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Mantra Meditation in Early Christianity

The Desert Fathers

BY Deborah Willoughby ON May 14, 2013

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So begins the Gospel according to John, echoing what both the Vedic tradition and the Judeo-Christian tradition recognize as a fundamental truth: there is an aspect of language—the Word—that is the manifestation of Absolute Truth, or God, and further, that Word is the fundamental force behind the manifestation of the universe. We see this in Genesis, when God speaks formlessness into manifest form (“Let there be light”), as well as in the mystic tradition of the Kabbalah as the Word unfolds and condenses in the form of the 22 phonemes of the Hebrew language.

According to the Vedic tradition, the world manifests from the Word, exists in the Word, and dissolves again into the Word. The world is a source of misery to those who are ignorant of the Word and a source of joy to those who have penetrated its mystery. This understanding is echoed in the New Testament when Jesus recounts the parable of the sower: When the farmer goes out to sow his seed, some falls beside the road and is eaten by birds; some falls on rocky ground and sprouts, only to wither as soon as the sun comes out because it is not rooted; still other seeds fall among thorns and are choked as they grow and so yield nothing. Only seeds that fall on fertile ground take root, grow, increase, and yield a crop, “producing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:3–18)

Jesus told this story to the multitudes, but as soon as he is alone with his disciples, he explains that he teaches in parables to the public, but speaks more directly to the chosen few: The Word is the seed, and students are the soil, he says. When the Word falls on those who are beside the road, Satan comes and takes it away; when it falls on the rocky soil of those who “have no firm root in themselves but are only temporary,” they receive it with joy yet fall away at the first sign of affliction, Jesus explains. Those caught up with the “worries of the world” receive the Word only to allow it to be choked by “the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things.” Only those who have made of themselves fertile ground “hear the word and accept it, and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:14–20) Thus, if it is to yield its fruit, the Word must be received, retained, and nourished.

The sages of the Vedic tradition set forth a precise method for doing this—the sustained and systemic practice of mantra meditation. What is more, they outlined a process by which a student is prepared to receive and retain the Word (mantra) through the disciplines of purification of mind and body, one-pointedness (concentration), and surrender to God. In the Vedic tradition, these practices have been passed down from master to student in an unbroken chain for millennia and are documented in countless Sanskrit scriptures. In the Christian tradition, the practice was passed on from master to disciple early in the first millennium, but the chain of oral tradition was eventually broken, and mantra meditation vanished from Christianity as it was practiced in the West. The practice did live on, however, in the Eastern Church and was preserved and transmitted through the writings of various adepts, most notably the early desert fathers.

Just as many young people in the 1960s and ’70s went to India in search of a spiritual teacher, ardent seekers in the 4th century went to the Egyptian desert, for it was here that the most famous and accomplished spiritual teachers of the time were to be found. Drawn by a tremendous love for God, these early Christians roamed the deserts of Egypt—baking in the shimmering heat by day and shivering through the frigid nights—finding their way to solitary hermits and to little colonies of monks, hoping to benefit from the experience of their elders.

The first seekers went into the arid wilderness without fanfare, forsaking civilization to better hear the voice of God, and it is likely that they escaped notice for a time. We don’t know if they brought the practice of mantra with them or if it came to them spontaneously while they were in the desert, and if so, by what means. What we do know is that sometime around 280 a young Christian named Anthony renounced the world and went into the wilderness, where he stayed for 80 years or more. His fame and the fame of his fellow ascetics spread, and seekers were drawn into the desert to learn from their example. Many stayed—some found solitude in caves or in small huts, while others wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. By the time Saint Anthony died in 356, colonies of monks had sprung up throughout the desert, and by the beginning of the 5th century, as many as 700 monasteries dotted the landscape between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire in modern-day Egypt.

Thus by 383, when Evagrius Ponticus left his monastery on the Mount of Olives and walked into the Egyptian wilderness, this movement was drawing followers from as far away as what is now France and Britain. Evagrius became a disciple of one of the leading desert fathers, Marcarius the Great, but after a few years with his teacher, he moved deeper into the wilderness to a place called Chellia (“Cells”), about 50 miles south of Alexandria, where he spent the last 15 years of his life in a community.

Unlike many of the other desert monks, Evagrius was well educated and thus able to express in writing what thousands of anonymous ascetics were experiencing and passing on through the master-disciple relationship. Father Laurence Freeman, a contemporary Benedictine monk, whose lecture series All and Nothing is a rich source of material on mantra meditation in Western Christianity, explains what Evagrius meant by pure prayer:

Prayer itself is the absence of all thoughts—even pure thoughts, even good thoughts, holy thoughts—even what Evagrius calls simple thoughts, which are deep insights into the nature of things. Pure prayer itself, he says, is like Moses who takes off his shoes when he approaches the burning bush. So we must leave thoughts behind, take our thoughts off, if we are to see the One who is beyond every thought and every perception.

In the practice of yoga, meditating on a mantra is the means of bringing the mind to stillness.

This passage will resonate with anyone familiar with the yogic practice of meditation. Patanjali defines the goal of meditation as “the cessation of the modifications of the mind.” Or, as Swami Rama put it, meditation is “the liberation of the mind from all disturbing and distracting thoughts and desires.” In the practice of yoga, meditating on a mantra is the means of bringing the mind to stillness.

