Father John Orme-Mills O. P. (25.09.1930 – 6.12.2010): In Memorian
Figure 1. Father John Orme-Mills in Maastricht (August 2008).
VMMI is deeply saddened with the loss of our senior advisor and close friend (Figure 1).
In 1976, Dr Soli Hakim (D. Phil. Oxford, F.R.C.P.) introduced me to John Orme-Mills, his student friend from Balliol, in Coram’s Fields Gardens (London). The Parsi physician from Bombay, and practicing mystic, gave a quick sketch of a remarkable man.
As he was ending his time as a student at Oxford, John was taken ill and went to hospital just as the exams were beginning. Special dispensation was given to write his exams in his hospital bed. It is reported that he received the highest marks at Oxford that year. For nearly two decades, he was officially in journalism, with active interests in the world of theatre and the theatre of the world at large. He was intrigued, bemused, but not seduced by the glamour of the social world. Only occasionally were there glimpses of this nearly hidden dimension. Once, at a reception, someone was worried about Nancy Mitford’s U and Non U. He very quietly noted that the author of that book, whom he knew personally, had written most of this with as much cynicism as haste in a hectic weekend and should not be taken too seriously. He knew the noble lady in Rome who had been a nurse in the war and was the real life figure behind the story of the English Patient. He was a close friend of Count von Schönborn. In old Europe, passing the mantle has a literal dimension. When the Count died, John inherited his coat. All these happened to be matters in his life, but none of them mattered in a deeper sense.
In his later 30s, when most persons are clearly settled, John, began considering the religious life. He was sent to France to witness monastic life first hand. Here, he caught a glimpse of a deep religious faith which he had not experienced in England. He made his profession in the Dominican Order in April, 1971. He was ordained in Newcastle a few months after we first met in July 1976.
The official version of the next three decades is simple. As a priest he was stationed in Oxford, Rome, London, Newcastle and Cambridge. He wrote sermons, preached, was for many years the Editor of New Blackfriars and was at times an acting prior. For many that seemed to be almost all there was to the man. His smile and laugh hid as much as they revealed.
He had no real ambitions in visibility, power or glory and thus remained largely invisible. Even so, three interconnected themes made Father John Orme-Mills one of the most important Dominicans of the past generation. These three passions, which “made him tick”, were new media, new mysticism, and new places for reflection.
1) New Media
As a young journalist, he soon became aware how newspapers, and new media such as radio and television played a paradoxical role. On the one hand, they made news available around the world. On the other hand, examples such as William Random Hearst, made famous in a fictional portrayal as Citizen Kane, revealed that these same media could be manipulated for personal, political and even imperialist ends. Father Orme- Mills studied Mcluhan. He became aware that the Catholic Church was totally unprepared for these developments. Some colleagues were listening and soon he was moved to headquarters (Santa Sabina, Rome), where he was made Counselor to the Master of the Dominican Order on the Means for Social Communication.
This was a vast field. He became friends with the head of the Jesuits at the time and soon learned that the problems were even more extensive than he had imagined. As an example there was South America. During the 60s and 70s the Jesuits had discerned trends towards Marxism and liberation theology and supported them. Then in the 80s and increasingly in the 90s, South America moved from the left towards the right and so did the support. How could the Church maintain integrity as individuals representing the Church changed sides in a changing world? How could media help?
Father Mills became immersed in a very complex scene. There was the Vatican, with a direction of its own. Then there were over 660 orders of the Church ranging from tiny factions to great traditions such as the Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits. In a world where politicians and politically motivated individuals were using the “new” media for ulterior purposes, the Church needed to be aware of what is up against. He founded and became President of MultiMedia International. The goal was simple: to teach members of the Church using new media, especially television, of both the potentials and the dangers of these media. At the most basic level, this entailed courses in how to do a television interview. For several years, there were practical steps forward. When he stepped down there was a question of continuity. His superiors ultimately decided to phase out the operation.
In terms of Realpolitik, Father Mills effectively became no. 2 of the Order. Part of his job was to be the right hand man of one of the great orders of the Catholic Church. He flew around the world, more often than his health and inclination would have wished. He found himself immersed in unexpected duties: e.g. doing the background work to prepare the Pope naming the first Philippine saint, who had travelled to China. Here he was confronted with new dimensions of the media, the delicacies of press releases when major powers were involved.
