In Part 1 of the story of Christian mantra meditation, we saw how the mantric form of prayer practiced by Christian monks in the Egyptian desert vanished, then resurfaced briefly in 16th century England, only to vanish again. This second part of the story is the tale of how a Malayan swami, a Benedictine father, and chance encounter in Washington, D.C. brought mantra meditation back to Western Christianity. This part of the story begins in Malaysia.  

In 1955 the young man who was to become Father John Main was posted to Kuala Lumpur as a junior member of the British Diplomatic Service. In the course of his duties he was sent to deliver a photograph of the Governor to the head of an orphanage on the outskirts of the city. This was Swami Satyananda, a renunciate who had spent several years in India studying and practicing under the guidance of Ramana Maharshi and other masters. As Main reports in The Gethsemani Talks, the two men fell into conversation and the talk turned to meditation and prayer. Impressed by the swami’s aura of “peacefulness and calm wisdom,” Main asked him to accept him as a pupil and teach him to meditate. The swami agreed, saying “To meditate you must become silent. You must be still. And you must concentrate. In our tradition we know one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word that we call a mantra.” 

Swami Satyananda instructed Main to meditate for 30 minutes morning and evening. During the 18 months he remained in Kuala Lumpur, Main visited the swami twice a week and the two meditated together. As he writes, “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 18 months, this was the essential core of everything he had to say: ‘Say your mantra.’” 

When Main returned to Ireland, he continued to meditate, and gradually his morning and evening practice became “the real axis” of his days. Wanting to build his life around his practice, eventually he joined the Benedictine order. But he was in for a shock. When he told his novice master what he had learned about meditation from the Indian tradition, the man was horrified and told him to give it up and come back to the Christian way of prayer. Having taken a vow of obedience and being a man who took vows seriously, he complied, entering what he describes as a long period in the desert. His deeply sustaining practice of meditation was now gone, and for 12 years Father John was sustained instead by obedience, which he described as the foundation of his life as a monk. 

Then, in the late sixties, Father John became headmaster of St. Anselm’s School in Washington, D.C., and during this period, the busiest of his monastic life, a young American who had been making the round of ashrams and zendos came to the monastery seeking teachings on Christian mysticism. Father John, whose time was consumed with administrative chores, gave him Augustine Baker’s Holy Wisdom, hoping it would keep the young man occupied for a while. But to his amazement the student returned after a couple of days, brimming with such enthusiasm for what he had read that Father John began to pore over the volume with him. As the two studied together, Father John realized that this 16th-century monk, Baker, had an “intuitive understanding of the mantra.” Baker led Father John back to Cassian, and in reading Conferences IX and X he recognized the practice given to him by Swami Satyananda many years before. 

When I met Father Laurence, John Main’s friend and disciple, in London in 1999, I asked if it was literally the same mantra. “It wasn’t the same mantra in the sense that it contained the same words,” he replied, “but when Cassian says, ‘Take this verse and repeat it continuously in the heart until, molded by the constant use of this single verse, you will come with ready ease to purity of heart and poverty of spirit,’ Father John recognized it as a specific, concrete practice, like the one he had learned from his teacher in Malaya. And he saw that mantra was indeed a part of a Christian tradition—Cassian said it was an ancient tradition even in his time, going back to the fathers of the Church. Thus, he found this ancient Christian practice of pure prayer described in terms of Christian theology—poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and union with the prayer of Christ—in what the Desert Fathers call ‘the prayer of fire.’” 

‘Take this verse and repeat it continuously in the heart until, molded by the constant use of this single verse’

So Father John returned to mantra meditation—and this time the Spirit led him quite deep in a very short time. “And he was now uniquely situated to see the tradition as a universal one of great relevance and urgency for both Western society and for the Church,” Father Laurence writes in Light Within. “John Main began teaching meditation in 1976 after a short stay at Thomas Merton’s hermitage and after giving three conferences to the monks of Gethsemani Abbey [a Cistercian community]. This led to the rapid, intense, and yet powerfully purposeful mission of his last years, from the meditation center at his monastery in London, to the new monastery he founded in Montreal, and now the worldwide community of meditation groups.” 

