Meditation is a universal spiritual wisdom and a practice that we find at the core of all the great religious traditions, leading from the mind to the heart. It is a way of simplicity, silence and stillness. It can be practised by anyone from wherever you are on your life’s journey. It is only necessary to be clear about the practice and then to begin – and keep on beginning.
In Christianity this tradition became marginalised and even forgotten or suspect. But in recent times a great recovery of the contemplative dimension of Christian faith has been happening. Central to this now is the rediscovery of a practice of meditation in the Christian tradition that comes to us from the early Christian monks _ the Desert Fathers and Mothers and allows us to put into practice the teaching of Jesus on prayer in a radical and simple way.
John Main has a major role in this contemporary renewal of the contemplative tradition. His teaching of this ancient tradition of prayer is rooted in the Gospels and the early Christian monastic tradition of the Desert.
Open to all ways of wisdom but drawing directly from the early Christian teaching John Main summarised the practice in this simple way:
Sit down. Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Then interiorly, silently begin to recite a single word – a prayer word or mantra. We recommend the ancient Christian prayer-word "Maranatha". Say it as four equal syllables. Breathe normally and give your full attention to the word as you say it, silently, gently, faithfully and above all - simply. The essence of meditation is simplicity. Stay with the same word during the whole meditation and from day to day. Don't visualise but listen to the word as you say it. Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images and other words. Don’t fight your distractions but let them go by saying your word faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it immediately that you realise you have stopped saying or it or when your attention is wandering.
Silence means letting go of thoughts. Stillness means letting go of desire. Simplicity means letting go of self-analysis.
Meditate twice a day every day. This daily practice may take you sometime to develop. Be patient. When you give up start again. You will find that a weekly meditation group and a connection with a community may help you develop this discipline and allow the benefits and fruits of meditation to pervade your mind and every aspect of your life in ways that will teach and delight you. John Main said that ‘meditation verifies the truths of your faith in your own experience’
Meditation has the capacity to open up the common ground between all cultures and faiths today. What makes meditation Christian? Firstly the faith with which you meditate – some sense of personal connection with Jesus. Then the historical scriptural and theological tradition in which we meditate.
Also, the sense of community it leads to: ‘when two or three pray together in my name, I am there among them.’ And the other means by which our spiritual life is nourished – the other forms of prayer like scripture, sacraments and worship. Meditation does not replace other forms of prayer. Quite the reverse it revives their meaning.
Finally - but also primarily - we meditate to take the attention off ourselves. In the Christian tradition it is seen as a work of love. Not surprising then if we find we become more loving people as a result of meditating and this will express itself in all our relationships, our work and our sense of service especially to those in any kind of need.
Meditation is both solitary and communal. You can connect with others who meditate through these pages and find your journey deepened and strengthened. There is a lot to learn about this way – through our School, readings and dialogue. But the bottom line is always your personal practice. As John Cassian said in the 4th century: ‘experience is the teacher’.
Meditation helps people of all ages and cultures to find a simple and practical way to awaken and deepen their spiritual life. Children can and like to meditate and their example shows us all how simple and natural it is.
Opening Prayer of Dom John Main
"Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, 'Maranatha…Come, Lord Jesus'."
In 1976, shortly after he had begun his public teaching on meditation, John Main composed this prayer for his first set of tapes. Later it was published in his first book “Word into Silence”.
In few words it expresses both the essence of the Christian understanding of prayer and the sense that we do not pray in isolation but also as members of the community of the Body of Christ.
Having at first been introduced to meditation through its universal tradition in the East many years before he had become a monk, he was experientially prepared to recognize the essential Christian expression of the teaching when he encountered it in the Conferences of John Cassian and the Christian medieval tradition in the late sixties.
It was not, however until a few years later that he realized how deeply enriching and universal this approach to contemplation could be in the church at large. At first he had seen it as a way of monastic renewal. But through his experience of teaching lay people of all ages and walks of life at his monastery in London he understood that here was a simple yet transforming practice of the prayer of the heart that could be followed as a gentle and daily discipline by all disciples of Jesus.
John Main’s theology of meditation is both Christocentric and profoundly Trinitarian as this prayer shows. He has been well called a ‘Trinitarian mystic’. Many individual meditators and meditation groups around the world today begin their silent meditation that takes them beyond all words with this short prayer which comprehends the mystery of silence in the experience of the God who is communion in love.
The mantra ‘maranatha’ that was John Main’s preferred recommendation to people beginning meditation is the oldest Christian prayer (it means ‘come, Lord’), in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, used by St Paul at the end of the First Letter to the Corinthians (16:22) and found in the earliest Christian liturgies.
Closing Prayer by Laurence Freeman OSB
"May this group be a true spiritual home for the seeker, a friend for the lonely, a guide for the confused. May those who pray here be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to serve all who come, and to receive them as Christ Himself. In the silence of this room may all the suffering, violence, and confusion of the world encounter the Power that will console, renew and uplift the human spirit.
