SPIRITUALITY TODAYPaul T. Harris:
Winter 1988, Vol.40 No. 4, pp. 320-332.
The Life of Dom John Main
We have known both liturgical renewal and biblical renewal. It is absolutely necessary that we have a true experience of God and know renewal in prayer.
John Main (1)
Paul Harris is a director of Public Affairs with the Federal government, Ottawa, Canada, an oblate of the Benedictine priory, Montreal, and is a former Executive Director of the Catholic Information Centre, Toronto.
SINCE his death on 30 December 1982, at the age of fifty-six, Dom John Main's teaching on Christian meditation has spread from the Benedictine monastery he founded in Montreal to embrace a world-wide 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. Meditation groups are now flourishing in North America and around the world from New York to Dublin, from London to Melbourne, from Wurzburg, Germany, to Arusha, Tanzania. Many people noticing this contemporary re-birth of contemplative prayer have begun to ask about the career and the spiritual development of this extraordinary teacher. A recent biography by author Neil McKenty, In the Stillness Dancing (London: Darton Longman, Todd, and New York: Crossroad, 1987), has added immensely to our knowledge of John Main's life.
John Main was born 21 January 1926, and spent part of his youth in London, England, as well as in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, Ireland, where his father and his grandfather worked for the Western Union Cable station. Ballinskelligs may have had a mysterious but hidden influence on John Main's future life. Close to Ballinskelligs is the famous island site of Skellig Michael, a rocky promontory rising 700 feet off the Kerry coast. Irish monks built a monastic hermitage at the summit of Skellig Michael in the sixth century and monastic life continued there for over 600 years.
There is an even deeper question and a more intriguing conjecture. To Benedictine John Main is given credit for recognizing and rediscovering the teachings of John Cassian (360-435) and the early Egyptian desert fathers on the use of short phrases in prayer. St. Benedict was deeply influenced by Cassian's teachings. The writings of Cassian also played a decisive role in the life of John Main.
Cassian came to Provence in Gaul and brought a new influx of Eastern traditions with the avowed aim of reforming Gallic monasticism. Was the "mantra" tradition of John Cassian and the desert fathers implanted on Skellig Michael from Gaul? Did John Main ever make this connection? Whether he did or not, it is an intriguing hypothesis that the teaching of the mantra came from Egypt to Gaul to Ireland's Skellig Michael and that John Main, who grew up in sight of Skellig Michael, rediscovered in the twentieth century this ancient prayer tradition.
EARLY YEARS: THE SWAMI
Main's early life saw close ties to his mother, two brothers, and three sisters, education with the Jesuits and at Westminster Cathedral Choir School, work as a journalist in London, and wartime service as a wireless operator with the Royal Corps of Signals in England and Belgium. Main's short-lived vocation with the Canons Regular of the Lateran following the war included a year of study in Rome, after which he studied law at Trinity College, Dublin.
However, the next adventure took him East and would dramatically change John Main's life and the lives of countless others. He 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. Main thought he would quickly dispatch the assignment and be free for the rest of the day. In fact, this visit was to change his life and to set in motion a passionate search for his true vocation. His good-will mission accomplished, Main asked the swami to discuss the spiritual base of the many good works carried out at the orphanage and school. Within a few moments 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 he subsequently wrote in The Gethsemani Talks 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 briefly what we have come to know as the Ignatian method of meditation. 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.(2)Main was so moved by the swami's intensity and devotion that he asked him to teach him to meditate this way. The swami agreed and invited him to come to a meditation center 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 that we call a mantra. To meditate, what you must do is to choose this word 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.(3)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 eighteen months Main meditated with the swami and it was this encounter that led him to the pilgrimage of meditation and to eventually to discover the mantra tradition as taught by John Cassian. He was never to forget this experience of holy presence. Main's own confident openness to the religions of Asia is directly attributable to this Hindu monk who had accepted him as a Christian disciple.
RETURNING WEST: THE MONK
After three years in Malaya, Main returned to Ireland in 1956 to teach law. Each day he attended mass and continued with daily meditation. While visiting in London, Main renewed his friendship with twenty-two-year old Diana Ernaelsteen, with whose family he had been billeted as a teenager during the early years of the war. Their friendship blossomed into love. They became engaged, but Diana experienced a sense that their relationship could not be fulfilled in marriage. They subsequently separated but remained life-long friends.