John Main died in 1982, and since then Father Laurence has been spreading the teaching of Christian meditation around the world as the head of the World Community for Christian Meditation. The practice as given by Father John and passed on by Father Laurence is simple: 

Sit down. Sit still. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-phrase “Maranatha.” Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything—spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts and images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation, so keep returning to the simple work of saying the word. Meditate each morning and evening for between 20 and 30 minutes. 

Through this simple practice Christians are regaining their long-lost birthright—the gift of responding to Jesus’s call to leave the self behind. Instead of talking to God, or petitioning God, or even thinking about God, Christian meditators are discovering the art of following the biblical injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The tremendous response to the teachings of Father John and Father Laurence as embodied in The World Community for Christian Meditation—not only by Catholics but also by Protestants and by those with no formal religious background—bears witness to the power of practicing what Father Laurence calls “the incarnation of prayer.” 

The Mystery of Mantra

In the ancient Vedic tradition, the true form of a mantra is not in the letters that can be written or the sound we hear when the word is articulated. Rather, the essence of a mantra is nada (pure, unstruck, eternal sound). In the beginning, nada was the Word that was with God, and the Word that was God. It is the source of all mantras and their true form. 

In the Vedic tradition every mantra was revealed to a sage who was in a state of pure spiritual absorption (samadhi) and passed down from master to student in an unbroken lineage for centuries. Such a mantra has the power to lead one who meditates on it to the same state of consciousness attained by the sage to whom the mantra was first revealed. Mantras cannot be translated—it is the sound itself that purifies awareness and leads it inward. Thus, in the yoga tradition, the object of meditation is infinitely more important than the technique. This is one reason why a yoga practitioner never chooses his or her own mantra but accepts it as a gift from the lineage of awakened masters. 

Mantra has the power to lead one who meditates on it to the same state of consciousness attained by the sage to whom the mantra was first revealed.

The Western tradition today does not have this same understanding, although it must have been there in the beginning when the living stream of mantra practice was flowing closer to its source. The break in the chain of oral transmission, the obsession with orthodoxy as defined by the institution of the Church, and the attendant practice of editing and censoring sacred texts (and in many cases obliterating them), prevent us from finding the original mantras, if such there were. We don’t even know how much of the little that has survived is intact: Evagrius was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. Cassian and the other monks who followed Evagarius’s teachings were expelled from the desert in the year 400 as heretics, and Cassian himself was condemned by the Council of Orange in 529. 

At first glance it looks like these events are an insurmountable obstacle to the recovery of the mantra tradition within Christianity, but there may be no real obstacle at all. The Word is eternal and transcends tradition. Meditation itself is a way back. As the great sage Vyasa put it, “One learns union (yoga) through meditation. Meditation is the source of meditation.” Or as Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened.” 

When Father Laurence told me the mantra Father John recommended was maranatha, he added, “It’s the oldest Christian prayer. It’s in the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic. It means ‘Come, Lord.’” And later I read that Father John had two more reasons for recommending this mantra: St. Paul ends his first letter to the Corinthians with it, and John ends the Book of Revelation with it (although this is not apparent in an English-language version of these scriptures). 

When I mentioned this mantra to my own teacher, himself an accomplished yogi, he smiled and told me that maranatha is also a Sanskrit word. Mara is Kama Deva, the primordial master of Sri Vidya, one of the most esoteric schools of yoga; natha means “Lord.” He added that in Sanskrit literature, especially the literature that originated in the northwestern region of the Himalayas, the names Mara Natha, Sri Natha, and Mina Natha are used to refer to the supreme form of God. Thus it is likely that maranatha was revered as a mantra by the sages who lived and practiced in the Kashmir Himalayas, a place where some say Jesus himself lived and practiced during the years not recorded in the New Testament. In fact, the shrine where Christ is said to have lived is called Amaranatha (Amarnath in Hindi). So perhaps we have been granted a glimpse into the mystery of mantra. It is a living stream that appears to divide and flow in such radically different directions that in places it seems impossible that its branches issue from the same source. And yet despite this (or perhaps because of it), the sacred Word flows on without ceasing, charting its own mysterious course through the labyrinth of human history. Whatever our spiritual tradition, all that is necessary is for us to place our awareness in that mantra which, according to our own faith and feeling, is the locus for the sacred. The Word itself will do the rest.

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