John Main's Christian Meditation

The Christian Meditation movement, begun by John Main, OSB, is spreading around the world and doing great good by introducing people to the life of prayer. In the spirit of gentle inquiry, however, it is possible to address some questions to its practitioners in the hope that any ensuing dialogue would only strengthen this movement.

1. John Main learned to meditate using a mantra from his Hindu teacher, but what goal was his teacher aiming at? Was it the same goal as that of the Christian life of prayer? If not, does this mantra meditation become Christian just because a Christian uses it? Did John Main consider this mantra meditation of his teacher identical with the teaching of John Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing?

2. In the terminology of John of the Cross, is this mantra meditation meditation or contemplation? If it is meditation, why does John Main seem to insist that we must continue using the mantra? What happens when we reach a point when meditation begins to fail? Can this insistence on the mantra be reconciled with the teaching of centering prayer? If this mantra prayer is a very simple form of meditation, should beginners be introduced to it indiscriminately before they have gained experience in more discursive forms of meditation? If it is contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross, how can it be recommended to everyone?

3. It would seem that the deliberate simplification of discursive activity that takes place in this kind of meditation would have the psychological result of excluding energy from consciousness, and thus activating the unconscious. Does the Christian meditation movement make any provision for this activation?

Visit the World Community for Christian Meditation website and the Unitas website.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

In response to the questions posted here concerning John Main’s Christian meditation teaching, sixteen people met at Unitas and spent a day in discussion and reflection. Unitas is an ecumenical centre for spirituality and Christian meditation, formerly the Benedictine Priory of Montreal founded by John Main. The sixteen people referred to are those who continue at Unitas John Main’s practice of giving short talks to meditators on Monday and Tuesday evenings throughout the year. The questions provided a stimulating framework for our sharing, and we are grateful to the editor of the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum for his invitation to respond to the questions below. We do not purport to speak for the worldwide network of Christian meditation groups and practitioners, only to offer the fruit of our own discussion and reflection in the interest of understanding through dialogue. The discussion is an organic one, and we welcome its continuance.

John Main learned to meditate using a mantra from his Hindu teacher, but what goal was his teacher aiming at? Was it the same goal as the Christian life of prayer?

In Christian Meditation (published by the Benedictine Priory of Montreal, 1977) John Main explains the following concerning his teacher, Swami Satyananda: For the swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the universe who dwells in our hearts, and he recited these verses from the Upanishads: "He contains all things, all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. And he enfolds the whole universe and, in silence, is loving to all. This is the Spirit that is in my heart. This is Brahman." (p. 11)

It should be noted that while Swami Satyananda was a Hindu monk, he was educated at a Roman Catholic school and had considered becoming a Christian. Although he studied Raja yoga, Sanskrit and Eastern disciplines, his awareness of and love for the Christian tradition should not be overlooked. Perhaps the fact of speaking to a Christian audience determined both the swami’s choice of Hindu Scripture above, and John Main’s reiteration of the same, placing emphasis on a concept that is comprehensible in Christian terms. It is clear, whatever the case may be, that Swami Satyananda’s understanding of the goal of meditation coincides with the Christian concept of the aim of contemplative prayer as conscious union with the Indwelling Spirit of God. The parallel deepens when the Swami explains the general goal of his life as the restoration of the consciousness of the Kingdom of God among his fellow men (Neil McKenty. In The Stillness Dancing. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986. p. 50).

If not, does this mantra meditation become Christian just because a Christian uses it?

While in the case of Swami Satyananda and John Main obvious parallels may be drawn between mantra meditation and the Christian goal of prayer, the fact remains that at the time the Swami transmitted the teaching to John Main, the technique involved was one of Hindu meditation, not Christian prayer. Only later did John Main discover similar practices within the history of the Christian tradition. Therefore, the question remains valid: what makes mantra meditation - a practice transmitted out of the Hindu tradition - specifically "Christian"?

