John Main OSB (1926-1982) has been recognised worldwide as one of the most important spiritual teachers of our time whose influence is continuing to expand. He has helped many Christians of all tradition to begin an exploration 'in their own experience' of the contemplative dimension of their faith. He has provided a re-entry point for those who had left their tradition in order to find this depth outside. And he has helped strong bridges to develop between Christianity and other faith traditions.
Baptised Douglas Main, he was born in London on 21 January 1926. His roots were in Co Kerry, Ireland. Educated at Westminster Choir School and by the Jesuits at Stamford Hill, London, he served in the Royal Signals at the end of the war after which he joined the Canons Regular of the Lateran for a short period. He left and studied law at Trinity College Dublin and then joined the British Diplomatic Service and studied Chinese at SOAS in London.
Attached to the Governor General’s office in Malaya during the Emergency, his duties took him one day to meet an Indian monk and Justice of the Peace, Swami Satyananda. From him, he learned how to meditate and took up the discipline of silence, stillness and simplicity as part of his Christian faith and daily prayer.
When he returned to the West he became professor of International law at Trinity College, continuing to meditate as part of his Christian spiritual life. In 1958, he became a Benedictine monk at Ealing Abbey in London. He was asked to give up this practice of meditation, as it was not deemed then to be a Christian form of prayer.
However, while Headmaster of the school at St Anselm’s Abbey in Washington DC in 1969 John Main was led to a new study of the roots of his own Christian monastic tradition. In the Conferences of John Cassian and the teachings of the Desert fathers, he found the Christian expression of the same way of meditation he had learned in the East. Now recognising the teaching and the urgent need for meditation in the modern world he began to practice again.
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In 1975, he opened the first Christian Meditation Centre at Ealing Abbey in London and began what was to be the culminating mission of his lifelong search for God and service of others. Realising that this way of the prayer of the heart could guide the search of many modern people for deeper spiritual experience, he recommended two regular daily periods of meditation to be integrated with the usual practices of Christian life. In his teaching, he emphasised the simplicity and universality of the practice of meditation as well as acknowledging the fact of its being a discipline.
He accepted the invitation of the Archbishop of Montreal to establish a Benedictine Priory committed intentionally to the practice and teaching of Christian meditation. This was a new form of Benedictine life integrating monastic and lay people with the practice of meditation itself integrated with the Divine Office and Mass. From here, for the last five years of his life, John Main saw the expansion of his vision of community through the teaching of this tradition. He believed that ‘meditation creates community’. The World Community for Christian Meditation that grew from his work continues to express the truth of that insight for our time.
He died at the age of 56 in Montreal and is buried at Mount Saviour Monastery, Elmira, NY.
There is no part-time or partial prayer as if the Spirit were not always alive in our heart. But there are times, our twice-daily meditation when we make a complete turn of consciousness towards this ever-present reality. There comes a level of awakening when our awareness of this reality is constant, throughout our most diverse activities and concerns.(John Main)
It becomes more evident each year that meditation, as a way of friendship and compassion, builds a bridge of the spirit between peoples of different faiths, between rich and poor, and between those suffering conflict or division. The great social and psychological distresses of modern society call for a change of mind and heart, for a deep contemplative response. John Main believed that each human being, whatever their lifestyle, is called to this spiritual depth and that the foundations of civilisation rest upon the contemplative consciousness.
On December 30th, 2007 a 21st Memorial Service with music by Margaret Rizza was celebrated at Westminster Cathedral where he had sung as a boy chorister.
Works by and about John Main: