John Main OSB was a Benedictine monk and priest who presented a way of Christian meditation which utilized a prayer-phrase or mantra.
John Main was born in London in 1926 into a Catholic Irish family.
After leaving school he served in the front line in the closing stages of war. He then joined a religious order for about two years but left it to study law at Trinity College, Dublin.
After graduation he entered the British Foreign Service and was posted to Malaya where he joined the Governor’s staff and studied Chinese. One day he was sent to visit a local Indian monk who ran an orphanage and ashram on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
After his official business was done, he fell into conversation on spiritual matters and soon sensed he was in the presence of a holy and enlightened man whose deep inner experience was the direct source of energy and inspiration for his works of compassion and reconciliation.
From this monk, John Main learned a simple way of meditation: the faithful recitation of a mantra chosen from his own Christian tradition during two periods of meditation, before and after his day’s work. Each week he would return to his teacher, meditate with him and be reinforced in his commitment to this discipline of silence, stillness, and simplicity.
After returning to Europe to teach International Law for a number of years, John Main himself became a Benedictine monk in London. To his dismay, his novice master instructed him to give up his meditation because it was not a ‘Christian way of prayer’.
In his Gethsemani Talks John Main writes:
“In retrospect I regard this period of my life as a great grace. Unwittingly, my novice master had set out to teach me detachment at the very centre of my life. I learned to become detached from the practice that was most sacred to me and on which I was seeking to build my life.
The next few years were bleak years in terms of spiritual development, but I think too there was a faith somewhere deep inside me that God would not leave me forever wandering in the wilderness and would lead me back on to the path. What was important was that one should come back on his terms and not on my own.”
John Main, Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks, p15
Some years later through his reading of the teachings of the early Christian monks, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and in particular in the Conferences of John Cassian, he was led back on to the path of meditation.
He discovered the Christian tradition of the mantra and went on to teach it from within the rich context of Christian Scripture and theology.
John Main realised that in this simple and ancient tradition of prayer, modern people of all walks of life could find a spiritual daily discipline adaptable to their ordinary lives.
He sensed that the meeting of the great world religions could only be fulfilled if members of each faith approached each other from this depth of spiritual experience taught in their own tradition.
John Main’s way of teaching reminds us of the oral tradition in which this way of contemplative wisdom has always been transmitted. His recorded talks continue to guide meditation groups each week around the world. He was a teacher who wished to lead others into their own experience, and he believed one could teach meditation only by meditating with people. The movement from thought to experience, theory to reality, mind to heart, is central to his vision of spiritual growth.
According the John Main, the greatest challenge of meditation for modern people is simplicity. We are trained to respect complexity. Yet simplicity is not easy to learn and, therefore, it requires discipline. Although he was insistent on the need to practise meditation as an interior and daily discipline, not just as a technique of self-enhancement, he also stressed the need for patience and gentleness in learning the discipline.
Meditation, he taught, is a way of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. This is the indispensable first step towards any knowledge of God.
But it is not primarily an intellectual knowledge, for it is reached through a profound harmony of stillness in body and mind. The body itself is part of the journey to God. Nor is it an isolated or lonely journey. The solitude of meditation awakens us to our deep interdependence with other people and so ‘meditation creates community’.
Community is how John Main saw the Church of the future. The spiritual renewal of Christianity is the next great step in its movement from mediaeval to modern identity. With this, there will come a new appreciation of the basic Christian understanding of prayer itself. Prayer is not talking or thinking about God but being with God. My prayer is not essentially mine at all if I am transcending my narrow egocentric view of reality.
The essence of Christian prayer, he said, is the human consciousness of Jesus worshipping God in the Spirit at the centre of the human person. He was not claiming that the mantra was the only way to this centre.
“I do not wish to imply that meditation is the only way, but rather that it is the only way that I have found.
In my own experience it is the way of pure simplicity that enables us to become fully, integrally aware of the Spirit Jesus has sent into our heart; and this is the recorded experience of the mainstream of the Christian tradition from Apostolic times down to our own day.”
John Main, Word into Silence, p42
John Main died in 1982 in a small community in Canada from which his teaching had begun to spread to many parts of the world. His work is now continued by The World Community for Christian Meditation, which is a network of 25 Christian Meditation Centres and about two thousand groups meeting weekly around the world, with its International Centre in London. (Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation: Your Daily Practice, p27-33)