Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks
By John Main
Publisher: Tucson AZ: Medio Media, 1999. ISBN: 981-09-0578-1
In 1976 Benedictine monk John Main gave a series of three talks on meditation to the Trappist monks at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. In his introduction to this volume Lawrence Freeman writes that these talks, reprinted many times since, have “transformed the understanding of prayer for countless people.” Indeed, according to Freeman, these talks “mark a historic moment in the spiritual history of our time.”
Main – known within the order as Dom John – begins his talks by explaining that he wishes to share with the monks “an understanding and an experience of prayer,” and not “a mere theory of prayer.” The prayer he discusses is one using repetition of a mantra. Main explains that while he once, like most Christians, believed that this type of prayer belonged solely to Eastern religious traditions, he later discovered that it also had deep roots in early Christian teachings.
In the first talk Dom John relates how, long before he became a Benedictine monk, he had first learned to meditate. He was serving in the British Colonial Service in Kuala Lumpur when he met an Indian swami and was “deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom.” Dom John explains to the monks:
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 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.”
Over the next eighteen months, Main practiced meditation under the swami’s guidance. The swami told him, “all you have to do is to meditate,” meditation is “very simple,” it is saying the mantra “faithfully, lovingly and continually,” and “I really have nothing else to tell you.” All that mattered was practice – regular daily practice, morning and evening. Whenever Main asked theoretical questions or expressed impatience, “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 eighteen months, this was the essential core of everything he had to say: ‘Say your mantra.’”
When Main returned home to teach Law at Trinity College in Dublin, he realized that his daily meditation had become “the real axis on which my day was built.” The unexpected death of his nephew impelled him to think deeply about the real purpose of his life. “I was forcibly struck by the fact that the most important thing in my entire existence was my daily meditation.” This realization led him to become a monk.
Once admitted to the Benedictine order, Main adjusted to its traditions and let go of the mantra-based meditation practice in a spirit of obedience. But nearly a decade later he discovered that the third-century Christian saint John Cassian had taught the very same mantra-based meditation practice that Main had learned from the Indian swami. Cassian himself had learned it from Abba Isaac, one of the great spiritual teachers of the Desert Fathers.
Monks in the Christian tradition take a vow of poverty. Dom John said that the discipline of repeating a single word or a single phrase brings one to the real meaning of ‘spiritual poverty,’ a poverty far more profound than lack of wealth or property. As John Cassian explained the discipline, “The mind thus casts out and represses the rich and ample matter of all thoughts and restricts itself to the poverty of a single verse.” Dom John explains, “In the vision of prayer of John Cassian… we renounce thought, imagination, even self-consciousness itself.” The discipline of repeating the mantra implies a genuine surrender. “Having surrendered everything we have, everything by which we exist or know that we exist, we stand before the Lord God in utter simplicity.”
In the second talk at the Gethsemani Abbey, Dom John explained that the first stage of meditation is when we say the mantra silently, the second stage is when we begin to hear the mantra repeating itself, and the third stage is when we listen to the mantra. Ultimately, this leads to a profound silence and an experience of the divine presence, which cannot be explained or taught, but which each person must experience for himself.
In meditation – which Dom John also termed “meditative prayer,” “contemplative prayer” or “Christian prayer” – we are not talking to God or forming holy ideas about God. “In meditation we are not thinking about God at all… In meditation we seek to do something immeasurably greater: we seek to be with God.” This requires stillness and concentration. “It is a process of learning to pay attention, to concentrate. We have to attend both in the English sense of the word of paying attention and in the French sense of waiting.”
For Dom John, meditation is a way of surrender, of annihilation of the self. It is “the way to experience the truth of the words of Jesus: ‘The man who would find his life, must first lose it.’”
But to arrive at our selfhood – and it is to that invitation we respond when we meditate, or, putting it in the more felicitous and perhaps more accurate language of the East, to realise ourselves – we must pass into the radical experience of personal poverty with an unflinching self-surrender.
This process tests our faith to the utmost. According to Dom John, “Meditation is the prayer of faith precisely because we leave ourselves behind before the Other appears, and with no pre-packaged guarantee that he will appear. The essence of all poverty consists in this risk of annihilation.”
But through annihilation of self, we paradoxically discover who we are and what our real value is. Dom John quotes St. Augustine, “Man must first be restored to himself, that, making in himself as it were a stepping-stone, he may rise thence and be borne up to God.” Dom John says, “In contemplative prayer we seek to become the person we are called to be, not by thinking about God but by being with Him. Simply to be with Him is to be drawn into being the person He calls us to be.”
In the third and final gathering, Dom John answers questions from the monks. When asked about how to deal with distractions that come up in meditation, he said that the purpose of the mantra is
simply to bring your mind to peace, silence and concentration… The essence, the art of saying the mantra is to say it, to sound it, to listen to it, and just to ignore the distractions. Give primacy to the mantra above all else. Gradually, as you persevere in saying the mantra, the distractions do become less and less of a reality.
When asked how we should prepare for meditation, he quoted John Cassian: “What we want to find ourselves like while we are praying, that we ought to prepare ourselves to be before the time of prayer.”
All in all, Main says meditation is a process in which we “come to terms with” the truths taught in religion. While we may know as a point of doctrine that we have a divine origin and that we are “temples of holiness,” in meditation we come to discover these truths in our own experience.
We have so often lived our lives on a merely propositional basis. The framework of our response to God has, as a result, been so incomplete, so narrowly rational: a mere compendium of creeds and formulas. But in meditative prayer we prepare for the full experience of the personal presence of Jesus within us, … the personal presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
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