The Tradition Of Mantra
Meditation is not something new to the Christian experience but is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. However, many Christians have lost touch with this ancient tradition of prayer. Meditation involves coming to a stillness of spirit and a stillness of body. The extraordinary thing is that, in spite of all the distractions of the modern world, this silence is perfectly possible for all of us. To attain this silence and stillness we have to devote time, energy and love.
The way to set out on this pilgrimage is to recite a short phrase, a word that today is commonly called a mantra. The mantra is simply a means of turning our attention beyond ourselves, a method of drawing us away from our own thoughts and concerns. The real work of meditation is to attain harmony of body, mind and spirit. And this is the aim given us by the psalmist: ‘Be still and know that I am God’.
St. Paul wrote (Rom. 8:26) that ‘we do not know how to pray, but the spirit prays within us’. What this means in the language of our own day is that before we can pray we first have to learn to become still, to become attentive. Only then can we enter into loving awareness of the Spirit of Jesus deep within our heart.
Meditation, known also as contemplative prayer, is the prayer of silence, the place where direct contact with Christ can occur, once the never-ceasing activity of the mind has been stilled. In meditation, we go beyond words, thoughts and images into the presence of God within.
St. John of the Cross says ‘God is the centre of my soul’. Julian of Norwich says ‘God is the still point at my centre’. Meditation is this daily pilgrimage to one’s own centre.
The mind has been described as a mighty tree filled with monkeys, all swinging from branch to branch and all in an incessant riot of chatter and movement. When we begin to meditate we recognise this as a wonderfully apt description of the constant whirl going on in our mind. Prayer is not a matter of adding to this confusion by trying to shout it down and by covering it with another lot of chatter.
The task of meditation is to bring our distracted mind to stillness, silence and attentiveness. In order to assist us to come to stillness, we use a sacred word or mantra.
It was John Cassion, who greatly influenced St. Benedict and who introduced the use of a prayer verse or mantra to Western Monasticism in the late forth century. Having himself received it from the holy monks of the desert, Cassion placed its origin back to the times of Jesus and the apostles.
Cassion recommended that anyone who wanted to learn to pray should take a single short verse and simply repeat this verse over and over again. In his Tenth Conference on prayer, he urges this method of simple and constant repetition as the best way of casting out all distractions and trivial chatter from the mind, in order that it might rest in stillness in God.
The teaching of Cassion on prayer is based on the words of Jesus in the Gospels: ‘when you pray do not be like the hypocrites’ but go into your private room and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place’ do not go on babbling like the heathen, who feel that by their many words they will be heard. Do not imitate them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him’ (Matt. 6:5-8).