The "Christian-ness" of the prayer is contained in the intention of the meditator. This intention of opening oneself to the triune God revealed to us in Jesus may also be reiterated at the beginning of each period of meditation. This intention, while not consciously dwelt upon during the period of meditation itself, is formulated in the meditator’s daily life which grows out of lived awareness of the Christian tradition and its fruits. It is a question of context, wherein the Christian’s whole life, through intention, becomes "Christian" and this necessarily extends to whatever mode of prayer the meditator practices, including mantra meditation.

 Did John Main consider this mantra meditation of his teacher identical with the teaching of John Cassian, and The Cloud of Unknowing?

Having discarded mantra meditation on the advice of his novice master when he entered the Benedictine order, John Main resumed the practice when he found in the Conferences of John Cassian what he took to be a definite Christian parallel with mantra meditation. It might be argued that John Main placed undue emphasis on those aspects of Cassian’s writings that synchronized with his understanding of mantra meditation - the suppression of thought and image, the repetition of a short phrase to facilitate this letting go, the concept of the poverty of spirit of this type of prayer - while not dwelling on aspects that differ: Cassian’s understanding that the meaning of the phrase is of great import, for instance. Whether or not John Main’s choice of emphasis constitutes putting his own "spin" on Cassian, he clearly understood his own interpretation of Cassian as coinciding with mantra meditation: "In reading these words of Cassian and Chapter X of the same [10th] Conference on the method of continual prayer, I was arrived home once more and returned to the practice of the mantra." (Christian Meditation, p. 17)

While John Main reclaimed mantra meditation for himself (and for Christians as a whole) via the writings of John Cassian, he also cited the 14th century The Cloud of Unknowing as corresponding in form and intention to mantra meditation. He pointed out (see his Word into Silence. NY: Paulist Press, 1980) the Cloud’s use of a single repeated word to overcome thought (p. 51), the concept of prayer as listening and being rather than speaking and thinking (p. 10), and the fixing of the word in the heart (p. 52). In fact he characterizes The Cloud’s teaching on the use of the prayer-word as "say your mantra" (p. 52). However, John Main chose not to underline The Cloud’s cautioning that the practice was not for everyone or even for many (see The Cloud’s "Forward"), offering the teaching of mantra meditation to all. Further, his insistence on staying with the mantra faithfully throughout the prayer period does not dovetail with The Cloud’s "If you do not feel inclined to pray with words, then forget even these words [recommended by The Cloud’s author]. (Ch. 39).

Whether or not John Main understood mantra meditation to be identical to prayer as taught in the writings of Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing, he certainly interpreted both works to be congruent in form and intention: imageless prayer through repetition of a word or short phrase with the aim of union with/awareness of the Indwelling Spirit was to be found not only in the spiritual disciplines of the East but also in the Christian tradition. He did also apparently feel that the similarities were enough to justify his own experience with mantra meditation and his return to the practice, as well as his passing the practice on to others, all within the Christian context. Distinctions are not hard to find among the various teachings, and John Main did not dwell on the distinctions. However it might be over-scrupulous to allow these differences to overshadow the deep correspondence that also exists among Eastern mantra meditation, Cassian’s prayer, and the teachings of The Cloud of Unknowing. The intuiting of this correspondence and the handing back to Christians of a valuable but neglected practice not foreign to their tradition was a gift of great genius on the part of John Main.

 In the terminology of John of the Cross, is this mantra meditation meditation or contemplation?

Among Carmelites, meditation usually means all that we do to establish communion with God in interior prayer. Contemplation is what God does in us, the inflow of divine loving knowledge into our very being.

Meditation, however, can be either discursive or non-discursive. Discursive meditation involves thinking, reasoning, imagining, remembering, and feeling. St. John of the Cross calls this discursive process "meditation".

Ernest Larkin, O.Carm., recognizes in his article in Review for Religious (January/February 1998) that there can be an unnamed middle step or bridge between discursive meditation and infused contemplation. Infused contemplation, defined strictly as gift, goes beyond words, thoughts, feelings. This "middle step" aids in the movement beyond the faculties and fosters the disposition of openness and surrender.

