Christian Meditation

I.

Mantra meditation for Christians is really a product of the 1970s.

In 1968 the Beatles went to India. At that time, the Beatles were really, really famous, and anything they touched became really, really famous. If they crossed the street, fans went to admire the pedestrian crossing. If their song mentioned a bus shelter, tourists crossed the ocean to see the actual bus shelter. So when the Beatles learned meditation, everyone became interested in knowing more about meditation.

The promoters of meditation claimed it could help relieve the stress of modern living. But then it emerged that the Transcendental Meditation the Beatles had learned was part of a non-Christian religion. So Christians began to ask whether there were any equivalent of mantra meditation in the Christian tradition.

To understand what they found, we have to travel back to the deserts of Egypt in the third century.

II.

In about the year 270, a young man named Anthony went out into the Egyptian desert to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Anthony had been born into a wealthy family. His parents died while he was still young, and he inherited enough money to live comfortably. Anthony was a Christian, and he would learn about the faith in church on Sunday mornings. He was especially struck by Jesus’ command to another wealthy young man: “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

This command spoke to Anthony. He thought it wise to figure out how much money he should keep for his personal needs. He abandoned his calculations the next Sunday when he heard the Scripture, “Take no thought for the morrow” (Matthew 6:34).

Anthony followed this advice. He sold his property in the village, gave his sister enough money to meet her needs, and gave the rest of the money to the poor. Then he went to live a few miles outside the village in the Egyptian desert.

When Anthony got out there, he found there were already a few people doing the same thing. Anthony was not the first to remove himself from society to “pray without ceasing.” There existed a cultural precedent.

An intriguing question is whether this precedent had any continuity with the Therapeutae. These were Hellenized Jews who also withdrew from society for religious reasons, although the Therapeutae lived as a community rather than as hermits. Philo of Alexandria, writing at about the same time as Jesus walked the earth, describes the way of life of the Therapeutae. They lived in simple huts in the desert outside Alexandria, and they spent their entire day in prayer, singing psalms, and meditating on Scripture. With their frugal diet and frequent fasts, the Therapeutae resemble the Desert Fathers for whom Anthony would subsequently become a model.

There is also the more remote question as to whether the Therapeutae were somehow influenced by fleeting contacts with the asceticism of South Asia. Alexander the Great was in India in the fourth century B.C., and it is known from inscriptions on stone pillars that in the third century B.C., the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to the Greeks. Whether these missionaries disappeared without trace, or whether their influence lived on in the form of the Therapeutae, there is too little evidence to say.

All this is speculative. Even if we restrict ourselves to the Christian tradition, we have the examples of the original disciples leaving everything to follow Jesus (Matthew 4) and the first post-Pentecost Christians giving up personal property (Acts 4).

Athanasius’ Life of Anthony gives us a detailed picture of the difficulties one faces when attempting to “pray without ceasing.” Having removed himself from the distractions of society, Anthony came face to face with the distractions in his own mind. He kept thinking about his family and his former possessions. Above all, he was tormented by thoughts of food and sex.

Anthony’s experience of mental distractions turns out to be the common experience of the desert Christians. When a party of travelers visited Egypt toward the end of the fourth century, John of Lycopolis told the visitors to make sure, above all, that “your mind does not suffer from distractions.” He went on to explain: “The entire undertaking becomes pointless when, in conversing with the Lord, one is seduced by opposing thoughts.”

To introduce his method for dealing with these “opposing thoughts,” John of Lycopolis quoted a line from the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). What this means, said John, is that one needs to actively cultivate stillness (Greek hesychia) as a prerequisite to the more intense forms of prayer.

The value of cultivating of stillness is reiterated by another late fourth-century visitor to the desert Christians, John Cassian.

Cassian was a young monk, originally from Europe, who had spent some time in a monastery in Bethlehem. Not finding the spiritual formation he was looking for, he set out to visit the Desert Fathers of Egypt, accompanied by his friend Germanus. On his return from Egypt, Cassian wrote two books. The Institutes dealt with the organization of monastic life, while the Conferences dealt with the inner or spiritual aspects of this life.