In 1959, at age thirty-three, Main joined the Benedictine Abbey of Ealing in London. The spiritual director of the new novice could not relate to "Eastern meditation" and, trained in the ways of traditional prayer, suggested Main pray using words addressed to God. Under obedience Main accepted this advice with difficulty but later viewed the loss of meditation and the mantra as a step towards a fuller liberation.In retrospect I regard this period in my life as one of great grace. Unwittingly my novice master had set out to teach me detachment at the very center of my life. I learned to become detached from the practice [of meditation] that was most sacred to me and on which I was seeking to build my life .... The next few years were bleak in terms of spiritual development but I always went back to the obedience which was the foundation of my life as a monk.(4)Eleven years later Main accepted an invitation to become headmaster of St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington, D.C. While at St. Anselm's, he suggested to a troubled young man that he read the book Holy Wisdom by a seventeenth-century Benedictine contemplative, Augustine Baker. The young man's response was so unexpectedly enthusiastic that Main himself was moved to reread this spiritual classic. Soon he and the young man began meditating together in the manner Main had learned from his Hindu teacher. On his return to London's Ealing Abbey in 1974, Main persevered in his meditation and in his search to discover whether this form of prayer had Christian roots. Main recounts, "Baker's frequent reminder of the emphatic insistence of St. Benedict lays upon Cassian's Conferences sent me to them seriously for the first time." In chapter 10 of Cassian, he found the roots he was looking for. What Cassian had learned from the desert fathers (to whom he went in the fourth century to learn how to pray) and what St. Benedict learned from Cassian was what John Main had learned from a Hindu monk three years before becoming a Benedictine monk.
Following this confirmation, Main got permission to establish at Ealing a lay community to whom he taught meditation. When Main was not elected abbot at Ealing in July 1976, that and the successful development of the lay community enabled him to pursue the possibility of making a new monastic foundation. On 23 October, Main met Bishop Leonard Crowley of Montreal, Canada, and this meeting was to eventually lead to a new Benedictine monastery in that city.
MERTON AND MAIN
A third and crucial turning point in John Main's life took place during a few days spent 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 in the silent period 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 wrote a letter from the hermitage, 13 November 1976, to a close friend:I hope you are well. I am staying in Merton's hermitage out in the woods beyond Gethsemani. It is quite extraordinary how solitude brings everyone so close. I have just celebrated the most loving Mass of my life in Merton's little chapel. You were all very close to me as I prayed for you and all your family .... My purpose in coming here was to talk to the community about prayer, but in fact I have learnt so much myself while I have been here.(5)He told the monks at Gethsemani:...as I understood 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 concentra tion -- 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 find to come to that quest, to that un distractedness, to that concentration, is the way of the mantra.(6)In his biography of Main, Neil McKenty underlines the significance of Main's experience at Gethsemani:Is it any wonder Father John was so moved by his experience there? He knew Thomas Merton had done so much, in his life and in his writings, to make so many people think about prayer, so many people want to pray. Father John also knew that Merton, more than any other, had blazed a path to the East, a path that had helped John Main's own pilgrimage. There can be little doubt that, when Father John stood in silence at the altar of Merton's hermitage, he understood the other pilgrim who had arrived with the master. And the experience of talking with the monks at Gethsemani became a turning point for John Main, a compelling motive to pursue his own journey, to clarify his own teaching on prayer and to speak about it to anyone who wanted to listen.(7)
Other authors have remarked on the key role played by both Merton and Main in the contemporary revival of Christian prayer. In a recent article, author Gregory J. Ryan says:It should be noted from the outset that neither Thomas Merton nor John Main lived at the theoretical level. Each one lived from the depths of his heart and it is precisely this characteristic which presents a model for all women and men of our time. It is for this reason that Merton's influence and popularity continues to rise. It is for this reason that John Main's monastic community has grown to include monks and nuns, lay residents and guests, oblate members from various religious affiliations, and meditators around the world who follow his teaching on prayer.On leaving Gethsemani, Dom John told the monks, "I shall always remember with great affection these days among you."(9) "He had learned his teaching on the way of prayer must be pursued more urgently than ever," says McKenty. "He had also learned, beyond any doubt, 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."
