Q: I'm a longtime meditator and student of contemplative practice traditions. As such I have maintained an interest in and appreciation of modern Christian approaches to meditation. In regard to the use of a prayer word or phrase by which one disposes oneself to the grace of contemplation, I note that there is a difference in these approaches as regards the actual handling of the prayer word. On the one hand there is the approach of John Main and Lawrence Freeman, which as I understand it, advocates the attentive repetition of a particular sacred word. Analogous to this is the orthodox hesychast approach which employs the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, as well as a similar approach advocated by Martin Laird. In contrast to these, the method taught in "Centering Prayer" explicitly indicates that the sacred word is not a "mantra" to be repeated, but rather a symbol of one's intention, (to consent to God's presence and action) to which one returns upon noticing one's mind wandering willy nilly. This apparent difference appears to me to be one of substance, rather than mere emphasis. I wonder if you might be so kind as to give me your take on this difference.
A: You have a good understanding of the John Main method of contemplative prayer. I believe they are going in the same transformative direction. In my conversations with Laurence Freeman, I believe we agree on just about everything except the precise methods themselves. The John Main method through the daily two half hours of these practices is spent in uninterrupted listening to the mantra which is the traditional use of a Hindu mantra, a practice John Main learned from a Yoga master in India. It is usually a long word like “Maranatha”, a phrase, or even a sentence, designed to keep out of one’s mind all other thoughts or reflections. Over a period of years, the mantra begins to say itself without the practitioner paying any deliberate attention to it. In other words, the mantra moves from the mind to the heart. It says itself, so to speak, while the practitioner rest in union with the Divine Presence or Christ. One is attentive to listening to the mantra by saying it mentally during the whole time of prayer.
The Centering Prayer method is based on a spiritual interpretation of Matthew 6:6, which is to enter into your private (inner) room and close the door and pray to you your Father in secret.
This practice is basically a relationship with the Father without the sound of words. Thus it consists of listening to the silence. The sacred word (or breath or glance of faith toward God can be used as well) is not repeated as in the use of the mantra in John Main’s method but is a symbol of one’s intention to be in relationship to God and the sense of his presence during the entire time of prayer.
One is free in both methods to choose which practice works best or to which one feels attracted by grace. The goal of both methods is “resting in God”. Centering Prayer does this by letting all thoughts come and go, like boats floating downstream. One returns to the sacred word only when one needs to, as when one realizes one is thinking of something. Beginners may prefer the mantric practice since their minds are easily distracted from the simple intention the sacred word represents. Others may find the uninterrupted repetition too concentrative. That seems to be the difference in methods; one is totally receptive, the other is totally concentrative. Whether this is a substantial difference or simple a difference of emphasis depends on your point of view. In Buddhism there are a wide variety of methods (perhaps techniques would be a better designation). Why shouldn’t Christians have a few?
The main thing is to remain faithful to the practice you decide to follow by meditating twice daily for twenty minutes or half an hour.
In Christ’s love,