This middle-step is appropriately named non-discursive meditation. It seeks to quiet these mental activities in order to be silent and passive before God, receptive to whatever God wishes to communicate to us. Non-discursive meditation usually involves four basic elements: a suitable place, a proper posture, a mental instrument or object of focus, and a receptive attitude.

In the terminology of John of the Cross, the word "contemplation" would be used only to refer to God’s direct self-communication to a person disposed through self-emptying in faith and love to receive this intimate revelation. It is not our activity, but God’s. It is not something we do to ourselves, but something that God does in us. We dispose ourselves in non-discursive meditation to receive this grace, but ultimately contemplation is God’s free gift to us.

Meditation as practiced in the tradition of John Main would fall into this middle-step category of non-discursive meditation.

 If it is meditation, why does John Main seem to insist that we must continue using the mantra?

The greatest problem in meditation is the wandering mind. It takes years of practice before the mind will respond obediently to the commands of the will. Providing the mind with an object of focus is very helpful in developing concentration. Thus John Main’s constant counsel was to "say your mantra" and not to let go of it too soon. "Too soon" is if you can still repeat it or be with it.

For example, when concentration is focused and there is a pleasing experience, there can be a temptation to let go of the mantra because it seems to put some distance between oneself and the delight. One may want to let oneself become absorbed in the agreeable feelings with a resultant lulling of mental clarity. While unclear absorption may feel very good, one is no longer meditating when sharp clarity of mind is lost. Meditation requires keeping high clarity in deep concentration. Repetition of the prayer word keeps attention bright and alert.

What happens when we reach a point where meditation begins to fail?

If "fail" means no longer be able to say the mantra, then we are describing an experience in which God’s activity has overtaken our own, i.e. contemplation. As this is what non-discursive meditation is oriented to, it could hardly be described as failure. John Main spoke out of the tradition of Cassian in which the emphasis is on the absolute simplicity of ceaselessly revolving the prayer formula in one’s heart as a way of ridding oneself of all kinds of other thoughts and keeping one’s mind fixed on the continual recollection of God. One says the mantra until one can no longer say it. And one does not choose when to stop saying it. As soon as one realizes one has stopped saying it, one starts again.

Can this insistence on the mantra be reconciled with the teaching of Centering prayer?

There is a difference in the two schools in that Centering prayer puts less emphasis upon the continual recitation of the word. People in both schools of practice experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives as a result of their practice. In every tradition of spirituality there is an understanding that it is best to find your path and remain with it.

What the two schools of teaching clearly share is the work of restoring the contemplative dimension of faith and prayer to the life of ordinary Christians, common ground in the roots of Christian contemplative prayer in the monastic tradition, and the conviction that the monastic tradition has relevance to the whole church today.

If this mantra prayer is a very simple form of meditation, should beginners be introduced to it indiscriminately before they have gained experience in more discursive forms of meditation?

John of the Cross counsels discursive meditation for beginners to deepen their knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. John maintains that leaving discursive meditation before this knowledge and love is established in their souls can be as detrimental as continuing discursive meditation when God clearly is leading them into contemplation.

However, many Christians report never being able to pray discursively. They indicate that from the very beginning of their spiritual journey, they have practiced some form of non-discursive meditation. As their meditation has deepened, their knowledge and love of God has also grown.

It would seem that Christians can begin interior prayer with non-discursive meditation, provided their knowledge and love of God is being nourished through other sources, such as spiritual reading or liturgical worship. When knowledge and love of God deepen through other sources, insisting on discursive prayer is not necessary. Simply doing the meditation practice, continually opening oneself to God’s purifying action, is itself an ongoing act of love for God.

If it is contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross, how can it be recommended to everyone?

Christian meditation in the tradition of John Main is not understood as contemplation in the sense of John of the Cross. However, as a way of disposing oneself to receive the gift of loving communion that God wants to give, it can be recommended to all.

It would seem that the deliberate simplification of discursive activity that takes place in this kind of meditation would have the psychological result of excluding energy from consciousness, and thus activating the unconscious. Does the Christian meditation movement make any provision for this activation?