May this silence be a power to open the hearts of men and women to the vision of God, and so to each other, in love and peace, justice and human dignity. May the beauty of the divine life, fill this group and the hearts of all who pray here, with joyful hope. May all who come here weighed down by the problems of humanity leave giving thanks for the wonder of human life. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. AMEN."
At the opening of the first Christian Meditation Centre in London in 1984 Laurence Freeman composed this prayer a few minutes before the people attending the blessing of the house arrived. It has often been adapted by meditation groups and other communities both in The World Community for Christian Meditation and elsewhere.
The prayer grew out of this particular Community’s experience that meditation, the practice of contemplation, creates and nurtures the growth of community into the full human maturity of peace and justice. Although it is a solitary practice it reveals solitude as the recognition and acceptance of each person’s eternal uniqueness and the eternal and unique value we share with every creature in the cosmos.
From this naturally flows the power of compassion that is the pure fruit of meditation and the most powerful force in the world for the transformation of darkness into light, for the healing of human wounds and the relief of suffering.
Lectio Divina as a spiritual practice in the life of the Christian meditator
Lectio Divina we learn to know the heart of God, through the Word of God.
Saint Gregory the Great
“Saint Benedict saw lectio, spiritual reading, as an integral part of our Christian living. . . . The purpose of lectio is to help us respond to the presence of God in his Word. . . Lectio prepares us for the mystery of God – a mystery that ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard’. We have to be clear that it does prepare us. The movement itself is accomplished by the redemptive love of Jesus that we encounter as our spirit open fully to his life released in our hearts.”
From Community of Love, “The Monastic Adventure”. John Main OSB
“When we are open and receptive to the Word of God, conversion happens. It is not a matter of changing our opinions or acquiring a new spiritual home. It is a revolution in the deep structures of the personality that, if it is genuine, goes on for the rest of our lives.”
From Laurence Freeman OSB – Introduction to The Burning Heart. Gregory Ryan.
In the centuries-old tradition of lectio divina – which is Latin for sacred reading – it is suggested that, before or after your morning or evening meditation, you read a passage of scripture. After reading this go back to it, either then or later, and spend some time – even 15 or 20 minutes if you can - reverently turning the passage over in your heart. Read slowly and lovingly, pausing whenever the words draw you into silence. Close your eyes and experience the meaning of the words for you now. But even more, experience the presence found in them. Let the reality of the words become more and more a part of your being.
During the time of lectio, the historical setting of the passage is not as important as the place it has in your life now. In a real sense, you are not the same person you were ten, five or even one year ago. Since you are always a ‘new person’ your response to the Word will never be the same. You may find yourself making acts of the will to conform you life more to the message of the text. One day you may rest in a deep peace. Another day you may be aware of tension, anger or sorrow. These feelings should not cause any anxiety because they are all part of God’s healing action at work in you. In time, you will learn to accept yourself as a work-in-progress, and your growing appreciation for the Living Word of God will lead you to a life of constant wonder, gratitude and love. Adapted from - The Burning Heart, Gregory Ryan
A Simple Way of Lectio Divina
Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart. (Jeremiah 15:16)
Prepare for your time of Lectio in a similar way as to how you prepare for meditation. Allow 15 – 20 minutes to slowly move through the stages outlined
Reading / Lectio
(Listening) Read the passage slowly, two or three times and notice what word or phrase speaks to you. - What am I hearing?
Meditation / Meditatio
(Repetition) Repeat the word or phrase over and over, allow it to sink into and act on your heart, notice any feelings, thoughts, questions arising and allow these to touch your life. - How is this touching me?
Prayer / Oratio
(Listening) Listen for what you sense the Lord is saying to you now. Take this to heart and ask for the grace to be taught and formed by the Word of God.
- What new insight am I being invited to embrace? What am I hearing?
- How is this touching me?
- What new insight am I being invited to embrace?
- How will I respond?
You could also form a short mental prayer around your response.
Contemplation / Contemplatio
(Being) Stay quietly with whatever is happening, and trust this. Now is the time to stop pondering, and allow yourself to be with what is, knowing that the Lord loves you and wants what is best for you.
The next step
"The next step is to start the work of silence, the saying of the word throughout the time of meditation. You will find that lectio is an enriching form of prayer that will help you enter more fully into the separate time of prayer set aside for meditation with the mantra. Your meditation – called ‘pure prayer’ because in it we ‘abandon all the riches of thought and imagination (Cassian, Conference X) – also prepares the heart for lectio but also for the Eucharist and all other forms of prayer in a contemplative spirit. All prayer is a participation in the prayer of Jesus. In that sense all our forms of prayer are preparations for this grace of participation.” (Laurence Freeman OSB)
Why do Christian Meditators call the prayer word a ‘mantra’?
