Charles Johnston died on Friday, October 16th , at about twenty minutes past three in the afternoon. His death was due to heart disease, from which he had been ill for nearly a year. He seemed much better in April, at the time of the T. S. Convention, but not long afterwards became seriously worse. To the end he retained his high courage, keen sense of humour, perfect cheerfulness, and steadfast aspiration; there was never a word or sign of complaint or self-pity. In conversation with one close to him, he spoke of his desire not only to accept his Karma, but to welcome whatever the Master might have in store for him, that he might learn its lesson as thoroughly as possible, since he wished only the Master’s will; and toward the end he spoke of the months of his illness as the most fruitful of his life.
He has left us very little in the way of autobiography,—if biography still mean to us, as it had ceased to mean to him, a record of the personal outer life. It was not there his real interests lay. Who’s Who in America gives the usual skeleton outline of parentage and birth, dates and places, positions held and books published,—the whole sketch being very incomplete, because he would never take the time properly to revise it. He was born at Ballykilbeg, Co. Down, Ireland, on February 17th, 1867, the son of “Johnston of Ballykilbeg,” Member of Parliament for Belfast, a famous Orangeman and leader of the Temperance movement. His mother was a daughter of Sir John Hay, a Scotch Baronet. He was educated at Derby, England, and later at Dublin University. In the last article he wrote, contributed to the Theosophical Quarterly for July, 1931, marking the centenary of H. P. B.’s [add reference] birth, he recounts his first meeting with her, in 1887, and in order to give it its proper setting, he tells us very briefly how he first heard of her, and of Theosophy. “I had been first introduced to her,” he writes, “by reading A. P. Sinnett’s Occult World in November, 1884, and Esoteric Buddhism [add reference] in the following spring; and had been completely convinced of the truth of her message, of the reality of Masters, and of her position as Messenger of the Great Lodge. This conviction was tested by the attack made on her by the Society for Psychical Research in London, in June, 1885, when I made a vigorous protest in H. P. B.’s defence, and by further study of Isis Unveiled, Five Years of Theosophy, and Light on the Path [add references] in the months that followed.”
In August, 1888, he took, and passed brilliantly, his final examinations, notoriously “stiff,” for the Bengal Civil Service. Then he married Vera Jelihovsky, H. P. B.’s niece, whom he had met while she was staying with her aunt in London; and, shortly afterwards, he and his wife left for India, where they arrived in November of the same year. Stationed in an unhealthy district, he contracted jungle fever, and, after visiting other parts of India, became so ill that he was officially invalided home some two years after his arrival. In talking to a friend about his experiences at this time, when still living in or near the jungle, Mr. Johnston told of a yogi who used to emerge from its depths whenever a particularly bad attack of fever had him in its grip. He said that the yogi would squat on the veranda, near him, and smile sympathetically, occasionally discussing philosophy, but more often saying nothing; and that the effect of this man’s presence was extraordinarily soothing and helpful, seeming always to quiet the fever, or in any case to make it more endurable.
On his return to Europe—his Civil Service career at an end—his first effort had to be to recover his health while somehow making a living, which must have been a matter of extreme difficulty for a young man who had been educated exclusively for a position now denied him, and who necessarily lacked either mercantile or professional training. There was nothing for it but to use a talent already helpfully employed on behalf of the Theosophical Society, and to become a professional writer. He succeeded in connecting himself with some English journals, to which he sent letters on foreign news, and he contributed, to the more serious reviews, articles on ethnological, political and economic questions. Thus employed, for the next six years he and his wife travelled extensively in Europe, visiting her relatives—Madame Blavatsky’s nearest kin—in Russia, and staying in different places in England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and France. They lived for some time in Salzburg, where Dr. Franz Hartmann then resided, and where Mr. Johnston finally threw off his jungle malaria.
Through all this time, both in India and after he left it, he pursued unremittingly his studies in the Wisdom Religion, to which Theosophy had given him the keys. By the use of these keys, the ancient scriptures of the East-which, to Max Müller and his school of orientalists were little more than a mass of meaningless ritual—had revealed to him the underlying outline of the Mystery Teaching, the same basic teaching to which Madame Blavatsky had introduced him and which she was attempting to rephrase for the comprehension of the modern, western world. At Mr. Judge’s [add reference] request, Mr. Johnston undertook a series of translations from the Sanskrit, which were made a regular feature of the Theosophical Society’s literary activity, being published by Mr. Judge as the “Oriental Department Papers”. It was from the work done in this connection that his first separate volume on the Indian scriptures, From the Upanishads, was culled.
While a student in Dublin he had for friends a notable group of young Irishmen, including the Irish poets, W. B. Yeats and G. W. Russell, who shared his interest in Theosophy,—though of all of them he alone remained faithful. It was to G. W. Russell that he dedicated, in 1895, this volume of translations from the Sanskrit; and the dedicatory letter, written, after ten years of separation, to the companion of his first adventures in Theosophy, gives us a revealing picture of this early period of his life. For Mr. Johnston the ten year interval had been, as we have seen, a very crowded one, yet he says very little of his outer journeyings and doings, offering, instead, the fruit of his inner search for that “small old path the seers know,” where, “whether one would set out to the bloom of the East or come lo the chambers of the West. without moving is the travelling in this road. . . . In this path, to whatever place one would go, that place one’s own self becomes”. [add reference] We reproduce the dedicatory letter,—telling us of the teaching of Death, teaching which we now have double need to know.