The Conferences is written in the form of interviews with the Desert Fathers that Cassian and Germanus met. Conferences Nine and Ten deal with the subject of prayer and are based on their meetings with Abba Isaac.

Following again 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Abba Isaac explains that the goal of the monk is continual prayer. Success in this endeavor depends on the removal of obstacles. These obstacles include one’s memories and one’s concerns for the things of this world. Only a soul thus purified will be able to “pray without ceasing,” he says. Once the obstacles have been removed, the soul will naturally rise upward. It is only worldly concerns that weigh it down.

Abba Isaac described to Cassian the different types of prayer, including prayer of thanksgiving, prayer of petition, and so on. But the Desert Fathers have discovered that beyond these is a purer form of prayer, which consists solely of the loving contemplation of God. When inspired by the Holy Spirit, says Abba Isaac, the experience is as if the soul is on fire with love for God.

The question is then how to go about removing the hindrances—worldly thoughts and distractions. Cassian’s traveling companion, Germanus, has noticed that one can become distracted without even being aware that this has happened. “One thought follows another, arriving, coming to being, ending and going away—all without the mind noticing,” he says.

Abba Isaac congratulates Germanus on this insight. He is wise even to have made this observation. Abba Isaac then recommends the repeated use of a “formula” to remind oneself of the goal of focusing entirely on God. He suggests that one repeat a verse from the Psalms: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord” (Psalm 70:1). Abba Isaac emphasizes: “The soul must grab fiercely onto this formula, so that after saying it over and over again, after meditating on it without pause, it has the strength to reject and to refuse all the abundant riches of thought.”

One consequence of the resultant simplicity of heart, says Abba Isaac, is that the scriptures now reveal their full meaning.

This tradition of praying by repeating a single verse continues in the Greek-speaking Christian East.

About two centuries after John Cassian, another John, the abbot of a desert monastery on Mount Sinai, wrote a text called the Klimax (“ladder of divine ascent”). For this reason, this seventh-century John is styled John Climacus, or “John of the Ladder.” The notion of a ladder, or series of stages, in prayer is mentioned already in Cassian; the metaphor comes from Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven in Genesis 28:12.

John Climacus describes the manner of prayer of the monks. Achieving stillness requires guarding one’s mind. One knows one’s thoughts but is not enthralled by them. While a monk’s body may go out into the world, the soul remains inside and does not become involved in the world.

Climacus sees continual prayer as both a conversation with God and a union with God. There are three steps in his ladder. “The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by monologistos; the middle state is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.” Monologistos, “one word,” is by now the standard term for a short prayer intended to free one from distractions, even if this prayer consists of a single thought rather than literally a single word.

A new tradition now emerges—we are not sure exactly when—of using a prayer based on the cry of the blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). In its simplest form, the wording of this prayer is “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” Most people make it “Jesus Christ, Son of the living God” and describe oneself as “a sinner” at the end of the prayer. Diadochos of Photike, in the sixth century, is among the first to mention this “Jesus prayer.”

The cultivation of hesychia, or “stillness,” becomes progressively established as part of Greek-speaking Eastern Christianity.

Isaac the Syrian was a bishop who left his responsibilities to live as a hermit in the desert. Isaac notes that very few are graced with the higher reaches of contemplative prayer. These reaches are quite different in character from what most people know as prayer, he says, though they may still be called prayer because of their continuity with the earlier stages. He observes that in these Spirit-filled stages, “A man’s nature is deprived of its free will.” One feels guided by the power of the Spirit and can no longer voluntarily control the mind. Rather than praying, it feels is if one is “being prayed.”

Despite the growing strength of the hesychastic tradition, the contemplatives and theologians of the Eastern Church became less and less well-known in the Western Church. One simple reason is that, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, travel became much more difficult. A linguistic divide emerged, too. Fewer and fewer people in the Latin-speaking West were able to read the writings of the Greek-speaking Fathers.

Although Saint Benedict recommended that his monks read the works John Cassian, Cassian’s reports of praying by repeating a single verse or “formula” became largely forgotten in the Latin-speaking West.

III.

The importance of John Cassian’s writings on prayer was rediscovered in the twentieth century by Father John Main.

