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  • Writer's pictureSteve Watts

John Main and Christian Meditation


‘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.’


Browsing the bookshelves for something to read during Lent I came across John Main’s book Fully Alive about Christian meditation and it immediately took me back 40 years to when I was a trainee teacher in 1980 and our student Chaplain was a certain Fr Seamus, who later became Bishop Cunningham of Hexham and Newcastle, and who has just recently retired.  We were an ecumenical group drawn from students whose backgrounds were in the Free Churches, Anglicanism and Catholicism and we came together weekly with Fr Seamus to meditate on a mantra.


My time under Fr Seamus’s guidance has been brought back to the forefront of my mind because firstly he has been in the news quite a lot recently, but also because my Lent reading reintroduced me to the idea of Christian meditation through the writing and meditations of John Main.


Who was John Main?


Douglas ‘John’ Main was a Roman Catholic priest and Benedictine monk.  He had joined the Canons Regular of the Lateran and studied at the diocesan seminary of St Edmund’s College, Ware, in the 1940s.  He began to doubt his vocation to the priesthood, however, and left the Order to study law at Trinity College, Dublin.  Graduating in 1954 he joined the Colonial Service and was assigned to Kuala Lumpur.  Whilst in Malaya Douglas met Swami Satyananda who taught him meditation using a Christian mantra as a means to arrive at a meditative stillness.


John Main OB


Douglas returned to Dublin in 1956 to teach law at Trinity College and in 1959 he decided to join the Benedictines at Ealing Abbey in London, being ordained a priest in 1963.  At this time he took the name of John in honour of John the Apostle.


In 1970 John was appointed Headmaster of St Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington, DC, where he began to study the writings of the Desert Fathers, drawing parallels with the meditative practice he had been taught by the swami in Kuala Lumpur. In 1974 John left the USA and returned to Ealing Abbey in London, where he began Christian meditation groups at an old house in the monastery grounds.  John was assisted by Laurence Freeman, a fellow Benedictine and together they were sent to Montreal to set up a Benedictine monastery, where they continued to teach Christian meditation groups.  Sadly John died of cancer in Montreal in 1982 and Laurence continued his work, travelling across the globe and in 1991 networked together the Christian meditation groups into the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).


What is the WCCM?


The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) is a global and inclusive contemplative family. The roots of the World Community lie in the desert tradition of early Christianity dating back to the 4th century. In 1975 John Main started the first Christian Meditation Centre in London. The first of the family of weekly meditation groups around the world began to meet then. 


According to the WCCM website ‘The World Community is now present over 120 countries. Individuals, weekly groups and centres share the peace and compassion that are the spiritual fruits of meditation. Groups meet in homes, parishes, schools, offices, hospitals, prisons and universities. There are groups for the homeless, for those in recovery from addiction and a special emphasis of the community is to share this gift of meditation with the poor and marginal. Christian Meditation Centres, such as the John Main Centre at Georgetown University, help to share the teaching. There are also online meditation groups. Because meditation is a universal wisdom, contemplative dialogue with other faiths is a priority. The relationship with the Benedictine monastic family is especially valued and a WCCM Oblate Community grows within the larger community of meditators.


Recent initiatives have led to teaching Christian meditation to young children, as an Eleventh Step practice, and in the worlds of medicine, business and finance where personal integrity and corporate wisdom are needed, with those working in difficult conditions for peace and justice and with clergy of all denominations and the sick and dying.'

 

Further details of the World Community for Christian Meditation can be found on their website here http://www.wccm.org/


What is Christian Meditation?


John wrote about Christian meditation in the 2013 collection of writings Fully Alive.  In Chapter 1 ‘The sound of the mantra’ he states that meditation is ‘so extraordinarily simple to understand … and yet it appears difficult for many people to appreciate the utter simplicity of it’ (p3).


When contemplating introducing meditation into your life John states that it is ‘necessary to be very humble about the way: to accept it and not to try and change it around or water it down to suit you’ (p3). For John, this is the way of meditation:


·       Take your word, your mantra and recite it continuously

·       No matter how you are feeling, whether calm or unsettled, recite your mantra

·       You should meditate every morning and every evening and make time for this

·       You must learn to sit absolutely still in order to experience the total stillness of the body

and spirit, the whole body

·       Meditation is the way into the present moment

·       We tend to live in the past or the future, but learn to be wholly present in the moment,

to the now, to the now that we can describe as the eternal now of God

·       You must listen to the mantra with total attention because it narrows down our

consciousness to a single point

·       Unhappiness tends to come from our refusal to be in the now


What is the mantra?


John suggests Maranatha as a mantra for meditation, expressed in four equal syllables ma-ra-na-tha.  This is an Aramaic word that essentially means ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ and one that we are very familiar with at St Bede’s.  You can choose any mantra, however, that works for you.  John urges us to ‘listen to the word with total and deepening attention and in a growing simplicity and humility’ (p4), learning to say the word ‘is a great training in humility’ (p5).


John advises us to be ‘content with the simplicity and poverty of one little word.  Everything else, you let go of.’  He suggests that in ‘letting go of all your past and all of your plans for the future you enter into the present moment, the moment where the now is God’s infinite love flowing in your mind and heart with a power greater than the mightiest river or waterfall in the world’ (p5).


John suggests that all we have to learn is to enter in.  ‘The power of that great river of love, of that water welling up to eternal life, will sweep us beyond ourselves … and … what we do know is that by wholly opening ourselves to its power we will be swept into the mystery of God’s infinite love’ (pp5-6).


Silence. Stillness. Simplicity: The elements of meditation


The WCCM suggests that Silence, Stillness and Simplicity are the three elements of meditation:

 

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. The daily practice may take some time 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. It is a discipline rather than a technique. Experience is the teacher and this allows the benefits and fruits of meditation to pervade your mind and all aspects of your life. 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. But why can we speak of 'Christian meditation'?

 

Firstly, the faith with which you meditate – some sense of personal connection with Jesus.

 

Secondly, the historical scriptural and theological tradition in which we meditate.


Thirdly, the sense of community it leads to: ‘when two or three pray together in my name, I am there among them.’

 

Fourthly, the other means by which our spiritual life is nourished: the other enriching 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 this is central to any understanding of meditation - we meditate in order to take the attention off ourselves. (Jesus said, leave self behind). In the Christian tradition, contemplation is seen as a grace and as a reciprocal work of love. Not surprisingly, then, if we find we become more loving people as a result of meditating this will express itself in all our relationships, our work and our sense of service especially to those in any kind of need.

 

Introducing Christian meditation into your life


I have re-introduced meditation into my life.  Bishop Cunningham was a great teacher and I can draw upon his spiritual guidance to help me return to what he taught me 40 years ago. I must admit that it is not easy, because our lives are so busy and full of distractions, and mine is no exception!  John suggests meditating 20-30 minutes a day, twice a day.  Depending upon your starting point I’d advise beginning with, say five minutes at the start of the day and the another five at the end, building up over time.


The benefits of meditating, even for short periods, will soon become apparent and the practice will eventually become part of your daily routine.  Neuroscientists suggest that around 40 days is the time we need to do something for it to become second nature, which coincides neatly with the period of Lent. The WCCM website has lots of guidance about meditation including daily meditation support and is worth a visit as a way of helping you get started (see above).


Meditation can be carried out anywhere and at any time.  What is important is that you sit still and focus on the present, letting go of everything except the now, and open your heart to God’s love.  My favourite place to meditate is the beach and after a bike ride I like nothing better than to sit on the promenade, close my eyes, empty my mind, listen to the waves as a way of focussing on the present and let the Lord wash over me.


John used the following prayer to open and close his meditation meetings and this might be a good starting point for all of us when we begin and end our meditation practice:


‘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. ‘


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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