The brown and yellow of autumn are touching the chestnut-leaves again for the tenth time since those early days when we first began to seek the small old path the seers know.
On such a day as this, rejoicing in the sunlight, we lay on our backs in the grass, and looking up into the blue, tried to think ourselves into that new world which we had suddenly discovered ourselves to inhabit. For we had caught the word, handed down with silent laughter through the ages, that we ourselves are the inventors of the game of life, the kings of this most excellent universe: that there is no sorrow, but fancy weaves it; that we need not even knock to be admitted, for we already are, and always were, though we had forgotten it, within the doors of life.
That young enthusiasm and hourly joy of living was one of old destiny’s gracious presents, a brightness to remember when storms gathered round us, as they did many times in the years since: there was a gaiety and lightness in the air then, a delight of new discovery, that I do not think we shall find again; yet I know, and you also know, what excellent strength we have gained instead. For, carrying our high hopes with us, all these years, as one side of life after another was turned to us, as we had to pass through rough ways as well as smooth, to wrestle with the stubborn tendency of things, full-breasted and strenuous, we have fought and worked into ourselves an intimate knowledge of what we then only divined, we have realized much that then loomed dim and ghostly before us, we have learned to abide confidently by spiritual law.
To gain our experience side by side would have been very pleasant, had fate so willed it; but fate willed quite otherwise. Almost at the outset, destiny carried me, vagrant, to the distant rivers of the East, whose waters mirror old towered shrines among the palm-trees, while the boatman’s song floats echo-like across; or where the breakers of the lonely, limitless ocean cast forth strange shells upon the sand; or through the grey alder-forests stretching away desolate to the frozen seas; or again, among rugged mountains, shaggy with pine-forests, where rainbow-sparkles carpet the snow.
And you, whom outward fate has held stationary, travelled perhaps further after all;finding your way homeward to the strange world the seers tell of, the world at the back of the heavens; and sending to us your “Songs by the Way”. [add reference: Homeward: Songs by the Way, by A.E. (George William Russell)
It was an ambition of mine, in those old days, to translate, from the Indian books of Wisdom, the story of the Sacrificer’s son who was sent by his father to the house of Death. This story has always seemed to me a teaching of admirable worth, carrying with it the most precious gift of all, a sense of the high mysteriousness and vast hidden treasure of life, which makes us seekers for ever, always finding, yet always knowing that there is still more to find; so that every day becomes a thing of limitless promise and wonder, only revealing itself as containing a new wonder within. For what teaching could bring a more wonderful sense of the largeness and hidden riches of being than this: that our sincerest friend is the once dreaded king of terrors; that death teaches us what no other can—the lesson of the full and present eternity of life? We need not wait till our years are closed for his teaching: that teaching of his, like every other treasure of life, is all-present in every moment, in full abundance, here and now. It is the teaching of Death that, to gain the better, we must lose the dearer; to gain the greater, we must lose the less; to win the abundant world of reality, we must give up the world of fancy and folly and fear which we have so long held dear: we have been learning it all these years since we began; learning also Death’s grim jest, that there is no sacrifice possible for us at all, for while we were painfully renouncing the dearer, his splendid generosity had already given us the better—new worlds instead of old.
Well, the ten years are passed, and my ambition is fulfilled; I hand you my rendering of Death’s lesson, and two more teachings from the same old wise books.
I have found them wise, beyond all others; and, beyond all others, filled with that very light that makes all things new; the light discovered first within, in the secret place of the heart, and which, brimming over there, fills the whole of life, lightening every dark and clouded way. That glowing heart within us, we are beginning to guess, is the heart of all things, the everlasting foundation of the world; and because speech is given therein to that teaching of oneness, of our hearts and the heart eternal as eternally one, I have translated the last of these three passages from the books of Wisdom.
You will find in them, besides high intuition, a quaint and delightful flavour, a charm of childlike simplicity; yet of a child who is older than all age, a child of the eternal and infinite, whose simplicity is better than the wisdom of the wise.
There is no answer in words to the question: What is in the great Beyond? nor can there be; yet I think we know already that, in the nameless mystery of the real, it will be altogether well with us—now and after. This strong reconciliation with the real is, very likely, the best fruit of our ten years’ learning.
