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


rickzer0 said...

thank-you very much for such a lovely tribute to Bill, I had the good fortune to meet him a couple of years ago, and sadly never got to see him in his sickness.
What a truly spiritual inspirational young man
god bless

Ciara McVeigh said...

Thank-you for this lovely eulogy of my Uncle Bill very sad that he has passed away but a release for him and comforting for all my family to know that he is no longer suffering. A great man with great insight and vision. I always loved his very liberal and tolerant attitude to religion it was very different to the parochial clergy we were used to in Ireland at the time.
God rest his soul

Louis A. Arena PhD said...

Yes, I knew Fr. Johnston somewhat well. Fr. Lobo introduced me to him during one of my sabbaticals at Sophia. I don't know if you knew, but all of my sabbaticals at Sophia were almost like spiritual retreats. In 1992, on one of my sabbaticals at Sophia, Fr. Lobo asked me what I wanted to do (spiritually) during my time there. I responded, "I want to learn how to pray." A few days later, Fr. Lobo gave me one of Fr. Johnston's books to read, I believe it was titled, "The Inner Eye of Love." I must tell you frankly no amount of education at Georgetown prepared me for easily processing Fr. Johnston's writing. I felt as if I had met, through his writing, one of the most intelligent men I would EVER know if my life (and I was correct). In fact, I could read only 5 pages at one sitting, without having to reflect on what he had written. On subsequent evenings, at the Sophia Apartments, I would reread 5 pages, and go on for 5 more, and reflect again. And so forth, and so forth. One text led to another of Fr. Johnston's writings, culminating with "Arise My Love."

Now, a story very close to my heart begins... I did NOT know that the author, William Johnston, was a Jesuit! Fr. Lobo never mentioned that he was. And, until his book, "Arise My Love" came out, I don't recall seeing "S.J." after his name on the cover of the books. (I may be wrong about this...I just never really paid attention other than it was written by "William Johnston.") So, I did not know that this author that I had come to admire so much, and who had affected me so positively, actually was a Jesuit priest, living at the SJ House, one whom I had probably bumped into lots of times when I was coming from/going to classes, or visiting the SJ House, until about a year after I read "Inner Eye." I came to know him quite by accident, at an evening meal that I'd been invited to at the SJ House by Fr. Lobo. Shortly after we had begun our meal, Fr. Johnston, came to our table and asked if he could join us. Fr. Lobo said, "Bill! Of course! Please join us." He then introduced him to me as Fr. Bill Johnston. When I confirmed that he was the author of the books I'd been reading, I think my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe I was sitting at the table with their author! The thin, happy Jesuit with the jovial smile was actually THE man whose thoughts, lessons, and prayers I'd come to admire so very much! I was, literally, almost mouth-open speechless.

After that memorable evening meal at the SJ Hous, Fr. Johnston always made me feel so comfortable during our meetings at the SJ House and the Sophia Apartments. After Fr. Lobo passed away, I continued to return to Loyola House, with Joanne, and always visited Fr. Johnston. Because Fr. Johnston's speech was significantly affected by the stroke he suffered, I often tried to apply what an elderly Oblate of St. Francis (de Sales) taught me during my visits: "Speak kindly, and use language only when necessary." The staff at Loyola kindly said to me that Fr. Johnston might not know or remember who I was. To this date, I don't know if he really knew who I was during those visits. A nurse or nurse's aid always stood by as I spoke to him, and they seemed to think he understood everything I thanked him for. To the nurse's gracious intercession that he might not remember me, I softly responded that it wasn't important if Fr. Johnston didn't know or remember who I was. What mattered was that I knew who he was.

Louis A. Arena PhD
University of Delaware

Fiona Messina Johnston said...

