Having been taught by Swami Satyanada to meditate by repeating a mantra, a sacred word or phrase, during the whole of the period of prayer, it is not surprising that Cassian’s emphasis on using a single phrase to come to the stillness of mind necessary for true contemplative prayer jumped out at John Main on reading Cassian’s Conference X. There Cassian says: “This mantra must always be in your heart. When you go to sleep, let it be saying this verse, till having been moulded by it you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep….Let this be the first thing that comes to you when you awake”. By doing so it will “anticipate all your waking thoughts” and it will be there throughout the day in “the recesses of your heart.” We all sense the truth of this. When for some reason you have had to miss your morning meditation, the day does not flow the same way as usual.
It is also very clear from Cassian’s teaching that our daily life influences our prayer and our prayer influences our daily life, as we do know: “Therefore we have to be outside the hour of prayer what we want to be when we are praying. For the mind at the time of prayer is necessarily formed by what went on previously, and when it is praying it is either raised to the heavens or brought low to the earth by the thoughts on which it was dwelling before it prayed.”
When explaining to others that John Main bases his teaching on that of Cassian, the answer from those unwilling to accept the early origin of Christian meditation, is that the teaching is not the same. Of course it is not identical. Both were addressing different audiences – Cassian those who had chosen the life of a monk or nun in monasteries and John Main, in addition to those, every man or woman in ordinary working life, who is interested in going deeper in prayer. The beauty of any tradition is that it stays true to itself whilst evolving over time. Moreover, if we go back to the deserts hermits, they were not just sitting around praying all day. They worked as day labourers in the fields in the fertile Nile valley, or plaiting ropes and making baskets for sale in the market and maintaining a garden (in the desert!) that not only fed themselves but also the villagers around them. But all the time while they were at work they repeated their ‘formula’ as Cassian called it, continuously. This is the essence of John Main’s and Cassian’s teaching on meditation: to continually repeat your word whatever you are doing and you will find that it leads you from saying it, to sounding it, to listening to it and then by allowing you to ignore the distractions, the mantra is there singing in your heart. “It is simple but demanding. The truly simple is rarely easy” says John Main.
But he also warns us not to sit there and evaluate our meditation: am I saying the mantra, or listening to it or is it already sounding in my heart? The essence is “to just say the mantra in utter simplicity and with utter faithfulness. Without expectation.” And then, spontaneously the moment comes when you wake up at night or when there is a pause in your activities during the day that you become aware of the mantra sounding in your heart, forming a permanent connection with the Divine and permeating, slowly over time, without us realising it, whatever we think, desire or do. We then become who we truly are in essence.