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 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 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. 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. By Laurence Freeman OSB
Christian Meditation is a way of life that was practised by Jesus, continued through the early church and still being practised by the monks, especially in the dessert of Egypt. This teaching has been rediscovered in our day:
Be still and know that I am God. It’s simple and practical. The focus of meditation for the Christian is Christ. In meditation we turn the searchlight of consciousness off ourselves. We are not thinking about or talking to God at all. We seek to do something far greater, we seek to be with God, to be in the mind of Christ. We go beyond thoughts, even holy thoughts. This means that it is centred on the prayer of Christ continuously poured forth in the Holy Spirit in the depth of each human being. Meditation is about coming to stillness of spirit and body. Despite all the distractions of the modern world, this silence is perfectly possible for us today. But to reach this stillness we have to devote time to the work at silence. So in our meditation we are not concerned with thinking but with being. The aim in our Christian prayer it to allow God’s mysterious and silent presence that is already within us to become the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we are and do. The way we do this is to recite a short phrase, or prayer-word, that today is commonly called a mantra. The mantra is simply a faith-filled way of turning our attention beyond ourselves, a method of drawing us away from our own thoughts and concerns. The practice of meditation then develops harmony of body, mind and spirit.
To meditate find a quiet place, and take a comfortable upright sitting position. Close your eyes gently. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly, begin to repeat a single word, your mantra. The recommended mantra is maranatha. (Maranatha is an Aramaic word which means “Come Lord”.) Say it simply – ma-ra-na-tha – as four equally stressed syllables. You can say the word in rhythm with your breathing, fairly slow, fairly rhythmical.
Listen to the mantra as you say it, gently and continuously. You do not have to think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise, you need to be attentive & wakeful but when thoughts or images come at the time (they are simply distractions) return simply to saying the word. Don’t try to dispel or repress distractions. Simply let them go by saying your mantra. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes. If you are meditating for the first time, start with ten minutes until you feel comfortable. Then you can increase your time of silence to twenty or thirty minutes.
“The wonderful beauty of prayer is that the opening of our heart is as natural as the opening of a flower. To let a flower open and bloom it is only necessary to let it be: so if we simply are, if we become and remain still and silent, our heart cannot but be open, the Spirit cannot but pour through into our whole being. It is for this that we have been created.” John Main OSB (1926-1982).
Want to start a group? Follow this link http://www.christianmeditationgroups.org/
Creating a space for God
Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and God alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that God is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give God our undivided attention. Jesus says, “Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place” (Mt 6:6).
To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone.
Solitude is not a spontaneous response to an occupied and preoccupied life. There are too many reasons not to be alone. Therefore we must begin by carefully planning some solitude. Five or ten minutes a day be all we can tolerate. Perhaps we are ready for an hour every day, an afternoon every week, a day every month, or a week every year. The amount of time will vary for each person according to temperament, age, job, lifestyle, and maturity. But we do not take the spiritual life seriously if we do not set aside some time to be with God and listen to him.
(Nouwen, H 2002. In my own words. London:Darton, 27-28)