The man we know as John Main was born as Douglas Main to an Irish Catholic family in London in 1926. Toward the end of the war, he enlisted with the Royal Corps of Signals. After the war, he explored a vocation with the Canons Regular of the Lateran. He found their way of life too restrictive and left the Canons Regular in 1950.

For the next four years, Douglas Main studied law at Trinity College, Dublin. On graduation in 1954, he joined the British Colonial Service in what was then Malaya.

In the course of his official duties, Douglas Main met a Hindu renunciant named Swami Satyananda. It was this Swami Satyananda who in 1955 taught Douglas Main the art of mantra meditation.

Despite Swami Satyananda’s importance, I can find surprisingly little biographical information about him. I did find a photograph of him with Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. That photograph is taken from a book titled Swami Satyananda and Cultural Relations between India and Malaya by V.G. Nair.

Swami Satyananda’s most important influences were the Ramakrishna Order and Swami Shuddhananda Bharati. The latter’s autobiography, Experiences of a Pilgrim Soul, mentions Swami Satyananda’s time with him. In 1947, Swami Shuddhananda told Swami Satyananda: “Go to Kuala Lumpur and start the Shuddha Samaj (Pure Life Society). The means shall seek you by the Divine Grace. Meditate at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., alone, calmly, and commune with the In-Dweller.” It was at the orphanage of the Pure Life Society that Douglas Main met Swami Satyananda.

The pair meditated together for half an hour every week, and Douglas Main would meditate on his own at home every morning and every evening. He later quoted the instructions he received from his teacher:

“Meditating only when you come out to see me will be a frivolity. Meditating once a day will be frivolity. If you are serious and if you want to root this mantra in your heart then this is the minimum undertaking . . . that you meditate first thing in the morning for half an hour and sometime in the evening for half an hour. And during the time of your meditation, there must be in your mind no thoughts, no words, no imaginations. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound this harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a resonance. That resonance then leads us forward to our own wholeness. . . . We begin to experience the deep unity we all possess in our own being. And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation and a unity between you and your Creator.”

Main went on to describe the simplicity of the instructions he received:

“I would often ask the swami: ‘How long will this take? How long will it take me to achieve enlightenment?’ But the swami would either ignore my crassness or else would reply with the words that really sum up his teaching and wisdom: ‘Say your mantra.’ In all those eighteen months this was the essential core of everything he had to say: ‘Say your mantra.’”

This style of teaching is more terse than we are used to in the West. It may be more common in Asia.

In 1956 Main returned to Ireland, where he taught law at Trinity College. In 1959 he finally discovered his real vocation and joined the Benedictines at Ealing Abbey. It was here that his novice master told him to stop mantra meditation on the grounds that it wasn’t Christian. He obeyed. Under the name of “John” Main, Douglas Main was ordained a priest in 1963.

In the early 1970s, while headmastering a school in Washington, D.C., Father John discovered John Cassian’s writings on mantra meditation. Now no longer a novice, he took this Christian precedent as his permission to revive the practice of mantra meditation for Christians.

In November 1976 he gave three talks on Christian mantra meditation at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Those talks are the source of John Main’s quotes from Swami Satyananda above.

The year after the Gethsemani talks, Father John established a new Benedictine priory in Montreal, Canada. The priory occupied the old Joseph Décary mansion at 3761 avenue de Vendôme. It was here that Christian meditation groups began to form around him. John Main would give talks and lead a meditation group on Monday and Tuesday evenings. There were three meditation periods per day for those staying at the priory. Father John advised a friend who wanted to start a group in Ireland:

“As long as you are scrupulously honest and only try to teach what you know and don’t mind saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to that,’ I would say start a group wherever you can. You can always use some tapes for the initial stages. The important thing is to meditate. I think a weekly meeting of the group is of enormous help if it can possibly be managed.”

Although the house on the avenue de Vendôme was large, so many people visited the priory that they were short of space. Their visitors even included the Dalai Lama and his entourage. Toward the end of 1980 they were offered the use of an even larger house, the McConnell mansion at 1475 Pine Avenue in Montreal.

John Main died in Montreal on December 30, 1982.

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