Both monks would agree that the sickness which afflicts our world today is a morally bankrupt materialism gone mad, a kind of societal "heart disease." They would agree, too, that the cure is to be found through a rediscovery of what it is that makes us human. The prescription for this recovery is prayer. (8)
How close were Thomas Merton and John Main in their spiritual pilgrimage? It would seem very close. These are the remarkable words of Merton in Calcutta a few days before his death:...the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity... we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.(10)
McKenty points out that while Merton and Main were both close in their thinking on prayer, there were differences in their emphasis and approach.Merton wrote a great deal about prayer; he wrote rather little about his personal prayer life or how he went about it. Main was writing about his own prayer most of the time. Merton was more of a writer; Main more of a man of action .... Main's writings, almost exclusively stressing Christian meditation, seemed to transcend his personality .... John Main left a formal teaching about how to pray. Thomas Merton did not.(11)
It is credit to the genius of John Main that he synthesized the prayer teaching of John Cassian and the desert fathers, The Cloud of Unknowing, the spiritual teachings of Asia, and left a formal teaching on prayer for those of the twentieth century. Main was also unique in emphasizing that meditation or contemplation was a call to everyone. Even Thomas Merton in his earlier writings felt the practice of contemplation was the spiritual prerogative of professional religious in contemplative orders like the Cistercians. He changed his views in later years. Eleven years before his death in 1968, Merton had come to use a mantra, the "Jesus Prayer" of Eastern Christian tradition.(12)
John Main's teaching on how to pray was as simple as this: sit down, sit still with the back held straight, lightly close your eyes and say your mantra. The mantra is simply a sacred word or phrase which is repeated continually, faithfully, for the full half hour of meditation each morning and each evening. He urged people in every walk of life to set aside two separate periods of twenty to thirty minutes each day. He suggested a person find a comfortable sitting position. "In meditation," he said,You should choose a word that has been hallowed over the centuries by our Christian tradition. One of these is the word 'maranatha'...which means, 'Come Lord, Come Lord Jesus.' It is the word that St. Paul uses to end his first letter to the Corinthians. This prayer word is recited silently, interiorly in four equally stressed syllables MA-RA-NA-THA. The speed is fairly slow, fairly rhythmical. Some people say the word in conjunction with their calm and regular breathing.(13)
Main pointed out that the person meditating should repeat the mantra for the entire meditation period. "We begin by saying the mantra in the mind. . .then the mantra begins to sound not so much in our head but rather in our heart...then it seems to become rooted in the very depths of our being."(14) In this way a person moves from thinking about God to simply being with God. What's more, Main pointed out, meditation becomes a process of self-discovery, integrating one's body, mind and spirit.
In both recorded talks and books John Main outlined his 'silent teaching' on meditation:Listen to the mantra as you say it, gently but continuously. You do not have to think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. Meditation has nothing to do with quiet reverie or passive stillness, but with attentive wakefulness. If thoughts or images come these are distractions at the time of meditation, so return simply to saying your word. Simply ignore it and the way to ignore it is to say your mantra. Return with fidelity to meditation each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes.
THE MEANING OF MEDITATION
Meditation is a pilgrimage to our own center, to our own heart. However, we need faith, simplicity, and we need to become childlike. To enter into the simplicity of it demands discipline and even courage.
If we are patient and faithful, meditation will bring us into deeper and deeper realms of silence. It is in this silence that we are led into the mystery of the eternal silence of God. That is the invitation of Christian prayer; to lose ourselves and to be absorbed in God. Each of us is summoned to the heights of Christian prayer, to the fullness of life. What we need, however, is the humility to tread the way very faithfully over a period of years so that the prayer of Christ may indeed be the grounding experience of our life.
Meditation is a gift of such staggering proportions that we must respond to it gradually, gently. When we begin we cannot fully understand the sheer magnificence and wonder of it. Each time we return to meditate we enter into that reality a little more deeply, a little more faithfully.
Because meditation leads us into the experience of love at the center of our being, it makes us more loving people in our ordinary lives and relationships. Not only is meditation the necessary basis for contemplative action, but it is the essential condition for a fully human response to life.
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.(15)
In regard to the term "meditation" author Gregory Ryan points out that:From the very first days of the Meditation Center he had started at Ealing Abbey in London before founding the Montreal Community, Father John was insistent upon referring to this way of prayer as 'meditation.' It was his way of indirectly settling any confusion or misunderstanding about prayer in general. In one of the many Newsletters sent out from the monastery, which were later collected and published, he touched on this subject.
