Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16D — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 3, Part 1

Here is a reply of our Episcopalian reader. We have inserted our preliminary comments. We will try to comment on this letter in more depth when we next post. Our own comments on this letter are in italics. Again, for reasons of space it is posted in parts.

Dear Fathers,

There is only one of us on this blog. Please use the singular.

Thank you for responding to my message so thoroughly in the past 2 posts. I wanted to respond to a few things just to make some clarifications and to set the stage to better understand the practice of the Jesus Prayer and how it may differ from the practice of contemplative prayer as I have practiced it in the tradition of John Main. I should first say that I am most familiar with John Main OSB and it is his teachings on prayer that I have followed for the past many years and that I am not very familiar with Thomas Keating. There are some differences in what is taught by the two monks, differences which may or may not be significant in this discussion, but to avoid confusion and the need to compare and contrast the two it may be better just to discuss John Main and his teaching.

Agreed. Except that we will make some remarks here to clarify certain issues.

To clarify, from here on I will use the word ‘meditation’ to mean the same thing as ‘contemplative prayer,’ the former not to be confused with methods of meditation in the West which utilize the imagination and reflective or discursive faculties.

We already knew something about Dom John Main, OSB, and we were confident of being able to discuss his method of contemplative prayer, but we knew nothing at all about Fr Thomas Keating, OCSO, although we had heard his name, so we thought we would start with him… [We] will be comparing Fr Thomas Keating’s method to the Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer, as we ourselves understand it. It should be emphasized that nothing we ourselves heard from Dom John Main is in any way different from what Fr Thomas Keating is writing, so although we do not know just what connection there is between the two men and their respective methods, we are confident that, in talking about Fr Thomas Keating’s method of centring prayer, we are also talking about Dom John Main’s method of prayer, and vice versa.

Again, I would prefer from here on that we just discuss John Main’s approach as there are differences between his teaching and that on centering prayer by Thomas Keating. There are of course similarities since they draw from the same tradition, primarily that of John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing, but there are also differences which may be more or less significant to our discussion. Just discussing John Main’s teaching will help reduce confusion.

We know from a personal conversation with Dom John Main that he learned his version of centring prayer from a teacher in Malaysia when he was an officer in the British Colonial Service. What he learned was a Buddhist method of meditation with a mantra. Wikipedia gives his teacher the title of ‘Swami’, which is a Hindu title, but we recall that the teacher was Buddhist. Wikipedia claims that the teacher himself gave John Main a Christian mantra, would be more consistent with a Hindu than a Buddhist teacher. Our conversation with Dom John Main was many years ago and we may have the details wrong.

John Main was raised Roman Catholic and had been an Augustinian monk before leaving the Order and later joining the British Colonial Service. He met the Hindu Swami while on a visit to his ashram and orphanage on business. During one such visit the two men began to speak about prayer and John Main was interested in what the Swami said about meditation without images and thoughts, Main himself having only been trained on discurssive forms utilizing the imagination and reflective faculties. He asked the Swami if he could learn to meditate as a Christian and the Swami then proceeded to teach him how, giving him a Christian mantra. Interestingly, the Swami was raised in a Roman Catholic school so had some familiarity with Roman Catholic teaching. After some experience of this way of meditation after returning from Malaysia, John Main decided to become a Benedictine monk. Once at the monastery, it is interesting that his novice master required that he give up this way of meditation since it was considered non-Christian and he willingly obeyed. It was only 15 or more years later that he discovered John Cassian and then began to pray again in this way and according to what he discovered in Cassian.

We’re leaving this in despite a sense that we are being used as a forum to advertise Dom John Main and his movement. Our readers will discern.

In other words, after a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit, a person chooses a single word such as one of those given, and proceeds to spend 20 minutes twice a day repeating that word as a Christian mantra, returning ever so gently to the word when thoughts arise in his field of consciousness. As far as we know, there is no difference in Dom John Main’s method.

I don’t want to get preoccupied in comparing John Main’s teaching with that of Thomas Keating but here may be an important distinction. In the teaching of John Main, the person who wants to learn to meditate is to take a short phrase or a single word and to say that word or phrase faithfully and attentively for the entire time of their meditation, 20-30 minutes every morning and every evening.

This is important in our own understanding of the method of Fr Thomas Keating. After we posted our discussion, when we were rereading the post (incidentally, it is so long that we cannot easily correct the typos; they will remain), it struck us that Fr Thomas was not so much teaching us to repeat the ‘sacred word’ but to meditate on it, to pay attention to it in a more static fashion. But perhaps this is merely a matter of our not understanding what Fr Thomas is writing. Here, however, our Episcopalian reader seems clear that in the method of Dom John Main, the word or phrase is repeated mentally.

