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Jon NilsonApril 05, 2021
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Before he died in November 2013, friends of John S. Dunne, C.S.C., gathered around his bedside. With him and for him, we prayed in words that he had composed for himself:

O Lord, go with me
And be my guide,
In my most need
Be by my side:
If you are guiding me
I shall not want,
If you are guarding me
I shall not fear,
Though I am walking
In the valley of the shadow
Of my dying,
You are walking with me,
And when I am not
You will have taken me.

Dunne spent his life teaching and writing to help others experience what he had experienced. His vocation and that of St. Augustine were similar. Just as Augustine had aimed “to kindle the light of things eternal in human hearts no longer supported by temporal institutions which had seemed eternal but which were crashing on all sides,” says Martin Versfeld, so did Dunne. Thinking of contemplation as “love’s mind,” he said, “that is essentially the work of love’s mind also in our own times. Now too love’s mind has ‘to rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.’” He is a theologian to guide us through our present darkness.

John S. Dunne, C.S.C., spent his life teaching and writing to help others experience what he had experienced.

Newsweek singled Dunne out as a future giant in theology when his third book, The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion, was published in 1972. By 2013, however, he had become nearly invisible, even after writing 17 more books. He did not contribute to theological journals nor present papers at conventions and conferences. Augustine and Aquinas are present throughout his books, but contemporary theologians are almost completely absent. When Dunne learned that the Rev. Peter Phan, the prolific and honored former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, had praised his latest book, he replied, in all innocence, “Who is Peter Phan?”

John Dunne was a Catholic priest, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome under one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians, Bernard Lonergan, S.J. He became a professor at the University of Notre Dame and planned to write a contemporary version of Augustine’s monumental City of God. Yet he could not make any headway on it. He described the work as “like piling up lumber.” It was the occupational hazard of theologians who, as Karl Rahner, S.J., put it, “can acquire in theology a very great skill in talking and perhaps have not really understood from the depths of our existence what we are talking about.”

Eventually he decided to abandon this City of God project to face what he had to: death. Not just the certainty of his own, but the human response to it. As he explained, “I had reached age 30 and had become aware of my own mortality. And so I came in the end to formulate the question, ‘If I must someday die, what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?’” His first book, The City of the Gods: A Study in Myth and Mortality (1965), explored how past cultures and civilizations dealt with death. Afterwards, death remained the key and central issue throughout his life and writing. The last sentence of his last (posthumous) book, Dark Light of Love (2014), is: “I choose to live towards eternal life.”

"I came in the end to formulate the question, ‘If I must someday die, what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?’”

Teacher of truth

He taught and wrote about his life in ways that would help his students and readers understand the truth of their own. He wanted to show how a life, seemingly full of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” may become “a journey with God in time,” as he titled his 2003 autobiography. To live such a life is to walk with God into the darkness of death itself, yet never unloved, never abandoned.

Ordinary prose could not express what he discovered in looking, in asking, “What can I do to satisfy my desire to live?” Dunne instead wrote and lectured mainly in images and metaphors. He often quoted Karl Polanyi’s saying, “We can know more than we can tell.” A persistent, skeptical student once challenged him about the evidence for his statements. An exasperated Dunne replied, “You are trying to understand what I say as an argument. Arguments! Who is ever convinced by argument? Be led by insights, not arguments.”

He answered questions about his method with help from Descartes, noting that he began with one certainty, I am, butDunne’s own method began with two certainties: I am and I will die. Facing death uncovered the fundamental and frightening loneliness of being human. We can try to evade death’s presence through distractions, through the stimulation of our media-soaked culture, but we cannot escape it in boundary situations like guilt, failure, suffering and death. In these situations, two “roads” diverge.

Two roads. One is the road of resignation, living with a grim acceptance of loneliness. The other is “the mystic road of love” (the title of his 12th book) or “the road of the heart’s desire” (the title of his 14th). The first step on that second road is hope for fulfillment that generates enthusiasm, energy and action. Dunne called this hope “kindling of the heart.” He borrowed phrases from Isak Dinesen to describe it: “to feel in oneself an excess of strength” and “to know for certain you are doing the will of God.”

Kindling of the heart changes life. It alchemizes a resentful endurance into a spiritual adventure. This experience will be different for each of us, but its basic pattern is the shift from impasse and resignation to the realization that “with God all things are possible.” It is the gift that African-American spirituality proclaims and praises: “God can make a way out of no way!”

Kindling of the heart changes life. It alchemizes a resentful endurance into a spiritual adventure.

A chronicler of life's journey

Later, Dunne was to say, “I do not fully know what I am doing until the retracing of steps in the last chapter,” echoing E. L. Doctorow’s analogy between writing a novel and driving at night: You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make your whole journey that way. Each of Dunne’s books enacts and expresses what he learned during a stage on the road of his own life’s journey. For him, there was little point to knowing the history of doctrine or the thought of Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Heidegger or Rahner if one remained a stranger to oneself. His readers encounter these and other great authors in Dunne’s books, but there is no scholarly discussion of their importance.

Dunne did not do research to gather data for his hypotheses or evidence for his claims. Research was a search for wisdom. For him, as for Kafka, a book should be “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” It only becomes an axe, Dunne realized, when you read to discover its meaning for you at this stage in your own journey.

He often found that meaning encapsulized in a few words. For example, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he was struck by four phrases that he considered “thoughts essential to a journey in time”: “things are meant,” “there are signs,” “the heart speaks,” “there is a way.” These four appear again and again throughout his later books. They reminded him to pay attention to the events of his life, to learn how to respond.

While these spoke to Dunne, they may not speak to everyone. Yet the kindled heart will find the particular guidance it needs. (Mary Oliver’s “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” is nearly sacred for many people.) Yet guidance comes only to those who live by insight, not by some predetermined life plan. He realized that certitude is self-defeating. Trying to live in certitude only makes one more uncertain, restless and bored. Life becomes a “deadly clear path,” not an adventure. “Be led by insights,” he had exclaimed, “not arguments!”

For Dunne, trying to live in certitude only makes one more uncertain, restless and bored. Life becomes a “deadly clear path,” not an adventure.

Communicating mysticism

Reading Dunne rightly requires preparation and cooperation. In the preface to The City of the Gods, he invited the reader of this book to join him “in tracing these various solutions to the problem of death.” In A Search for God in Time and Memory (1969), he asked his readers first to undertake “the kind of self-examination that would go into an autobiography or a personal creed.” When a friend complained that she could not understand his writing, he said, “You don’t just read it straight through. You read it slowly, one paragraph at a time, reflecting on your own life.”

In that sense, reading Dunne is walking in the darkness of one’s own life with a reliable guide. This guide does not turn on a floodlight to banish the darkness. There are no such lights. He has light enough, though, to show you how to take your next step. Journeying with Dunne as a guide, one can learn that the heart’s deepest desire is for God, the God who is also your companion. It is to verify Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Dunne’s influence on his friends and students was and remains immense, but he has little influence on theologians working today. True, he did little to promote his own work, but the conventional distinction between academic, pastoral and spiritual theology is also to blame for his near invisibility. His books were often categorized as “spirituality,” “spiritual life” or “contemplation,” not theology. If he is known simply as a spiritual writer, not a theologian, some who like his particular style will read him, and others may safely ignore what he has to offer. Dunne is writing authentic theology, however, and one urgently necessary for what he called “the dark times in which we live.”

Rahner, arguably the most influential and productive theologian of the 20th century, saw these times coming: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he will cease to be anything at all.” The secular, empirical and technocratic culture of Europe and North America would make Christianity unintelligible and incredible to many, though they may have been raised as Christians. Worse, the revelations of sexual abuse and the political co-opting of white evangelicals have even made Christianity repulsive to millions.

John Dunne was a mystic, one of those devout Christians of the future. He had “experienced something.” He devoted his teaching and writing to helping others to experience that something as well.

Dunne’s influence on his friends and students was and remains immense, but he has little influence on theologians working today.


Lonergan once told Dunne that one should not replicate the twists and turns of one’s own learning for students and readers. Instead, one should present the matter in some order, from the simple to the complex, or from the most important to the least. But, Dunne thought, why not trace the how, as well as the what, of your discoveries? Why not offer your own journey as a paradigm of a search for God in time and memory? As he did this, Dunne became a specialist in an area of theology that Lonergan would later call “foundations.” He was not consciously implementing Lonergan’s program in his own work; he developed his unique method and style on his own. Yet we see that Lonergan’s description of foundations is the best way to appreciate Dunne’s achievement as a theologian.