Mr. Johnston was only twenty-eight when he wrote this letter, marking, as he says, the attainment of one of the ambitions of his student days, but, of infinitely greater moment, marking also the discovery of the inner light, “in the secret place of the heart,” and the recognition that it “is the heart of all things, the everlasting foundation of the world,” so that, in desire for it, all other desires must be consumed. He had found the pathway to the real; it remained to set himself steadily to gaining freedom from the bondage to the unreal. In the next year he and Mrs. Johnston moved permanently to America, reaching New York in October, 1896. Here, as in Europe, he made his living by contributing to the secular magazines, but, as always, continued his theosophic studies; and into the silent work of reconstruction which followed Mrs. Tingley’s regime and the crisis that terminated it, [add reference] he put all the best of himself. Thereafter we shall look in vain for any personal note in his theosophic writings, for the life they deal with is the life of the spirit, not of the separate personality; it is the age-old way of discipleship, of devotion to the Masters, and of the will to serve them,—the life that is open to all souls, and the same for all souls,—the life that has been the theme of all the world’s scriptures, the teaching of all the saints and seers and prophets, and of their followers; but which, though the way to it be cried from the house-tops, must be lived before it can be really known. Little by little, the clamorous self-assertion of the personality must be put away, until in its place there comes that serene, detached stillness which so many who met him felt.
But perhaps few were privileged to look deeper, and to see the valour on which this serenity rested,—the steady crescendo of self-conquest which won him this prize of the warrior: and the warrior Mr. Johnston was. Let us quote again—this time from his Introduction to The Song of Life. [add reference]
In the radiance we are all one, wrapped in the terrible flame of Life. Yet we forget. We come back again shivering across the threshold, and hasten to wrap our pure divinity in a mist of dreams. The saint once more takes his white garment; the sinner, his red vesture of desire. The weak is weak again, and the strong exults. Their dreams are once more real to them; and these dreams are our mortal world.
We return to the world of daylight to live for a few more hours in the strength brought back from the immortal world. Our earthen lamps are replenished for another watch. We strain and stagger under the burden of our dreams, driven by hope and fear, by desire and hate. Fear is the keenest scourge of all; making us cowards, it makes us also cruel. Thus we fall away from our divinity, robbed of every shred of memory by the army of shadows that meet us on the threshold, with their captain, fear. Yet in all our phantom-world, there is no illusion so absolute a lie as fear. We are the gods, the immortals; yet we cower and cringe. We are children of the will, yet slaves of fear. Therefore our ideal of valour brings us near the threshold, for it bids us kill the captain of the shadows who bar our way. But for a long time yet, the shadow of fear will lurk in the haunted darkness of our human hearts. . . .
The highest valour is needed, to make our vision real. We must battle with the whole army of shadows, the princes and powers of the air. We must fight to the death, if we would inherit life.
No member of The Theosophical Society, no reader of the Quarterly, [add refernce] needs to be told of Mr. Johnston’s services to the Movement through the forty-six years of his association with it. The hundred and fifteen numbers of this magazine, which stand as a lasting memorial to Mr. Griscom, its founder and first editor, are only less of a memorial to Mr. Johnston, who, from its inception, has been its most generous contributor. Dependent always upon his earnings as a writer, he contributed his articles to the Theosophical Quarterly, not only without financial recompense (no contributions to the Quarterly are ever paid for), but lavishly and with punctilious regularity: he was never late, or too busy or too tired. Not content with this, for many years past he had returned all the royalties due him from the sale of his books published by the Quarterly Book Department, insisting that the money be used for the benefit of the work. He was one of the few who made possible the continuance of the Society when it was all but disrupted after the turn of the cycle, and for more than a quarter of a century he was Chairman of its Executive Committee. He travelled from New York to the Pacific coast, and went again to Europe, in order to visit the Branches and isolated members of the Society, and it was upon him that the chief burden of public lecturing devolved. The list of our standard theosophical books owes more to him than to any save H. P. B.; and he has interpreted for us the great scriptures of India as has no other writer. One of his last expressions of satisfaction was that he had completed the material for the second volume of his translations of the Upanishads. In every department of the work, our debt to him is deep and lasting. But greater than his gifts, to some of us, was the man himself, and our deepest gratitude is for his comradeship.
Let us remember, too, as we look back over this record of his services to us and to our Cause, that while rendering them he had the common duties and responsibilities of outer life, which claimed his strength and time, so that his work for Theosophy was done in the hours which most men deem necessary for recreation and for rest. He lectured at Cooper Union, and for the New York Board of Education. In 1908, he was Special Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin—where he was presented with a loving cup by the members of the faculty—and he also delivered a number of addresses at Columbia University in New York. At one time he taught at the Russian Seminary. A great lover of nature and science, he was especially interested in omithology, [add reference] and was a valued member of the Linnaean Society. In 1918-19, he served as Captain in the Military Intelligence Division at Washington. But no matter where he was, or what his occupations, he permitted nothing to interfere with his contributions to the Quarterly.
He would tell us, and it would be true, that all that was of worth in him, all that he valued in life, he owed to Theosophy. It was Theosophy that brought him to himself; it was Theosophy that brought him to Christianity,—the most deeply hidden of all the world’s religions, the most travestied, and most misunderstood, but to those who have heard aright its Master’s call, none more superbly valorous. As few have been able to give to the Movement what he gave, so few have been able to take from it as he took. Which of these two is cause and which effect, no one can say, for in essence they are one and the same. We give by taking, and take as we give. For all he gave, for all he took, our gratitude is his,—but most for what he made himself.
The sorrow of his going is something of which those who were closest to him cannot speak,—but that is of the mortal: in the Immortal there is neither change nor separation.
H. B. M.