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“Robert A Johnson in the Golden World” (26 May 1921 - 12 September 2018)
“You are precious in my eyes.”
“Teach us the shortness of our lives that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...”
In a few days,I will turn 70.
Through the magic of the internet I found out I was born on Sunday, July 10th 1949, and that night the Moon was full. I was also born in St Joseph’s Hospital, in Denver, Colorado. St Teresa of Avila advises in her autobiography, that to “find” the contemplative life, you can have no better guide than St Joseph. For the past 7 years I have been helping out at St Joseph’s Church and each time I drive up to that church, I’m aware it’s St Joseph’s. I imagine we all have similar experiences (slender threads) that teach us who we are.
There was a popular children’s rhyme, similar to the song Simon and Garfunkel sang, “April, Come She Will,” that gave a personality trait to a child born on each day of the week; “Sunday’s child belongs to God.” My Mother told me later that both my Grandmothers had predictions for me. My Grandmother McNichols said “He will be your tallest boy, even taller than his father.” My Grandmother Hart said “Don’t get too close to this one, he belongs to God.” Seventy years later I’m still wondering, praying, hoping that “just being open to God and who He designed me to be “ as the cliche goes, is hopefully beginning to fulfill that prediction of my Grandmother Hart. I admit when I heard it from my Mom, it frightened me and “chilled me to my bones.” Throughout my childhood I thought it meant I could never be close to anyone, that I belonged to everyone and no one, that I was in essence a “boy in the bubble.” Had I heard Robert Johnson’s definition of being claimed by the inner life I think I could have grown into the call more gracefully, but his autobiography was published in 1998.
One of my most beloved and wisest of mentors, Fr John J Walsh, SJ told me when I was about 25, “At the end of your life all you remember is the great Loves of your life.” He meant this in the same way as the famous saying attributed to The Servant of God (meaning he’s now being considered for canonization) Fr Pedro Arrupe, SJ : “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything...” For me this has included people I’ve loved since childhood, family, extended family, as well as saints, authors, artists, teachers, priests, nuns, wisdom guides of other faiths, places ... and “places” in the sense of the magnificent book by Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space.”
At the age of 27 I was introduced to the great Jungian writer, Robert A Johnson’s book on masculine psychology, called simply “He.” I have always learned best, through stories, so Johnson’s telling of the legend of Parsifal, as a way of mapping out some path for the growth and gaining wisdom of a young man, was perfect for me. I had already stumbled onto this “way” as a child by reading 4 little lives of saints by Daniel Lord, SJ.
But it wasn’t until I was 53 that I found Robert Johnson’s autobiography (with Jerry Ruhl) called “Balancing Heaven and Earth.” In it he tells his life story in the most unusual, respectful way. This is not a “tell all” book but more the life of a soul and the finding of his vocation. When Robert was 27 (see his autobiography) Carl Jung told him that he had been claimed by the inner life. This call or claim would entail that he depend on “slender threads” to lead him from one person or work to the next ... for me it also was another way to explain the idea of a contemplative vocation to both single and married people, who come to me for counsel. Often they respond to a new or contemporary language about something in Catholic Christianity that is very ancient.
In a few very blessed moments, in Robert Johnson’s life, he also experienced the opening of Heaven or as he calls it the Golden World. Both St Hildegard of Bingen and the Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk had similar experiences as children and as adults. I painted this image (rather than icon) of Robert Johnson to honor his entire life of pointing to the “Always Transcendent.”
Fr Bill McNichols