The Christian mantra tradition
By Roland Ashby
This is the second part of a reflection on Christian meditation by the editor of The Melbourne Anglican. Part one appeared in Online Catholics last week.
For John Main, the mantra was a simple device by which we could enter the heart of prayer, which for him was essentially about silence, stillness and simplicity.
For Main, to meditate using the mantra was to leave the self, the ego, behind, and to do this, he believed, it was necessary, apart from the mantra, to leave words, images and ideas behind.
For him, this is what Jesus meant when he said we must lose our life in order to gain it. He believed the saying of the mantra enabled us to leave self behind so that we could also experience the fullness of life Jesus mentioned in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
For Main, such fullness is fullness of being, and fullness of being means becoming conscious of life, ‘our being,’ as the pure gift of a creator whose love for us is overflowing and infinite. This, for him, is the source of our true selves and the basis of all reality. Fullness of being means becoming conscious of the power of love as the ground of our being, the great life-source and energy-source which is in us and surrounds us.
This is the energy or life-force which was most perfectly incarnated in Jesus, and is now available and present to us in the Spirit of Christ at the deep centre of our being.
We lose our connectedness to it, this life-force, this Spirit of Christ, when we allow other signals to jam it. During the war, before he became a monk, Main was in the Royal Signals and the Counter Intelligence Service. His job was to tune into German radio signals before the Germans set up other signals to make it difficult to locate the original signal. He used quartz crystals to do this. The mantra, he says, is like the quartz crystals, enabling us to tune into just the right frequency.
But there are other signals in the way, which make it difficult to do this. These are our desires, fantasies, memories, all our mental distractions, all the jumble and jangle of the mind.
All of this is illusion - it is all passing away. What we need to do is to tune into what is abiding and eternal.
We can do this, Main says, by lovingly, faithfully, gently and silently repeating our mantra throughout the period of meditation, and by simultaneously gently letting go of our attachment to the concerns, thoughts, anxieties, regrets, imaginings and desires of the self, the ego.
Through meditating using the mantra, we experience a first death, a dying to the ego.
Although Main was first introduced to the mantra by a Hindu Swami, when he was working as a diplomat in Malaya, he believed that this way of prayer was also a legitimate part of the Christian contemplative tradition.
According to Main, Jesus himself indicates his preference for this form of prayer, as in, for example, Matt. 6:5-8: “When you pray do not be like the hypocrites... but go into a room by yourself, shut the door and pray to your Father in the secret place... Do not go babbling on like the heathen who imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard. Your father knows what your needs are before you ask him.”
The point of prayer, Main infers from this, is not “talking to God” but of “listening to him or being with him.” The danger of using words, and “‘talking your problem over’ [with God]” is likely to lead to self-obsession and ego fixation, when what we should be aiming for, Main believes, is “to be self-emptying disciples of our master.” And it’s this process of self-emptying that the mantra assists us with.
“Above all,” Main said, “meditation is an all-out onslaught on egoism.”
More than just leaving the self behind, the mantra also gives us the courage, Main says, to risk “annihilation.” “This is the leap of faith from ourselves to the Other.”
Moreover, by faithfully and simply repeating the mantra, we demonstrate the childlike trust that Jesus said is necessary for those who want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (Mark 10:15).
For Main the mantra is the means by which we connect with Jesus’ Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He drew extensively on the writings of St Paul to support his claim that “our faith is a living faith precisely because the living Spirit of God dwells within us.”
He cites several passages of St Paul to support this claim, including Rom. 5: 1-5, “God’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.” This is evidence, Main says, of Paul’s “great conviction... that the central reality of our Christian faith is the sending of the Spirit of Jesus.”
The purpose of the mantra and meditation is to strip away everything which stands in the way of our discovering this “mysterious and silent presence” and recognising it as the reality which gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
By awakening to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we become aware of “the communion within God Himself in which we are called to share.”
It is worth noting here that according to theologian Martin L Smith, “Prayer is already going on in God - in the love the all-embracing Father has for the Son, and in the love the Son has for the Father, in the issuing of the Spirit from the Father and the Spirit’s return in the love of the Son.”
Our prayer is an invitation, Smith says, to participate in this “eternal dance” of the intimate relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “Prayer is allowing ourselves to join the dance and experience the movements, the constant interplay of the Persons of the Trinity.”
