The mantra, which takes us to the present moment and beyond the ego, slides us through the narrow gate to the city of God.
John Main, Word Made Flesh
The tradition of personal prayer – a sahaj marg prayer that uses a sacred word recited continuously and with faith in the heart and mind – is a venerable tradition of Christianity. It began perhaps as a reverence to the name of Jesus (to which every knee should bend, Phil 2:10).
The use of this sacred name was later established in the various forms of Hesychism and in the prayer of Jesus in the Orthodox Church. In the western church, the first teacher of this sentence was John Casiano. The first detailed description of this type of prayer is found in the desert tradition in John Casiano’s X Conference.
In it, he recommends the verse (Psalm 69.2) “Oh God, come to my aid, Oh, hurry up to help me.” St. Benedict later adopted this as the opening verse of the Divine Office, as it stands today. A thousand years later in England, the anonymous author of “The Cloud of the Unknown,” recommends the same type of prayer but suggests the use of a single monosyllabic word, such as “God.”
In the twentieth century, John Main as heir of the same tradition, recommended the original Christian prayer in Arameo “Maranatha.” It is a written phrase that means “Come Lord” (1 Cor: 16: 22), in the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic, and a sacred phrase from the liturgy of the first Christians. There are many other examples of suggested words of prayer in the history of Christian prayer that reflect a particular age or the personality of the prayer teacher who led others toward contemplative silence and hesychia in the heart. Common to tradition is the emphasis on the continuous repetition of the word with deep faith and fidelity, so that it becomes rooted in the heart and opens us to the grace of contemplation – our entrance into the prayer of Jesus himself in The Holy Spirit.
Those who used the name of Jesus would call the word simply “the Name” or “the Holy Name.” Casiano does not recommend the name and names the verse he suggests as “formula.” This term means “rule or principle”. That is, “formula” has no special sacred meaning if it refers to a pattern or habitual use of the same word or phrase recited with deep faith in any condition of the mind, which leads the speaker to poverty of spirit.
John Main refers to the word of prayer as “the word” or “the mantra.” Why use the term mantra when it is especially associated with the meditation of the Eastern tradition?
To understand this, it is necessary to remember the religious atmosphere in which John Main recovered and began to teach meditation in the Christian tradition. Before consecrating himself to the monastic life, John Main had his first encounter with this practice in the East, though he always practiced it as a form of Christian prayer. It was there that for the first time he came across the term mantra that had the meaning of “word or formula, recited or sung as prayer.” Twenty years later, when he re-read Cassian and discovered this type of prayer in the Christian tradition, he summarized his own practice and glimpsed his universal relevance to contemporary Christian spirituality.
By 1975 various forms of Oriental meditation became very popular in the West, particularly Transcendental Meditation. Therefore, the word mantra has become a term of popular use. Today the word is collected in the English dictionary of Oxford and is defined as “sacred text or passage”, dating its first use in English of 1801. Also in the Spanish Dictionary of the Language is defined as “(…) syllables, words or Sacred phrases, which are recited (…) in support of meditation “. Today this term is used in a secular context to refer to politicians and their repeated promises.
Some of the people who hear the word “mantra” used in connection with Christian prayer may feel insecure or confused by the relationship of this word to the East. However, since 1975 when John Main used it as a properly Christian term without references to the East, it has become more familiar to many Christians. Today we can say that it is part of the vocabulary of Christian spirituality.
In the same way, the full acceptance of the word “meditation” which undoubtedly leads us to the roots of the Christian tradition, also needs to be recovered and understood in its original and more contemplative sense. For many Christians, “meditation” is restricted to mental prayer, using thought and imagination for reflection on the Scriptures. This is a perfect form of prayer – also and sometimes better defined as “lectio”. “Meditation” in its original sense of the way to a non-discursive, silent prayer and without images or contemplation has also been popularized in the West through Oriental methods and spiritualities. The great challenge that John Main had was to recover and reinstall the full meaning of the word Meditation within the Christian realm.
There are therefore two reasons for using the term “mantra”. The first that has acquired universal use and is widely understood in a Christian context. And the second, for those who are beginning in the contemplative dimension of prayer, may require careful reflection and debate. Being prompted to think about the meaning of the terms “mantra” and “meditation” may serve as a stimulus for Christians today to understand and recover the contemplative dimension of their faith and prayer life.
More traditional audiences will require a special sensitivity on the part of the person who introduces Christian meditation. The word mantra must be explained before its first use, in a training session. For example when presenting Christian meditation to a new audience it may be advisable to use the word “word” or “word of prayer”
Keeping in mind these sensitivities and these antecedents, the experience of the World Christian Meditation Community, present in more than 120 countries, is that the term “mantra” does not constitute a serious impediment to the transmission of this teaching. The great challenge is to help people who already pray in a sacramental or devotional way, through their own experience, to understand the full meaning of contemplation and prayer of the heart. Even if for some people the term “mantra” can create an initial confusion, helping them to understand their true meaning will better capture what meditation implies as a means of entering beyond the words, thoughts and images in the silence of Christ . This is expressed in the opening sentence that John Main wrote for the practice of Christian Meditation:
The great challenge is to help people who already pray in a sacramental or devotional way, through their own experience, to understand the full meaning of contemplation and prayer of the heart. Even if for some people the term “mantra” can create an initial confusion, helping them to understand their true meaning will better capture what meditation implies as a means of entering beyond the words, thoughts and images in the silence of Christ . This is expressed in the opening sentence that John Main wrote for the practice of Christian Meditation:
Heavenly Father, open my heart to the silent presence of your son’s spirit. Lead me to this mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who cry out, Maranatha, “Come Lord Jesus”