John Main obtained permission from his abbot late in 1974 to establish a small lay community in a former novitiate house at Ealing Abbey in England, primarily devoted to the practice of meditation. The tradition out of which he would teach was that of Western monasticism from its beginnings. He gradually developed, from his opening talks, a theology of meditation based on the "secret" of St. Paul’s letters: the real presence of the risen Christ in the human heart. John Main’s understanding of prayer was simple, basic, and deeply grounded in Scripture and tradition (In The Stillness Dancing: The Journey of John Main, pp. 82-84).

In 1977 he moved to Montreal to open a house of prayer. He died in 1982. In those few intervening years, his teaching consisted of talks given to lay meditators or monastics, which talks were later transcribed and published as books. He never wrote a book as such on meditation. One might say he never had the time. He found himself on the front end of a burgeoning renewal of Christian meditative prayer and much taken up with the founding of a new Benedictine Priory in Montreal which soon began to receive novices, guests and retreatants from around the world.

There is very little in his teaching that addresses the psychological effects of meditation. Several things might be said about this. It could be said that neither the format of his teaching—fifteen minute talks to beginning meditators—nor the fact that, in those days, most everyone was a beginner, favoured delving into that subject. It could be said that he would have been content to stay within the framework of the bible and the history of Christian spirituality in speaking about meditation. It could be said that had he been given more than 56 years to live he would have been invited to address this aspect of the meditative experience as the renewal movement developed, and to enter into dialogue on this point with its leaders in other places. In the end, however, it is a moot point. The fact is his teaching does not address it at any length.

With the help of others doing work on questions relating to the psychological effects of meditation, those of us engaged in handing on the practice of Christian meditation are in the process of developing our appreciation of these dynamics in the practice of meditative prayer. While not being our central preoccupation, we recognize that it is something we should be aware of both in our own practice and in our efforts to serve as guides to other meditators.

On behalf of those giving talks on Christian meditation at Unitas,

Thomas Ryan, csp, and Sara Terreault
Visit the Unitas website.

Response from the Editor:

I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and lack of defensiveness with which the Unitas meditation teachers approached these questions. I would like to try to respond in the same spirit.

I don't deny that there is a theistic dimension to Hinduism and other Eastern religions, or further, that supernatural mystical graces might not be found among Hindu meditators. At the same time, Hindu meditation is often geared to a nondual religious experience which is then expressed in some sort of nondual philosophy. Both the experience and the post-experience reflection can be difficult to reconcile with Christianity as witnessed, for example, by the struggles of Henri Le Saux (Abishiktananda). So the issue that I am trying to get at here is whether the same exercise of mantra meditation can serve as a vehicle for either nondual experience such as is found among the Hindu Advaitans, and for loving union with God, which is the goal of Christian prayer. The answer given is that the intention of the meditator is paramount. I agree that this is a vital consideration. But doesn't the meditation exercise, itself, have some kind of interior finality by which it aims at a particular goal? Does intention totally transform the nature and finality of the kind of meditation we are using? Let me use an example from another tradition without claiming that it forms an exact parallel with mantra meditation. Suppose as a Christian I decide to do zazen, and I have the intention that it will somehow bring me closer to God. Does this transform zazen into Christian prayer, or does zazen still maintain its interior goal of enlightenment?

It is certainly not my intention to claim that the manifold spiritual traditions of the Church need to be expressed in the terminology of John of the Cross. However, I do find that John of the Cross has played a critical role in the formation of the modern Western Christian mystical tradition, and he gives us the basic principles by which we can focus on the nature of contemplation and its relationship to meditation.

I am afraid that I would have to disagree with the Unitas meditation teachers when they call mantra meditation a nondiscursive meditation between meditation and contemplation. For John of the Cross there is no such state. Either we work with the faculties, or God works in us in a special way by giving us contemplation in the depths of the soul. I leave it to Fr. Larkin to respond, himself, as to whether he believes there is such a middle state in John of the Cross, but I refer you to his remarks in the discussion of centering prayer in this same section of the website. There are certainly simplified forms of meditation or what could be called affective prayer, or exercises in the practice of the presence of God. And it is fair to distinguish these states from formal discursive meditation, if we mean by that imagining a scene from the Gospels, making considerations following through affective dialogue, etc., etc. But when John of the Cross is talking about meditation, he means all the kinds of prayer that we can do by our own effort by using the faculties of the soul. Thus, the various forms of affective prayer and John Main's mantra meditation would fall under St. John's heading of meditation, and it is entirely possible that someone beginning the life of prayer might derive more benefit from these kinds of meditation than from formal discursive meditation in the narrow sense of the term. These kinds of meditation can dispose one to the graces of infused contemplation.

