Interview with Celtic Christian writer John Philip Newell on New Harmony: The Spirit, Earth and Human Soul

JOHN PHILIP NEWELL, center, leads prayers for peace in New Mexico.

A New Harmony
by John Philip Newell
pulls us across boundaries
of race and religion

In Part 1 of our coverage of A New Harmony, by John Philip Newell, we reported on this new book’s visionary call to men and women toward a timeless unity.
We also published a brief excerpt, so you can read some of John Philip’s own words from this important new book.

TODAY, in Part 2, we welcome John Philip Newell for our weekly author interview.

ALSO THIS WEEK: Read about ‘I Hope for a World Where …’ Don’t miss our invitation to join in a united prayer for a better world in keeping with themes John Philip Newell has been teaching in his recent books. It’s a simple yet a powerful effort to join our individual prayers for peace.


DAVID: Let’s begin with a question readers have asked me, following earlier stories about you in ReadTheSpirit. It’s a simple question, but also an important one: Who are you? You travel so widely now and you talk about unity across religious boundaries. How do you describe your own life today?

JOHN PHILIP: My wife and I live in Edinburgh. From our flat, we look out over the botanical gardens. That’s very much my home base from which I am traveling these days. We spent July this summer in New Mexico, where we tend to spend summers teaching. As I’m talking to you now, I’m in Canada with family. That’s where my father, William, and my mother, Pearl, live. He was a minister and ended his working career as the Canadian director of World Vision International.

I was baptized John Philip, but for a long time the John was hidden away by a J. at the front of my name. But John Philip is my full name and it’s what my family calls me when they want to express affection. So, a couple of years ago, I realized it was important to reclaim this name of my heart. I’m now going by John Philip, rather than J. Philip.

I’m ordained in the Church of Scotland, part of the Reformed tradition. That’s the church that saw itself as the Catholic Church continuing in Scotland through the process of the Reformation. When people ask for more, I explain that I was reared in the Christian household. I write from the Christian household. I draw heavily on the Celtic Christian stream of spirituality, but that tends to be confusing to people. They get the impression that there is some Celtic Christian church. What I mean by using that phrase is: I draw a lot from that particular ancient stream.

DAVID: You use a lot of water metaphors in your teaching and writing: streams, waters, wells from which we can draw water. This year, one of those shared wells is the special attention you’re paying to gathering people from across the Abrahamic faiths for prayer. How is that going so far in 2011?

JOHN PHILIP: The Praying for Peace initiative is something that is in the forefront of my teaching this year, but my teaching schedule was set well in advance. So, I’ve been inviting prayers for peace and chanting for peace to become the beginning of my teaching work, as I travel to these places that were scheduled quite a while ago. I want people to feel the yearning for relationships within the entire Abrahamic household. When I was teaching in New Mexico, we used words from the Hebrew scriptures, from Jesus and from the Quran as part of our morning and evening practices.


JOHN PHILIP NEWELL on Iona.DAVID: You have always written a lot about prayer, sometimes comparing our quest as Listening for the Heartbeat of God, the title of your book back in the 1990s. In this newest book, you write: “In the sixth century on Iona, one of the rules that St. Columba gave to his monastic community was to pray ‘until thy tears come.’ When tears flow, something very deep within us is stirring. Prayer is about getting in touch with the deepest dimension of our being.” What you’re writing about sounds very much like descriptions of prayer we’re hearing from Quaker writer Philip Gulley and from Eugene Peterson, creator of The Message Bible. They both teach that prayer is less about recitation of lines and more about paying attention. Am I reading your own new book correctly in making these connections?

JOHN PHILIP: Absolutely, there’s a connection there. Gandhi referred to prayer as a way of getting in touch with the most intense yearnings of the heart. That’s how I view deep prayer practice. We are paying attention to what our unconscious is throwing up at us and, at the same time, we are getting back in touch with the most holy yearnings of the heart.

DAVID: We’re in a realm here that I think is challenging for a lot of readers. For example, I can’t recall another recent inspirational book by a major Christian writer that includes as many stories drawn from dreams as your new book. Your book is full of your dreams.

JOHN PHILIP: That’s intentional. Writing about my dreams is a part of exposing my heart, sharing my heart with readers. For me, the sharing of dreams is the same as sharing important transitional moments in my life with readers. Dreams come up to us from a very deep place within us. Dreams are characterized by a wonderful uniqueness, of course, but they also come from a common place. Carl Jung called it the collective unconscious. It is possible to share a dream that is both deeply personal and at the same time invites a response from deep within the listener. It is like drawing from a well that is within all of us.

Whether we’re talking about accessing the well of dream life or we’re talking about the discipline of prayer and meditative practice, I believe the deeper I move into the inner well of my being—the closer I’m getting to the inner well of your being—and the inner well of all being. We sometimes mistake prayer as a process of separating ourselves from others. We sometimes can feel we are turning away from the wellsprings of creation. I am saying: Prayer is about accessing that spring of the sacred, the soul force of God. This is the greatest force for transformation in the world.


DAVID: Readers will be interested, I think, to find that you’re not talking about turning away from the world. Much like Dr. Rodney Taylor who talked with us about Confucius recently, you argue that prayer—this mystical form of prayer you write about that is so influenced by Celtic teaching and Carl Jung and other influences—is really about directly confronting the wounds in our world. It’s not about going off somewhere and soothing ourselves individually. One figure you write about, who also appears in our own book Interfaith Heroes Volume 1, is Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz in 1943. You introduce her in a chapter called “Looking Suffering Straight in the Face.”

JOHN PHILIP: I am very drawn to Etty and her stature of soul. I am impressed with her desire to look suffering straight in the face, as I write in the book. I think that is an essential part of the pathway toward new beginnings and healing in our world. We must address, confess and confront just how broken we are individually and in our communities, nations and all around the Earth itself. The way forward is not to somehow turn away and downplay the world’s wounds.

Etty left us these diaries and letters, where often in a single thought she is able to speak about the glory of a blossom she sees outside her window from her apartment in Amsterdam to the horrors of the rounding up of the Jewish community in ghettos. Sometimes, we all feel fear. Sometimes, we all want to look away from the brokenness of the world. We’re afraid that we might be swallowed up by the darkness. Yet, Etty was able to look directly at it in strength and move back and forth between her hope for the world, her hope that she was making an impact.

This is very close to the heart of peacemaking, I think. Etty sees in every moment—in every relationship she encounters—the choice between darkness or toward redemptive, transformative relationships.  What Etty shows us is that this choice between darkness and hatred and brokenness—and redemptive relationships—that choice is in every moment.

DAVID: There are many efforts today by many groups trying to reunite what we call the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You’re talking about that, too. On a daily basis, you are encouraging that and practicing that form of prayer. But you’re also talking about something much, much bigger than that. Before your book ends, you’re also reaching even farther East to India and really you are writing about your vision of unity that could circle the entire world.

JOHN PHILIP: I am writing about something new, but I am also writing about something very deep. I am calling us to liberate a new unity and harmony, but this also is very old, very deep.

DAVID: You talk about Thomas Merton, who traveled to Asia to connect his own Catholic practices with Buddhist monks. He died in that journey in 1968 in a tragic mishap with some electrical wiring in his hotel room in Bangkok. But here are Merton’s lines from his now-famous talk that he prepared for monks in Asia: “The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

JOHN PHILIP: Merton was a great prophet in saying this. For me, that is a very liberating vision, because I think part of the paralysis today comes from people believing the lie that we are essentially separate as people, as nations, as individuals. Too many people believe this lie that we must be in opposition to one another. What Merton was reminding us, just before his death, was that we are one and the One we come from is deeper within us than the many fragmentations around us today. The way forward is about remembering this essential oneness within us and asking people: Are we prepared to take up the cost and the responsibility of truly living as one?

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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