In time, he was offered a chance to be no.1 as Master of the Order. He declined, because he found the constant journeys around the world too stressful for his delicate health. Instead, he helped his friend, Father Timothy Radcliffe, to become Master of the Order. Father Mills returned to London, where, as editor of New Blackfriars, he became increasingly invisible.
He was very aware, in theory, of the emerging phenomenon of the Internet. It was the subject of many hours of discussions. Partly due to his impulses, the Dominican Order created its own Internet Committee. He arranged for our group to give a lecture to them on our way to the G7 meeting in Midrand (1996). The then Master listened politely but was not really interested. Father Mills himself sensed the potential, but always felt that a physical letter was more serious than an e-mail. His practical life remained in a pre-Internet age, while the scholar in him continued to follow developments in this latest new medium. When the Maastricht McLuhan Institute opened (1998) he was named a member of the Advisory Council.
2) Mysticism and Fringe Religions
Before his conversion, John Orme-Mills explored various worlds. He was attracted to the Benedectines. They told him that he was too talkative and not suited to their ways. In the trip to France before his profession, John had caught a glimpse of a deep religious fervour that raised new questions. Faith was clearly central and yet blind faith, by definition, lacked vision. This led to new studies and became a central theme in his life so it was, in no little way, like the peeling of an onion with many skins. A superficial answer was that he was interested in the fringes of religion. Where did orthodoxy end and where did the radicals and heretics begin? The socially acceptable or politically correct versions of this story were the sociology of religion, sociology of faith, faith and society, faith and justice.
At a deeper level the fringes were fascinating frontiers, the boundaries of the accepted and acceptable. Some of these fringes were simply the domains of wild, or even crazed minds in the form of suicide sects or groups with alien invader theories. But the fringes also served as antennae in order to sense and explore that which was beyond the official doctrine. The fringes held the potential of new ideas, that could provide impulses of renovation and revitalization for his Order and for the Church as a whole. As a member of the Order of Preachers, he predictably studied and preached these themes. Unlike some of his colleagues he also knew the importance of listening and he listened especially carefully to and with younger persons.
As a scholarly priest, Father John found a spirit who, in his mind, personified these themes: Meister Eckhart. As a close friend of Count von Schönborn, not surprisingly, he also became friends with the son, Father Christoph von Schönborn who, in the early 1980s, was a Dominican priest, Professor of Medieaval Philosophy in Fribourg and, among other things, expert in the life of Meister Eckhart. During this time, both John and Christoph would meet in the monastery at Retz in Austria, where Meister Eckhart had lived. In his day, Meister Eckhart, had not been accepted by the ecclesiatical authorities. One of Father John’s long standing goals was too see Meister Eckhart “rehabilitated.” As a result, he became for many years a fervent member of the Eckhart Society. A psychologist might contend that the interest in fringe religions, the quest for acceptance of Meister Eckhart’s ideas, was a quest to accept the fringes of his own doubts. At a deeper level there was an awareness that faith entailed a profound, inner, meditative dimension. Meister Eckhart was a glowing example of a rich inner life pointing to new mysticism. His manuscript on Eckhart has yet to be published.
3) New Places of Reflection
The journalist turned priest was confronted with unexpected challenges. He had at first thought that there was a simple choice between the active and contemplative life. Having chosen the latter, he assumed he could “retire” to a life of thought, reflection and prayer. What he found was rather different. A number of colleagues in the new, inner, secluded world had all the external interests of the active life: ambitions for power, greed, glory etc., all the things he had chosen to leave behind. This invited a simple but provocative question: if traditional monasteries were no longer the places for reflection, where should this happen?
In 1981, he had no simple answer to this question, which is one of the reasons why he accepted to become a founding member of the Wolfenbüttel Conversations based at the Herzog August Bibliothek (the largest library in the world in 1630, where Lessing and Leibniz were librarians). It was an unusual group of a) a few individuals destined to be prominent businessmen; b) a few scholars, c) a few teenage high school students. John was the most senior member, but he never wanted the limelight or to take centre stage. He gave short talks. For the most part, he listened and he asked questions. Some members of this group were invited to come with him to Retz.
On the surface, Retz was the monastery where Meister Eckhart had lived, which continued with a few aging monks in a picturesque town in Lower Austria near the Czech border. It was also the site of a quiet experiment. A good part of the monastery was “open to the public” but was not a hotel in a typical sense. A nobleman served as the warden. His wife, an American opera singer, added company, meals and colour. The idea was to have a place where lay persons could have a place for reflection and contemplation.