Uncle Bill was a deeply intelligent man with great insight into Man.
He had a unique vision on God and what religion was and should mean to each individual.
He shunned the trappings of the elite and lived a fairly simple life.
It was hard to imagine him confined to a hospital bed but thankfully his death was peaceful and he is now with his beloved maker.
Many thanks to all of his friends, particular Amy, Mr. Maruyama and Father Donal.
Rest in Peace, Bill. You did great things on earth, keep up the good work.

Michelle D. said...

This father sounds as if he was indeed a man blessed by God with many gifts. I am glad that I stumbled upon it. Reading this article and these comments, however, I am somewhat saddened by the "hope-I-don't-ever-have-to-die-in-pain-or-suffering-like he/she did" mentality that seems to have pervaded even the Jesuits. If even Jesuits and their disciples think this way, then euthanasia is indeed around the corner.

Anonymous said...

Michelle D. wrote: 'I am somewhat saddened by the "hope-I-don't-ever-have-to-die-in-pain-or-suffering-like he/she did" mentality that seems to have pervaded even the Jesuits.' Well, that may be Michelle's interpretation--but perhaps unwarranted. What went on in the mind of Fr. Johnston, only he knows. Rather than 'I don't have to die in pain and suffering,' his attitude might have been simply that he didn't want extraordinary medical attention over a lenghty period of time. He was probably aware that without medical intervention one suffers more--not less! What he probably disliked was prolonged medical care--especially artificial extension of life.

Anyway, it would be too presumptuous to interpret from a blog entry what went on in the mind of Fr. Johnston or what 'ideas have pervaded even the Jesuits' or if euthanasia is around the corner!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lovely eulogy. It's sad to hear that another Jesuit teacher I had at Sophia passed away but good to know that he is now free from suffering. I didn't have any contact after I graduated from Sophia but heard a lot about him and his writings, especially from his admirers - seminarians and priests here at the Catholic University of America.

Cindy Crane said...

Thank you for remembering Father Johnston. He was my professor at Sophia more than 30 years ago when I was an exchange student there. He deeply influenced my life in a short time. I will always be grateful to him.

mickbrown said...

What a great man, I've been reading his books for some time now and also have a cd of some of his talks. He is a breath of fresh air in the world, he opened up spirituality for me and Im sorry I never got to meet him - but then I think I did meet him in spirit, a kindred spirit, Mick Brown

Christal said...

I knew Father Johnston years ago when I lived in Tokyo. From the start, and that start was not the man but books -- The Still Point, The Wounded Stag, and his translations of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Endo Shusaku's Silence -- I admired him deeply. In fact, I kept trying to arrange for a friendship to develop between my own father and Fr. Johnston. With my father in Hawai'I and Fr. Johnston in Tokyo, that meeting did not develop beyond a telephone conversation.
Years later when I read Father Johnston's autobiography -- Mystical Journey -- I met another person, one far more multi-layered and complex than I had imagined. Recalling his words of encouragement to me, I felt immense gratitude for his generosity because I never had any idea of his dark night of the senses or of the soul. I feel so blessed to have known him and wish I could have told him that. Thank you, Father Johnston, for being an inspiration and a mentor, mostly at a distance, but nevertheless, a kind, gentle, and wise man.
Christal Whelan

Matt said...

Saddened to hear that Fr. Johnston passed away 2 years ago. I started reading his books in the 70s. He is one of the authors that deeply influenced my spiritual life. His deep knowledge of the Christian contemplative path and his insights on the spirituality of other religions, especially Zen Buddhism, has guided me throughout my life. He was such a profound but at the same time a very accessible writer. His books were always a delight to read... Thank you for writing this tribute to him...

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this piece about Fr Bill. I am about to begin some doctoral work on his writings (focussing on his use of Zen Buddhism and comparing him with Merton) at Edinburgh University and would love to be in touch with you about him.
My email address is john.mcluckie@hotmail.co.uk
Best wishes,
Fr John McLuckie

BarneyBelfast said...

I am just starting my own journey in getting to know Fr William Johnston. I only heard recently he was born in the next street to mine. I got to Johnston via Merton. Thank you for your page.