The key here, however, is that we are still using our faculties in these kinds of prayer, however simplified this activity is. I am not sure we should say that we are silent and passive before God without qualifying that statement. We need to clearly distinguish between any disagreements which are only rooted in terminology, and the deeper issue of whether it is correct to talk about a nondiscursive state of prayer that transcends the faculties and yet is not infused contemplation. This brings us back to my original consideration because various forms of Eastern meditation are aiming to go beyond the discursive activity of the intellect, and yet they are not aiming at infused contemplation. I am not sure, either, how valid it is to say that such a nondiscursive kind of meditation is what is found in Cassian and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Is it wrong to call John Main's Christian meditation a form of meditation that we can do whenever we desire and which makes use of the faculties in a very simplified fashion and which can dispose us for infused contemplation? James Arraj

A Response from Paul Harris

Meditation, known also as contemplative prayer, is the prayer of silence, the place where direct contact with Christ can occur, once the never-ceasing activity of the mind has been stilled. In meditation we go beyond words, thoughts and images into the presence of God within.

The goal of meditation, as Swami Satayanda expressed it, was to "restore the consciousness of the kingdom of God among his fellow men (women)". It seems to me this was also the purpose of the teaching of Jesus. For the swami the aim of meditation "was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts and in silence is loving to all" (a verse from the Upanishads).

The swami insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening, and being very enlightened he gave John Main a Christian mantra. He said to John Main "and during the time of your meditation there must be in your mind, no thoughts, no words, no images. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound the 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 unity between you and your Creator."

This was the teaching, a way to an authentic interior life, to 'the cave of the heart' that John Main had long been seeking.

What makes this teaching a path of contemplative prayer for us is simply the Christian faith we bring to the practice of this daily spiritual discipline.

If one reads the teaching of John Main on Cassian and the Cloud of Unknowing one comes to the realization that John Main is simply reiterating the exact same teaching but putting the teaching in 20th century contemporary language.

In #2 John Main teaches that one says the mantra until one cannot say it, in other words, until one has come to complete stillness of body, mind and spirit, the contemplative moment. However once one is aware of the silence, the silence is lost and one must come back to the recitation of the mantra.

Regarding Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation, both are in the apophatic tradition of prayer.

Experience shows us that God leads many people to contemplative prayer without any prior knowledge or practice of discursive meditation. I have personally seen this many times myself. God often gives a person the gift of this prayer at a time of crisis or a time of personal illness and pain in an individual's life. The idea that contemplative prayer is not for everyone was beautifully answered by Thomas Merton who says every Christian is called to the heights of Christian prayer simply because of their Baptism. The Cloud says contemplative prayer is simply the development of the ordinary Christian life. No big deal!

The release of the unconscious through the practice of Christian Meditation does start a healing process in the practitioner. Paul Harris

Paul Harris is the editor of John Main by Those Who Knew Him, which is available from: John Main Centre, PO Box 56131, Ottawa, Ontario K1R 7ZO, Canada. He also edited Silence and Stillness in Every Season: Daily Readings with John Main. Continuum, 1998.

A Response from Tom

First of all, I'd like to thank you for this site. It's the only place I've found where John of the Cross, John Cassian, Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer come together...kind of the "Super Bowl of Silence"

I have been practicing Christian Meditation for a year...thirty minutes , twice a day, saying the mantra from beginning to end. All I have to offer is my own experience. I'll try to keep my opinions out of it and I hope this adds to rather than subtracts from the spirit of this site.

As a Catholic, at the outset, I had many questions and fears...

My biggest question:"Should I practice a discipline that in part, stems from a non-Christian tradition...even though it comes from a man (John Main) whose teachings speak simply and eloquently of a Christ I've always sought but could never find?".

My biggest fear:" What if I free fall into this silence and I land in the arms of the Buddha instead of Christ..or even scarier, into the arms of my own illusions?"(this is where I was starting from but didn't know it at the time) I was in the middle of a contradiction that I could not resolve. The courage to proceed came from the words of a Catholic priest and a Yogi.

The Catholic priest: Fr. Lewis a.k.a. Thomas Merton "Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them..."

The Yogi: Yogi Berra (ex-catcher for the NY Yankees.) "If you come to a fork in the road, take it"

In a sense, I had nothing to loose. I was at the point in my Christianity where I had to REALLY seek Christ or go crazy, and I figured I'd either find Him everywhere or nowhere at all. So I began. It's been quite an experience so far... I seem to live in this constant state of being lost and found at the same time...but truly Loved through it all. I would have to say that while the actual times of meditation so far have been mostly distractions, the fruits have been amazing. The most pronounced has been compassion, both for others and myself. Out of this compassion somehow, came more freedom, freedom to look for Christ in the most "taboo" and threatening places..i.e., in the depths of my own humanity. Thomas Merton in a letter to the lay community said (of his solitude) " ...I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man's heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one finds that only experience counts, and arid, rocky, dark land of the soul, sometimes illuminated by strange fires which men fear and peopled by specters which men studiously avoid except in their nightmares" Fr. Freeman, in one of the archive writings at wccm, said "His descent into hell and His ascent into heaven means that there is no shadow we can encounter that has not been graced by His the worst shadows we meet the crucified and risen one" This dovetails with Jung's findings that we need discover, explore and incorporate our shadows so that we might become whole. Wholeness is what Christ is about to recognize me in Him and Him in me in the fullness of His humanity and divinity. Being free to explore and incorporate Carl Jung's wisdom was another fruit of my meditation. Jung helped me find Sophia, God's feminine nature. As a man, I was able to feel truly loved by God for real and for the first time. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to stop demanding from others (my wife in particular) a love they were incapable of giving, and became humble and receptive enough to be content to live each day in reverential hope...which I believe is the attitude I must have in meditation. I can't tell you what an unexpected joy it has been, though sometimes it scares the pants off me, to have found the freedom to simply "let myself be", in whatever season of the heart God grants. And the freedom to look where ever I need to look to see the Truth . Where ever I go and in whoever I "meet" along this silent they Christians, non -Christians, believers, non-believers ...wherever the Truth or seeking of truth is evident, I find Christ, with His arms around us all. God bless!..pax, Tom at


A Response from San Murray, Derby, U.K.,

Here are some thoughts about John Mains Christian Meditation..

In Christian Meditation: Contemplative Prayer for a New Generation, Paul Harris states:

In all essential aspects, with the exception of the Mantra itself, the similarities between Cassian's 'formula', the Jesus prayer, and the 'mantra' of John Main are expressions of the deeper practice of prayer in the Christian tradition.

The anonymous English classic The Cloud of Unknowing is important because we see continuity in the teaching on silent prayer of John Cassian (4th cent), the Cloud of Unknowing (14th cent) and John Main (20th cent). All three teachers offer the same essential teaching. (Harris 1996:31).

I believe that these the types of apophatic prayer techniques cited by Harris above are unique in a number of significant ways.

The Formula of John Cassian.

John Cassian, a 4th century spiritual seeker with one of the early desert fathers Abbot Isaac, who instructed him on a method of continuous prayer. The Abbot states:

And what follows now is the model to teach you, the prayer formula for which you are searching. Every monk who wants to think continuously about God should get accustomed to meditating enlessly on it and to banish all other thoughts for its sake. But he will not hold on to it unless he breaks completely free from all bodily concerns and cares. This is something which has been handed on to us by some of the oldest of the fathers and it is something which we hand on to only a very small number of the souls eager to know it: To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: 'Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue' (Luibheid. 1985, Conference 10:10.p132).

