In Meditation, then, we declare our own poverty. We renounce words, thoughts, imagination and we do so by restricting the mind to the poverty of one word.
John Cassian speaks of the purpose of meditation as that of restricting the mind to the poverty of the single verse. A little later, he shows his full meaning in an illuminating phrase. He talks about becoming ‘grandly poor’.
Meditation will certainly give you new insights into poverty. As you persevere with the mantra, you will begin to understand more and more deeply, out of your own experience, what Jesus meant when He said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’...
Most programmes of meditation with children use a method of guided meditations. The children sit and listen as the leader tells them what to imagine.
Coming Home: A Guide to Teaching Christian Meditation to Children integrates a combination of approaches but highlights praying with a mantra. A mantra is a single word or short phrase that the person repeats throughout the meditation period. The word mantra is Sanskrit, but also now a recognised English word (Oxford English Dictionary); it means ‘that which clears the mind.’ The mantra helps us clear our mind of distractions. The result is increased focus and attention on God within.
There are a number of reasons why praying with a mantra is advantageous. First, it helps us focus. It helps us counteract the distractions that inevitably come when we are sitting quietly. In other words, the mantra helps us still our mind. Second, the mantra is simple. It forces us to become simple and childlike, not just think about being childlike. Third, the mantra makes meditation available to all people, even to those who can’t read. Fourth, the mantra is an expression of faith in the in-dwelling Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It helps us open our hearts to see that the Trinity dwells there.
Historically, different masters in this tradition have recommended a number of different words or phrases for adoption as a mantra.
The consistent teaching is to stay with the same mantra, day by day.
St John Cassian, in the fifth century, recommended the phrase: “Oh God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.” For centuries, this mantra has been used to begin each of the Prayers of the Hours.
The mantra used in the Hesychast tradition is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The mantra John Main recommended is ‘Maranatha.’ It is an Aramaic word meaning ‘Come, Lord’. (cf. 1 Cor 16:22 and Rev 22:20).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the holy name ‘Jesus’ as a mantra.
“The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and ‘brings forth fruit with patience.’ (cf. Lk 8:15) This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2668
Coming Home: A Guide to Teaching Christian Meditation to Children recommends the use of the mantra, prayer word, ‘maranatha’.
The word ‘Maranatha’ is ideally suited as a mantra from the beginning of a child's journey of meditation and may remain with them for life.
John Main recommends choosing one mantra only and not changing it. In this way the mantra can become rooted in the heart; it eventually becomes spiritually part of us. The word chosen becomes a sacred word by virtue of its interiority and the faith with which it is silently recited. It should therefore always be spoken with reverence when it is spoken aloud.
For this programme to be successful the same mantra is used for each grade level. We have found that it is possible to successfully introduce the sacred word ‘maranatha’ in Preschool. It is important for children not to think of the mantra as a magic word but rather as a way to stop other images filling the mind, and to come to wakeful stillness and holy silence.
Obviously, other words are possible and John Main suggested, as possibilities, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Abba’, but he recommended the ancient Christian prayer-word ‘maranatha’.
Whatever mantra is chosen, it is important to say it in mind and heart throughout the entire meditation period.
As John Cassian says, “The mind should unceasingly cling to the mantra until strengthened by continual use of it.” The Cloud of Unknowing concurs: “Fix this word fast to your heart so that it is always there come what may. With this word, you will suppress all thoughts.”
Many beginners to meditation are astonished that something as simple as praying with a mantra can actually bring us into God’s presence.
John Main had the same experience in his own life:
“It is almost impossible for people starting [to meditate] to believe that there could be anything very significant in sitting still, closing your eyes lightly and just begin reciting a word [the mantra]. You have to take that on faith when you begin. I first started to meditate like this about thirty years ago. I suppose that I was as crass as anyone of my age because I was always saying to the man who taught me: ‘How long is this going to take? I can’t sit around here saying this word forever, you know.’ He would look at me with a rather pained look, and either he would just look straight through me or else he would say, ‘Say your mantra.’ Thirty years later I am still astonished at the wisdom of that teaching. As I say, you have to take it on faith when you begin. Nothing I can say will be very significant for you in comparison with the persuasive power of your own experience. You will enter into clearer and clearer simplicity.”
At first, we are only able to concentrate on the mantra intermittently. Once we realise we have strayed off course, we simply return to the mantra and begin again.
Praying with a mantra may sound easy, but whoever tries it will find it difficult. They have a hard time concentrating on the mantra. Their mind begins to wander, fantasise, obsess, get drowsy or fixate on anxieties. All these states are natural and do not need to be evaluated. Simplicity means not judging one’s performance and returning to the mantra as soon as one is aware of having stopped saying it.
“The habitual difficulty in meditation is distraction. To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart; for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2729
Fr Laurence Freeman assures us that being faithful to the mantra eventually has its rewards. “Deepening fidelity to the mantra leads to a growing awareness of the divine presence within us.”
By continually repeating our mantra, we come to rest in God’s presence. We allow God’s love to engulf us and slowly we are transformed. “We enter the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him.” (CCC, #2565) We become one with God. We let Christ and his Spirit become incarnate in us.
After we practise daily meditation for some time, we grow in our ability to pay attention by focusing on the mantra. We must remember, however, that the mantra is a simple discipline, not a technique. It helps us move beyond distractions to focus entirely in the present moment. In the experience of contemplation, we move beyond thought, imagination, and words.
We “leave all things” and become simplified “to the point where we can receive the fullness of truth and the fullness of love.”
John Main, Word into Silence, p30