During the Wolfenbüttel Conversations the topic of finding new places for reflection became a theme. There was a vision of new kinds of monasteries: electronic monasteries became a buzzword. Monasteries were traditionally a place of retreat and reflection: electronic monasteries opened potentials of new sharing while being secluded, sharing not only with fellow Christians but also with individuals in other faiths. There was the idea of a monastery where Christian, Muslim, Hebrew, Hindu and Taoist scholars might share ideas. Again, this was a theme that we discussed for hundreds of hours, in Wolfenbüttel, Stuttgart, Rome, and later in London, with long walks on Hampstead Heath.
Slowly the theme of electronic monasteries grew into a vision. A friend in Vienna, Magister Franz Nahrada, a practical Utopian, had been following our discussions. He had contacts on the Island of Mljet, off the coast of Dubrovnik. Mljet was an equivalent of utopia on earth (Figure 2). There is an island. Within this island there is a lake. In this lake, there is an island. On this island there is a former monastery now in ruins. The idea was to make this into a future electronic monastery. In a sense it had the aura of Name of the Rose, with the subtle difference that this was not a novel.
As a first step there was a reconnaissance mission with Franz and yours truly. The scene was truly idyllic. There was only one negative: Tito had used this place for wild parties during his regime and there was an invisible aura of disquiet in the air. Even so we decided to proceed. Father John flew to Vienna. From there we drove to Mljet with a Minister of the Austrian government. We duly met with the Bishop of Dubrovnik. With students from Vienna, we produced a simple film outlining the vision. The assumption was that of all went well, Father John Orme-Mills would become the prior of Europe’s first electronic monastery.
Figure 2a-b . The Monastery of Mljet, Croatia
A few months later the film was ready. Father John flew back to Vienna. The film was presented the film personally to his friend, Christoph (von) Schönborn, who, by now, was Cardinal, Archbishop of Vienna. It was wonderfully cordial, there were polite noises on all sides, but no clear decision emerged.
This non-decision to create a new kind of monastery became a milestone in the life of John Orme-Mills. After the experiences in Rome, his move back to England had been a return to the provinces in an all too literal sense. Most of his colleagues had no notion of the arguments of the day in South America, the tendencies of India, the religious climate of Russia or the spiritual dimensions of China. He now found himself a world citizen first in London, then in Newcastle and subsequently in a small town (Cambridge). He emphasized that he was happy to be in a civilized and kind place and at the same time mentioned how few persons understood what he was about.
Listening and Friendship
The journalist who became a priestly champion of new media, new mysticism and new places of reflection had one other quality that made him remarkable. There is an English saying that friendship is about accepting another person “warts and all”. In a word, John embodied and personified this very English concept of friendship. In other contexts, it was a personification of Christian agape. He preached and lived a sense of complete loyalty. Once, when there were problems with a friend, he organized a special meeting, listened profoundly and preached continuity. That effort was not successful, but he continued in his loyal way, always listening. When Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., Prefect of the Vatican Library, was falsely accused, Father John Orme Mills set into motion steps to maintain his dignity. Had he founded a new order, the eminent member of the Order of Preachers might have created an Order of Listeners.
Father Mills remained constant in his vision of something higher, pointing, usually implicitly, towards a world beyond the here and now. His realms were inner worlds. His quests were a deeper faith, new inner life. He described himself as an ideas man. Some of his ideas and visions have not yet been realized. But perhaps this is his greatness. Some create physical structures, which crumble with time. Others offer fresh ideas on which future generations can build.
His close friend, Dr. Soli Hakim, predicted that he would achieve a peace that passeth all understanding. The world has “lost” a rare spirit, and yet the spirit of his mysterious depth, his questioning listening, his quiet smile, his unforgettable laugh, his loyalty will long continue as an inspiration. There are myriad members of the faithful, many men of the faith, very few who teach us to think afresh about the meaning and essence of faith.
An official site in recognition of Father John Orme-Mills, from the students of the English Dominican Order, is found at: http://godzdogz.op.org/2010/12/john-orme-mills-op-rip-1930-2010.html
Figure 3. Father John Orme-Mills in the garden of VMMI (Summer, 2008).