John Main and the Early Church Fathers

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We have seen, how delighted John Main was to read in Cassian of the way of prayer that was so important to him personally. But that is not the only way Cassian’s teaching resonated with John Main. He re-discovered more than praying by repeating a prayer word, he reconnected with a view of Christianity sorely needed today, one that stresses wholeness and a spiritual inter-connectedness with all of humanity, creation and the Divine. This is the reason Fr Bede Griffiths called him “the most important spiritual guide in the Church today”.

John Main expresses this view clearly in the opening words of Word into Silence: “The beauty of the Christian vision of life is its vision of unity. It sees that all mankind has been unified in the One who is in union with the Father. All matter, all creation, too, is drawn into the cosmic movement towards unity that will be the realization of the Divine harmony.”

Humanity is therefore not separate and isolated in an uncaring Universe, but through Christ closely linked to and forming a significant part of the whole. This firm conviction of John Main that “Jesus has sent his Spirit to dwell within us, making all of us temples of holiness: God dwelling within us….We know then that we share in the nature of God.” links him both with St Paul – “the secret is this – Christ in you” as well as with the early Church Fathers Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and Origen (186-255). The latter stated the same view of Reality in similar words: “Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God.” Because of this deep connection with the Divine we are in essence like God and can experience the Presence of God. It is this profound relationship that validates our way of prayer, and offers the potentiality of opening us to the “wonder and splendour of God”, fully aware “that we are at one with God.”

But the emphasis in the early teaching on prayer – as in John Main – is that words have to be left behind, as in Clement of Alexandria’ words the Divine mystery is pure being: “The notion of pure being is the closest you can come to God…He is ineffable, beyond all speech, beyond every concept, beyond every thought.” The only way therefore we can relate to God and experience his Presence is through the gateway of deep silent prayer. Clement describes this prayer as follows: “We pray…when in the very ‘chamber’ of our soul we harbour just one thought and ‘with sighs too deep for words’ invoke the Father, who is already present while we are still speaking.” 

Jesus’ teaching on prayer, especially as written in Matthew 6: 6, is the basis of all the teaching that followed. In those early centuries of Christianity the emphasis was on following tradition not on individual interpretations and ideas as it is in our time. Only if it reflected Jesus’ words faithfully would any statement have been considered authentic. Therefore we see the same emphasis on silence, solitude and few words in the teaching of the early Church Fathers and amongst the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Their theology, their expression in language, was based on their experience in prayer. In the same way John Main stressed that our experience in prayer validates our beliefs.

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