Meditation allowed John Main to move in prayer from discursive prayer to silent prayer, from the mind to the heart. He warns the monks of Gethsemani that “we can so easily become smug and self-complacent as we repeat our creedal formulas”. He stressed that we need to move from intellectual assent to our beliefs to personal experience of the truth of our beliefs. It is not that the creeds and dogmas are not important but they are only half of what it truly means to be a Christian. Evagrius, John Cassian’s main teacher put it as follows: “The effects of keeping the commandments do not suffice to heal the powers of the soul completely – they must be complimented by a contemplative activity and this activity must penetrate to the Spirit.”
We may accept intellectually the truth of what the early Church Father Origen explains from Scripture: “Men and women are created in the ‘image of God’ and our human vocation is to manifest ‘likeness to God’ through our manner of life”. But only in deep silent prayer do we experience what that means for each of us. We become aware at times through the sense of peace and love, that the Spirt of Christ lives in our innermost being. Then we truly ‘know’ in a deep, intuitive way that we are “a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God”. This awareness that we have the Divine presence within us, helps us to realise our true value and thus transforms our thoughts and being, permeating our attitude and actions towards ourselves, others and to creation. We then show our “likeness to God through our manner of life”. This is what is truly meant by ‘imitation of Christ’ – to remember who we truly are, deeply connected with the Divine, which is Love, allowing us to live and act according to this truth, as Jesus did.
John Main stresses that this is the true meaning of meditative prayer. By going beyond thoughts, by being undistracted, we learn “to pay attention to the personal presence of Jesus within us”. Thus we will be at peace and “enjoy the full wonder of our creation.”
As we can see from the above, John Main’s ‘meditative prayer’ is not at all like the meditative prayer he had first learnt as a Catholic: the Ignatian discursive meditation. That way of prayer can in its own way be very important on the spiritual journey by offering true insight both into our own nature and into our relationship with the actions and teaching of Christ. To know who we truly are in the entirety of our being, is an important first step. As St Augustine said: “Man must first be restored to himself, that, making in himself as it were a stepping-stone, he may rise thence and be borne up to God.” John Main always stressed like John Cassian that all ways of prayer are valuable and necessary. But then comes the essential step into the silence, which leads to perfect prayer, when we totally forget self and enter into the loving silence at the centre of our being, where Christ dwells. John Cassian finishes his discussion of prayer by quoting St Antony: “Prayer is not perfect when the monk is conscious of himself and of the fact that he is actually praying.” Meditation is concerned therefore not so much with thinking as with being, just being with God and to “simply be with Him is to be drawn into being the person He calls us to be.”