Silence and Stillness in Prayer:

The Message of Dom John Main by Paul Harris

Since his death on Dec. 30, 1982, Dom John Main's teaching on Christian meditation has spread from the Benedictine monastery he founded in Montreal to embrace a worldwide fellowship of meditators. People of all faiths and occupations, from executives to housewives, from professionals to taxi drivers, have felt the call to follow the path of silence, stillness, simplicity, and the use of a mantra in prayer. 125 Christian Meditation groups are now flourishing in the U.S. and 1,000 groups around the world.

As a lay person Main joined the British Colonial Service in 1954 and was assigned to Malaya. One day in Kuala Lumpur he was sent on an apparently routine assignment to deliver a good will message and a photograph to a Hindu monk, Swami Satyananda, director of an ashram and orphanage/school. John Main thought he would quickly dispatch the assignment and be free for the rest of the day.

In fact, this visit was to dramatically change his life. His good will mission accomplished, John Main sat down for a cup of tea and asked the Swami to discuss the spiritual base of the many good works carried out at the orphanage and school.

Within a few moments John Main knew he was in the presence of a holy man, a teacher, a man of the Spirit, whose faith was alive in love and service to others. As John Main wrote many years later, "...I was deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom. He asked me if I meditated. I told him I tried to and, at his bidding, described what we have come to know as a discursive method of meditation... using thoughts and images. He was silent for a short time and then gently remarked that his own tradition of meditation was quite different. For the Swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts... in silence."

John Main was so awed by his intensity and devotion that he asked the Swami to teach him to meditate his way. The Swami agreed and invited him to come to a meditation centre once a week. On his first visit the Swami spoke about how to meditate:

"To meditate you must become silent. You must be still and you must concentrate. In our tradition we know only one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word called a mantra. To begin you must relax and then repeat it, faithfully, lovingly, and continually. That is all there is to meditation. I really have nothing else to tell you. And now we will meditate."

But first the Swami pointed out that since the young western visitor was a Christian, he must meditate as a Christian and he gave him a Christian mantra. He also insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening. For 18 months John Main meditated with the Swami and it was this encounter that led John to the pilgrimage of meditation. In fact, it led to Main eventually becoming a Benedictine monk.

Years later while a member of the Benedictine community in Washington, DC, Main made an incredible discovery. One day in reading the writings of a fourth century desert father, John Cassian, Main discovered Cassian in his tenth conference on prayer clearly outlining the use of a short verse or mantra in prayer.

Cassian also pointed out this form of prayer was in widespread use by the early Christian desert fathers. Main was thrilled to find the use of a mantra in prayer was an ancient Christian tradition. He was also overjoyed by the fact that John Cassian was the spiritual teacher of St. Benedict, founder of Main's own monastic tradition. Now the circle was complete. Main had discovered that use of a mantra in prayer was not only an ancient Hindu tradition but was also an early Christian one.

A crucial turning point in John Main's life took place during a few days at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, in 1976. In effect his public teaching on meditation began in the three now famous conferences given to the monks and published as Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks. But it was the time of silence spent in Thomas Merton's hermitage (Merton died in 1968) that the Spirit moved deeply in his heart and called him to the work of teaching meditation.

He told the monks at Gethsemani, " I understand it, all Christian prayer is a growing awareness of God in Jesus and for that growing awareness we need to come to a state of undistraction, to a state of attention and concentration - that is, to a state of awareness. And as far as I have been able to determine in the limitations of my own life, the only way that I have been able to come to that quest, to that undistractedness, to that concentration, is the way of the mantra."

On leaving Gethsemani Dom John told the monks, "I shall always remember with great affection these days among you." John Main had learned that his teaching on the way of prayer must be pursued more urgently than ever. He had also learned, beyond any doubt, that this was the work for the kingdom to which he was called to give the rest of his life, no matter how long or short it might be.

How close were Thomas Merton and John Main in their spiritual pilgrimage? It would seem very close. These are the words of Merton in Calcutta a few days before his death: talking about prayer Merton said, it ... the deepest level of communication is not talking, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words and it is beyond concept."

It is the genius of John Main that he synthesized the prayer teaching of John Cassian and the desert fathers (fourth century), the spiritual classic, the Cloud of Unknowing (fourteenth century), and the spiritual teachings of the East. Unlike Merton, John Main left us a formal teaching about how to pray.

Today Main's teaching, passed down from John Cassian, has spread around the world and continues with each passing month to lead more and more people to "the spirit in their own heart."

The teaching Christian meditation has taken the form of "small" meditation groups that meet weekly to enter into the meditation experience itself and provide a means for newcomers to learn this type of prayer.

Taking a cue from the growth of Christianity in the early days of the church, John Main envisioned small groups spreading the teaching of meditation in an organic way, meeting in various locations once a week and offering motivational support and encouragement to those on the meditative pilgrimage. He did not live to see today's worldwide growth of groups of meditators in cities, villages and towns in 50 countries of the world.

Fr. John Main died on the morning of Dec. 30, 1982, radiating a sense of presence and peace.

In summing up John Main's life and teaching, Francois Gerard, a Minister of the United Church of Canada, wrote in the publication Monastic Studies that "if one were to characterize the spiritual pilgrimage and teaching of John Main in one sentence or phrase, one could suggest that he had rediscovered and lived the simplicity of the Gospel."

Paul Harris lives in Ottawa, Canada and is author of the recently published book Christian Meditation: Contemplative Prayer for a New Generation (Novalis). For further information on Christian Meditation in the United States contact Sr. Marian McCarthy, 1080 West Irving Park Rd., Roselle, IL 60172, phone (708) 35.1-2613.