“Foundations” does not refer to a set of basic principles or axioms from which theologians deduce their knowledge. Nor is it a set of instructions that any ignoramus can follow to think theologically. It is the reality of the theologian who is caught up in what Lonergan called “total surrender to the demands of the human spirit: be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible, be in love.” By love here, Lonergan means commitment to one’s “ultimate concern,” such as the hunger for God, the thirst for truth, devotion to duty or the struggle for justice. This commitment promotes the attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness and responsibility that expand and deepen one’s knowing and loving. Lonergan calls this commitment conversion.

To join Dunne on “the mystic road of love,” “the road of the heart’s desire,” is to experience a kindling of the heart like the kindling once felt on the road to Emmaus.

“The demands of the human spirit” are inherent demands, not alien or imposed from without. Everyone should recognize and follow them, but not everyone is a theologian. Those who make those demands central to their work are theologians who specialize in foundations. They study the dynamics of conversion and the transformations of self that it produces. They communicate the perspectives and insights that arise from their study.

Because these demands are inherent, these theologians must become familiar with them by interrogating their own experience. This was Dunne’s life’s work. Quoting Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, he said, “I have learned to look close at most things that come my way.” As he did, his life became a spiritual adventure, a journey in time with God as his companion on the way, the road of the heart’s desire and the mystic road of love.

He found that self-knowledge and knowledge of God grow together, and he often prayed with Augustine, “May I know myself, may I know you.” Knowing God, he learned, is more an awareness than an encounter, an awareness that cannot be expressed in ordinary expository prose. He had to find metaphors and images for it. Later, when these metaphors and images fell short, too, he turned to music. Deep Rhythm and the Riddle of Eternal Life (2008) was even published with a CD of his own compositions.

“Only God enters the soul,” Dunne quoted Aquinas. God alone could give exactly what he needed and desired. The kindling of his heart, the illumining of his mind and “most things that come my way” were evidence of his being known and loved. Experienced again and again, they revealed God as his companion on his journey in time. Yet they eventually revealed more.

The kindling and illumining pointed beyond companionship to “indwelling,” the presence of Christ within. His heart was kindled with energy and strength not his own. His mind was illumined with insight and vision not his own. So his sense of personal autonomy and separation gradually gave way to the sense of himself as fundamentally open to and constituted by Christ.

For Dunne, to be a Christian is to enter into and to share Jesus’ relationship to the God who is “My father and your father, your God and my God” (Jn 20:17). Again and again in his later books, he quoted Jesus’ words: “You in me and I in them” (Jn 17:23). Rahner saw this as “the heart of the Christian conception of reality.” Dunne calls it “the essence of Christianity,” our life’s deepest truth. As he later put it, “Christ dwells in you as you” and “Christ is the ownmost self of the Christian.”

To join Dunne on “the mystic road of love,” “the road of the heart’s desire,” is to experience a kindling of the heart like the kindling once felt on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his friend had invited a stranger to walk with them. As they listened to the stranger speak to their sadness and loss, they felt their hearts burning within them (Lk 24:32). Like John Dunne, we know we are still walking in the valley of the shadow of our dying. Yet as we read him and heed him, we may also feel peace, courage and joy in knowing Who is walking with us.

Books by John S. Dunne, C.S.C.

1965 The City of the Gods: A Study in Myth and Mortality

1969 A Search for God in Time and Memory

1972 The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion

1973 Time and Myth: A Meditation on Storytelling as an Exploration of Life and Death

1978 The Reasons of the Heart: A Journey into Solitude and Back Again into the Human Circle 1982 The Church of the Poor Devil: Reflections on a Riverboat Voyage and a Spiritual Journey

1985 The House of Wisdom: A Pilgrimage

1987 The Homing Spirit: A Pilgrimage of the Mind, of the Heart, of the Soul

1991 The Peace of the Present: An Unviolent Way of Life

1993 Love’s Mind: An Essay on Contemplative Life

1996 The Music of Time: Words and Music and Spiritual Friendship

1999 The Mystic Road of Love

2000 Reading the Gospel

2002 The Road of the Heart’s Desire: An Essay on the Cycles of Story and Song

2003 A Journey With God in Time: A Spiritual Quest

2006 A Vision Quest

2008 Deep Rhythm and the Riddle of Eternal Life

2010 The Circle Dance of Time

2012 Eternal Consciousness

2014 Dark Light of Love

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