John Main recommends the prayer word ‘Maranatha’ which in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, means ‘Come Lord’ and is sometimes translated ‘Come Lord Jesus.’

That’s the word he mentioned to us.

There is nothing about the heart here…

In the beginning, the person praying says the word in the mind or in the thoughts. Over time, as the person remains faithful to this discipline and attentive at the times of prayer, the word(s) of prayer begin to take root in the heart.

Yes, in Hindu teaching, the mantra automatically takes root in the heart there to be repeated automatically.

We are not convinced that this is the same thing as praying ‘with the heart’. We will clarify below what we meant by ‘praying with the heart’.

It is as though the prayer sounds of its own and the person praying has only to listen to the prayer arising from the heart with deepening attention.

You can read this in handbooks of Indian yoga.

It is at this point that the person has truly begun to meditate, when it is ‘no longer I who pray but the Spirit that prays within me’ (Romans 8:26).

There is a very big issue here. Is it the Holy Spirit that is praying within me in this case?

…and there is no indication that there is a more advanced technique for those who have grown proficient in centring prayer as here taught.

The reason we mentioned ‘advanced technique’ is that we wanted to point out that Fr Thomas Keating’s version of the meditation technique does not foresee the more advanced stages of mental prayer that we are aware of in the Orthodox Church: it seems to be stuck in the head as a Christian mantra, reminiscent of what we have heard of Transcendental Meditation. In this, consider our Episcopalian reader’s remarks below on gettting to the Christians who have gone to the East.

Advanced technique. This fact is shared by John Main’s teaching. The person praying may find it helpful to synchronize the prayer with his breath, but sometimes this can also distract, splitting attention between the word and the breath.

These things are certainly true, but things are getting just a bit circular here. Did Dom John Main get these things from his Hindu teacher in Malaysia, or did he pick them up later reading the Orthodox texts on the Jesus Prayer. If the latter, the most that we could conclude is that he customized his meditation technique.

What is emphasized is the humility and simplicity of the person praying, their absolute attention, and their faithfulness to their rule of prayer, every morning and evening of every day.

That is certainly sound. It sounds like an influence of Dom John Main’s Benedictine tradition.

The discussion of advanced techniques is avoided as it could lead to spiritual ambition and pride.

These things (i.e. the use of advnced techniques) develop organically in the monastery. What we would emphasize here is not so much the use of the breath or even breath retention, but the notion that even if the Jesus Prayer starts in the head, it is foreseen to end in the heart, something we didn’t see hinted at in Fr Thomas Keating’s outline of his method.

That isn’t to say that a person’s prayer won’t and shouldn’t change over time. It will, just by that person continuing to meditate and allowing himself to be shaped by his meditation.

This is both true and false. We wouldn’t want to leave a beginner to ‘evolve’ without the direction of a human person. A Hesychast in a cave who has experienced the second advent of the Holy Spirit might be able to discern his own journey. But even the best Elders consult other Elders on their own practice—even if they are counselling others.

If such an ‘advanced technique’ were to be encouraged, it would have to be done in the intimate relationship between spiritual father/spiritual director and spiritual child/directee.


Since John Main’s teachings as they have come down to us are in the form of talks given to groups or letters written to wider audiences, he emphasizes the simplicity of the method so as not to create distraction with too much talk about techniques. Meditation is not about mechanical technique but leaving self behind in loving attention to God.

We wonder what ‘ leaving self behind in loving attention to God’ means.

First of all, in the Orthodox tradition, the formula used is rather long and a formula of invocation (there are some historical exceptions). The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ There are short forms; there are longer forms; there are variant formulas. However, one can see that the standard formula is an invocation to Jesus Christ to have mercy on the person praying the formula.

Abba Isaac also recommended a longer verse from the Psalms to John Cassian in his Conferences. John Main recommends ‘Maranatha’ but allows for each person to choose another word, such as the name of Jesus, or a longer verse, if that person prefers.

Normally the ‘spirit-bearing’ Elder discerns the prayer practice of the disciple, including the formula used. See our post on the charism of discernment. It’s not simply a matter of taste.

What is important is that what is chosen is stayed with faithfully during meditation and each time the person meditates. This is to avoid the temptation to think that my meditation would ‘go better’ if I used different words.

In a very advanced discussion for Hesychasts, St Gregory of Sinai (14th C) recommends alternating between two different formulas over a period of days or hours. But this is for someone praying the formula twenty-four hours a day.

It is in The Cloud of Unknowing in the West where we find the emphasis on saying a single word rather than a lengthy phrase.

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