The mantra, taking us into the present moment and beyond the ego, slips through the narrow gate into the city of God. (John Main, Word Made Flesh)
The tradition of ‘monologistic’ prayer – prayer that employs one sacred word recited continuously in the heart and mind in faith – is a venerable tradition in Christianity. It began perhaps with reverence for the name of Jesus (at which every knee shall bend’ Phil 2:10). This use of the Holy Name also became established later in the various forms of hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. In the western Church the first master of this prayer was John Cassian. The first detailed description of this form of prayer is found in the Desert tradition in Conference X of Cassian.
Here he recommends the verse (Psalm 69.2) ‘O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me’. St Benedict later adopted this as the opening verse of the Divine Office, a place it occupies to our day. A thousand years later in England the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends the same form of prayer but suggests the use of a single monosyllabic word such as ‘God’.
In the twentieth century John Main inheriting and passing on the same tradition recommended the early Aramaic Christian prayer ‘maranatha’. This is a scriptural phrase meaning ‘Come Lord’ (1Cor: 16:22), in the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic, and a sacred phrase in the early Christian liturgy. There are many other examples of suggested prayer-words in the history of Christian prayer reflecting the particular epoch or the personality of the master of prayer who was leading others into contemplative silence and stillness (hesychia) in the heart. Common to the tradition is the emphasis on continuous repetition of the word with deepening faith and fidelity to the same word as it becomes rooted in the heart and opens the grace of contemplation – our entry into the prayer of Jesus himself in the Holy Spirit.
Those who used the name of Jesus would call the word simply ‘the Name’ or the ‘Holy Name’. Cassian does not recommend the name and calls the verse he suggests calls it a ‘formula’. This term meant ‘rule or principle’. That is, ‘formula’ did not have a specifically sacred meaning but referred to a template or the standard use of the same word or phrase recited faithfully in all conditions of mind and leading the one praying to poverty of spirit.
John Main refers to the prayer-word as ‘the word’ or the ‘mantra’. Why does he use the term ‘mantra’ especially as this term is associated with eastern forms of meditation?
To understand this it is necessary to remember the religious environment in which John Main personally recovered and first began to teach meditation in the Christian tradition. Before he entered monastic life John Main had first encountered this practice in the East though he always practiced it as a form of Christian prayer. It was there that he first encountered the term ‘mantra’ which carried the sense of a ‘word or formula chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer.’ Twenty years later when he had re-read Cassian and encountered this way of prayer in the Christian tradition he resumed his own practice and was led to see its universal relevance for contemporary Christian spirituality.
By 1975 various forms of eastern meditation had been become popular in the west, in particular Transcendental Meditation. Thus the word mantra had entered popular language. Today the word is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as a ‘sacred text or passage’ with a first English usage dated 1801. Most often today the word is used in a secular context to refer to politicians’ repeated promises!
Some people hearing the word ‘mantra’ used in connection with Christian prayer may feel uncertain or confused because of its eastern associations. Since 1975, since John Main used it as a Christian term with no specific debt to the east it has, however, become familiar to many Christians. We can now say it belongs to the vocabulary t of Christian spirituality.
In the same way the full import of the word ‘meditation’, which of course goes back to the roots of the Christian tradition, also needs to be recovered and understood in its original, more contemplative sense. For many Christians ‘meditation’ became restricted to mental prayer, employing thought and imagination especially in reflection on the scriptures. This is very valid form of prayer – also and sometimes better described as ‘lectio’. ‘Meditation’ in its original sense of leading into to non-discursive, silent, imageless prayer or contemplation was also popularized in the west in modern times through eastern spiritualities and methods. The challenge John Main addressed was to recover and reinstate the full meaning of ‘meditation’ in the Christian world.
There are then two reasons supporting the use of the term ‘mantra’. First, that it has acquired a universal usage and is widely understood in a Christian context. Second, that for some people learning of the contemplative dimension of prayer for the first time may require some careful reflection and discussion. Being encouraged to think about what ‘mantra’ and ‘meditation’ mean can be a stimulus for the modern Christian to understand and recover the contemplative dimension of their faith and prayer-life.
For a more traditional audience this will need sensitive help from the person presenting Christian meditation. So the word mantra may need to be explained when it is first used in a teaching session. For example in introducing Christian meditation to a new audience, especially a non-English speaking one, it may be wiser first to use the terms word or prayer word. Then at the point in the introduction when a specific word is recommended – for example, Jesus or Abba or maranatha the speaker can refer to them as ‘early Christian mantras or sacred words’.
Keeping these sensitivities and background in mind it has been the experience of The World Community for Christian Meditation, now present in more than a hundred countries, that the term ‘mantra’ is not at all a serious impediment to the transmission of this teaching. The greater challenge is to help people already praying in sacramental or devotional ways to understand, through their own experience, the full meaning of contemplation and the prayer of the heart. Even though for some people the term ‘mantra’ may cause an initial confusion, being helped to understand its meaning may help them grasp better what meditation itself means as a way beyond words, thoughts and images into the silence of Christ. This is expressed in the opening prayer which John Main composed for Christian meditation:
Heavenly father, open my heart to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead me into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call maranatha, come Lord Jesus.
Laurence Freeman OSB