Here we see that the old Abbot recommends his prayer method as a constant practice, breaking free from all bodily concerns and cares. It was considered to be such a powerful practice that it was only handed on to a 'very small number of souls eager to know it'. The aim of the formula was to bring the practitioner to a point where they think continuously about God.

In contrast, the WCCM recommend meditation for 20-30 minutes a day, rather than constant prayer. They often combine meditation with such practices as Rolfing and Hatha Yoga, rather than abandoning all bodily concerns and cares. And rather than teaching only a very small number of eager souls the WCCM very publicly recommend their practice to anyone who comes across their literature or attends their meetings.

Abbot Isaac continues:

It is not without good reason that this verse-(Psalm 69:2) has been chosen from the whole of scripture as a device. It carries within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable. It can be adapted to every condition and can be usefully deployed against every temptation. It carries within it a cry of help to God in the face of every danger. It expresses the humility of a pious confession. It conveys a sense of our frailty, the assurance of being heard, the confidence in help that is always and everywhere present. (Lubheid,1985.Conference 10:10. p133).

Clearly the meaning of the formula is a very important part of saying the formula in contrast to the attitude of WCCM meditators. It is hard to escape from the feeling that what the Abbot is recommending is an ejaculatory prayer, rather than a Mantra, where the meaning of the phrase is unimportant. For example Paul Harris states:

In meditation we are attempting to enter a silence, beyond thinking about Jesus; a silence where our union with Jesus can be fully realised. This is why Father John recommended the mantra Maranatha in Aramaic, a language that would not conjure up any thoughts or images. (Harris. 1996:30).

The Cloud of Unknowing.

The 14th century spiritual Classic The Cloud of Unknowing is cited by the WCCM as recommending the same essential practice as John Main's mantra meditation. Lawrence Freeman writes in the introduction to Evelyn Underhill's translation of the work that "John Cassian's formula and John Main's Mantra, is the 'one little word' of the Cloud." (Underhill 1997:19). Yet the author of the Cloud gives a different impression:

A man or woman with any sudden chance of fire or of man's death or what else that it be, suddenly in the height of his spirit, he is driven upon haste and upon need for to cry or for to pray after help. Yea how? Surely, not in many words, nor yet in one word of two syllables. And why is that? For him thinketh it over long tarrying for to declare the need and work of the spirit. And therefore he bursteth up hideously with a great spirit, and cryeth a little word, but of one syllable: as is this word 'fire', or this word 'out'. (Underhill 1997:121).

Here we have a specific recommendation to use only one syllable not four as in the word Maranatha. There is the same ejaculatory sense of urgency we get with Abbot Isaacs teachings. The analogy is of a person who is in great danger who needs to pray for help, rather than the calm gentle repetition that the WCCM recommends. There is also the sense in the Cloud that this technique is not for everyone:

Fleshly janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book. (Underhill 1997:34).

The author is clear that it is not a practice for everyone but only for those with a high degree of purity and maturity in the Christian life. Again specific words are used and close attention is paid to their meaning. One of the aims of the practice is to get good and remove evil and to obtain forgiveness of sins.

It is understandable that in the face of an intolerant religious heirarchy, John Main prefered to emphasise the similarity of his mantra meditation to forms of prayer in the Christian tradition rather than the South Asian mantra meditation of his original teacher, Swami Satyananda. I feel it is important for the WCCM to acknowledge that its methods have much more in common with Eastern techniques than traditional Christian ones. Given the degree of involvement that the Community has in the process of Inter-Religious dialogue, particularly with the diaspora Tibetan tradition, I think it is important that the WCCM fully acknowledges that it practices a hybrid of Hindu and Christian meditation techniques, rather than meditation in the Christian tradition.

Sam Murray, Derby U.K.,


Harris, P. (1996) Christian Meditation:Contemplative Prayer for a new generation. London. Darton Longman & Todd
Luibheid, C. (1985). John Cassian - Conferences: New York. Paulist Press
Underhill, E. (1912/1997). The Cloud of Unknowing: Rockport. Element

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:


John Main and the Practice of Christian Meditation - Video