This confusion was often first exposed in a misunderstanding of the word meditation itself. We knew, of course, that we were using it in its original, monastic sense of imageless prayer. And we knew that this meaning clashed with the more general meaning meditation had, in Christian circles, of discursive prayer with a great emphasis on the use of the imagination. On the other hand, the majority of our contemporaries, especially the younger generation, understood by meditation exactly what we meant ....(16)
In September 1977, at Bishop Crowley's request, Main and Brother Laurence Freeman left Ealing to establish the Benedictine Priory of Montreal. The following summer Main described in a letter his vision of the community he wanted to build ". . .a community of monks, sisters, lay community and married peopled and families -- all joined together by meditation - obviously at different levels of commitment but each with a growing commitment."(17)
When Main died in 1982, the only element of that vision that had not yet (but would soon) become a reality was the establishment of the women's religious community.
Dom Laurence Freeman, Prior of the Montreal Community since Father John's death, tells us that, "Many years before he became a monk, Father John used to speak to friends about starting a new kind of community that would answer the deep need for fellowship, oneness in mind and heart, that all people, not just religious feel .... He called it 'a community of love'." In actuality, it would be a community with monks at the core, joined by many other men and women with varying degrees of commitment, as their individual life-situation allowed. The monks themselves would find the monastery to be "...the place where they are called to live in freedom, to develop it and to communicate it to others."(18)
According to Gregory Ryan, the new monastery founded by John Main and Laurence Freeman was not bound by long-established customs, so it sank its roots deep into the spirit of primitive Benedictine monasticism to find its direction. Because of the genius of St. Benedict, whose Rule is "timeless," it turned out to be a look forward into the future. The monks in this monastery would not live in isolation from others for a basic reason, one recognized years before by Thomas Merton: "...the monastic community owes others a share in [its] quiet and solitude."
This "sharing" has taken the form of small meditation groups that meet once weekly to enter into the meditation experience itself a 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, 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 meditation pilgrimage. He did not live to see today's world wide growth of sixty-five meditation groups in the United Kingdom, thirty-five meditation groups in the Republic of Ireland, forty-five groups in Australia, fifty-three groups in Canada, and groups of meditators in cities, villages, and towns in many other countries of the world.
Father John Main died of cancer on the morning of 30 December 1982, radiating a sense of presence and peace and surrounded by his Benedictine monastic community and Montreal meditators. In summing up Main's life and teaching, Francois C. Gerard, a Minister of the United Church of Canada wrote in Monastic Studies that, "...if one were to characterize the spiritual pilgrimage and teaching of John Main in one sentence or phrase, one could sugiest that he rediscovered and lived the simplicity of the gospel."(19)
According to Gerard, Main assumed the role of prophet to our generation, reminding us that to be with God does not demand words, thoughts, or discourse, but the silent consciousness of a Presence. John Main reminds us that our spiritual pilgrimage has no future unless we have the courage to become more and more silent. In fact, our inner journey will not even start unless we are willing to accept the discipline of silence.
Shortly before Main's death, a meditator in London pointed out that Father John's teaching reminded him of the following stanzas from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets:I said to my soul, be still and wait without hopeAnd as Main's biographer Neil McKenty says, "...at John Main's death in the darkness there was light and in the stillness dancing."
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
- Communitas Tapes: Talks by Fr. John Main.
- Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks (Benedictine Priory of Montreal, 1977), p. 10.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Letter to Lady Rosamund Lovat, 13 Nov. 1976.
- Christian Meditation, p. 43.
- Neil McKenty, In the Stillness Dancing (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), p. 101.
- Gregory J. Ryan, Meditation in a World of Action -- Merton, Main, and the New Monasticism (privately printed essay).
- Christian Meditation, p. 56.
- Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1984), p. 545.
- McKenty, p. 100.
- Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love (Letters) (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985), p. 392.
- Communitas Tapes.
- Gregory J. Ryan, op. cit.
- Letter to Lady Rosamund Lovat, July 1978.
- McKenty, op. cit.
- Monastic Studies (Advent, 1984), p. 71.
- London: Faber and Faber, 1944, p. 19.
- More information about John Main's methods of meditation may be obtained from the Benedictine Priory of Montreal, 1475 Pine Avenue West, Montreal, Quebec, H3G 1BE.
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