“Do you not know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God’s gift to you?” Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 6:19. This gift is not forced on us, but only recognised and accepted through silence and simplicity, not by cleverness and self-analysis. The mantra provides the way to simplicity, and opens our hearts to receiving “the infinite generosity” of the gift.
In John Cassian’s Conferences, written around the turn of the Fifth Century, Main read of the practice of using a single short phrase to achieve the stillness necessary for prayer:
“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.”
There are some striking similarities between the characteristics of prayer using the mantra as described by Main and the characteristics of prayer described by Cassian.
As reported by Cassian, Abbot Isaac talks about a prayer life which strives for “unstirring calm of mind and for never-ending purity.”
If we are to construct the “sublime tower of the spirit,” Abbot Isaac says, then “simplicity and humility must be laid as sure foundations.”
Main describes the faithful repetition of the mantra as a “really radical simplicity,” which leads to a purification enabling the meditator to re-link with his or her own centre.
The simplicity is poverty which “is a state of complete simplicity, complete vulnerability and complete abandon to God and his love.”
Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences were one of the formative influences on St Benedict, and the Rule of Benedict recommends them in Chapter 73.
As a Benedictine, Main lived by the Rule of Benedict. Main’s daily meditations aided him in living out the Rule, particularly two key requirements of the Rule: daily conversion and obedience, two of the Benedictine vows.
Daily conversion is a daily turning to God, with the whole heart. For Main, this is essentially about transcendence. “That means the expansion of our being that comes about as we cross the frontiers of our own limitations and leave self behind.”
It means being open to the infinite love of God and responding to it. It is about putting our own will aside, and entering into the divine will. The way to do this is through meditation using the mantra, and by so doing “we become the Divine will. We become one with God who is love and we are lost in his love. We become his love.”
Main’s teaching also seems to owe much to the apophatic or negative theology tradition, in which the Fifth Century writings of Dionysius the Areopagite appear to be a formative influence. In particular, the Areopagite’s essay Mystical Theology is foundational. Here it is written that the closer the soul moves to God, the more “we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, and we “find ourselves... speechless and unknowing.”
But it is not until the 14th Century that the tradition is properly developed, most notably with Meister Eckhart in Germany, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing in England. Later, in the 16th Century the tradition is further enriched by the Spanish Mystic St John of the Cross.
Main points repeatedly to The Cloud of Unknowing in support of his views on the mantra. The anonymous author gives strong support to the idea of a mantra. “We must pray then with all the intensity of our being in its height and depth and length and breadth,” he says. “And not with many words but in a little word.”
Also given support is the need to turn away from ideas, images and memories. God, the author says, cannot be known by thought, only by love. Thoughts must be covered with a “cloud of forgetting,” whilst love for God must step “bravely and joyfully beyond [this cloud] and reach out to the darkness above... the Cloud of Unknowing.”
All thoughts, even “good and holy thoughts” can lead us astray, and must be left behind in the Cloud of Forgetting, if we are to penetrate the Cloud of Unknowing which lies between us and God.
As is evident in The Cloud of Unknowing, the aim of the mantra is to enter a cloud of forgetting, a cloud of detachment from both the things of the senses and the consolations of the spirit.
This is the process that the 16th Century Spanish Mystic St John of the Cross outlined in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
It is about a growth towards union with God which involves a passing “beyond everything to unknowing,” a departing from all they [souls] can and do taste and feel, temporally and spiritually.”
The more souls remain attached to “knowledge, experience and imagining (whether spiritual or not),” St John of the Cross says, the more they hinder their progress toward union with God.
The detachment and purpose of the mantra, with its letting go of ideas and images, is encapsulated in a passage in which he says the memory is to be emptied, “in the hope that God will fill it... As often as distinct ideas, forms, and images occur to [people], they should immediately, without resting in them, turn to God with loving affection, in emptiness of everything rememberable.”
Detachment, the way of the mantra, is the way “to come to possess all” by desiring “possession in nothing.”
This may be a costly, and even painful process, as John was to expound further in the continuation of Mt Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, but it is a “movement towards fulfilment, not emptiness, towards beauty and life, not annihilation.”
Experiencing meditation is crucial to understanding meditation. If you would like to find out more, see www.christianmeditationaustralia.org
Roland Ashby is Editor of The Melbourne Anglican. Email: