life, I often called him jovially "The Prophet of Doom," because he was much worried about the contemporary problems affecting the Church and predicted that an entirely new Church and new forms of Religious life have to emerge if they are to continue. Though he might have been a Prophet of Doom, he was also a Prophet of Hope, for he never gave in to despair or frustration but always inspired Christian confidence in resurrection and renewal of all things that look gloomy. His commitment to the welfare of the Church was never in doubt although he equally stressed that all religions must strive to work together in peace. One of the very last pieces he wrote on mysticism and religious harmony, "Cosmic Energy," can be read at: http://willtells.blogspot.com/

Funeral Arrangements:
WAKE: October 14 (Th), 2010, 19:30 PM at St. Ignatius Church, Tokyo (near Yotsuya Station on JR, Marunouchi, & Namboku lines)
FUNERAL MASS: October 15 (F), 2010, 13:30 PM at St. Ignatius Church, Tokyo (near Yotsuya Station on JR, Marunouchi, & Namboku lines)

Bill Johnston at SJHouse