So in Evagrius we find the theory, but not the practice. Nowhere does he address the key question: What is the method of reining in the wandering mind? If, as in the Vedic tradition, this was a secret teaching imparted by a master through the process of initiation, it would not have been spoken of openly, let alone committed to writing, and the first glimpse of the technique does not come until a generation later when we encounter John Cassian, who was heavily influenced by Evagrius.

Cassian and his friend Germanus began their search for a living spiritual practice in a monastery in Bethlehem. But as Cassian writes, they “suffered grievous loss from the mediocrity of the manner of life there,” and so set off into the desert. For the next 10 to 15 years (with one brief interruption), the pair sought out various desert fathers, living with them for a while, sharing in their life, asking questions, and learning from their example in the same way that students in the Yoga and Buddhist traditions live with their teachers today.

Twenty years after leaving the desert, Cassian summarized these teachings in a series of 24 spiritual “conferences” between himself, Germanus, and various desert fathers. Cassian’s Conferences are in the form of questions and answers reminiscent of Sanskrit texts such as the Yoga Vasishtha, in which Rama questions his teacher and is instructed by his replies.

It is clear from the Conferences, as well as from his earlier work, The Institutes of the Communities, that for Cassian the goal of monastic life is the attainment of a state of uninterrupted prayer; in fact he sees this state as the underlying reason for every discipline a monk undertakes. The earlier Conferences concern themselves with how to live, emphasizing purity, honesty, continence, and other virtues very much in the manner of the yamas (observances) and the niyamas (restraints), which in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a preliminary but necessary step to the practice of meditation. Indeed Cassian states explicitly that “right living” is the means of cultivating the serenity needed to come to a state of single-minded, unceasing prayer.

But for our purposes, the most compelling of these discourses are Conferences IX and X, for it is here that Germanus questions one of the elders, Abba Isaac, about prayer—what it is and how to do it. Conference IX begins with Abba Isaac’s explanation of how our attitudes and conduct either support or defeat the effort to pray wholeheartedly. He then enumerates the various kinds of prayer, finally arriving at the highest form.

These teachings awaken in Cassian and Germanus a burning desire to experience this unceasing prayer for themselves. As John Main wrote in The Gethsemane Talks: “With this fervent spirit awakened in them they take their leave of Abba Isaac and are returning to their own cell when they stop in their tracks. They say to each other what many have said since: We know that prayer is the only thing! We know that we want to pray. We know that the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within us and will give new life to our mortal bodies…. But what the holy abbot did not tell us was ‘How are we going to do it? How are we going to achieve this continual recollection and prayer?’” So they returned to Abba Isaac to ask this question.

Just as in the yoga tradition, in which the inner teaching is imparted only when the student has asked the right question, this question persuades Abba Isaac to teach the two young men. Cassian reports in Conference X that Abba Isaac replied, “He is next door to understanding who carefully recognizes what he ought to ask about, nor is he far from knowledge who begins to understand how ignorant he is.” Then Abba Isaac instructs his two students to take a single verse from Psalms and turn it over and over again in their hearts. And, after giving them some specific examples of how he himself uses this verse, Abba Isaac says:

“We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are making, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed or eating or in the last necessities of nature, think on this. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been molded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake, let it be the first thing to come into your mind. When you rise from your bed, let it send you down on your knees and then forth to all your work and business. Let it flow about you all day long.”

This is what Cassian calls “pure prayer” and what the Vedic tradition calls ajapa japa—the constant, unbroken awareness of a mantra. By any name it is the fruit of a sustained, disciplined practice for a long period of time; it leads to a direct perception of the Ineffable.

And sure enough, as Germanus and Cassian practiced this pure prayer, they found it began to open them to the deepest kind of knowledge. By persevering in the practice, they eventually came to understand what Evagrius meant when he wrote that, as a result of practicing this prayer, “Angels will walk with you and enlighten you about the meaning of created things.” Yet, as Father Laurence points out, in the interim the two discovered how challenging this kind of prayer can be: “Germanus says, ‘We were delighted to have this way of practicing ceaseless prayer and coming to purity of heart, but we found it was much more difficult than the more discursive, rambling type of prayer we had been doing before.’” As any meditator learns, this simple practice of cultivating one-pointed awareness of the mantra is both challenging and infinitely rewarding.

Cassian left the desert in 400 and eventually made his way to Marseilles where he founded two monasteries. His writings were preserved and widely read (they had a significant influence on St. Benedict more than a century later when he wrote the Rule, which governs the Benedictine order to this day). However, by then the Church was firmly in the grip of orthodoxy, and the mantric form of prayer disappeared from view, at least in the Western branch of Christianity (although we catch another glimpse of it in 14th-century England in The Cloud of Unknowing, which teaches the practice of focusing on “one little word”).

In Eastern Christianity, however, the practice of mantra meditation has remained a living tradition. Abbot Joseph, the Superior of Mt. Tabor Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, wrote in an article (published in Yoga International in November 2000), “The practice of striving toward the experience of ‘pure prayer’(the non-conceptual contemplation and communion with God), aided by the constant repetition of a word or short phrase to facilitate attention and a deeper awareness of the divine presence, enjoys an almost unbroken continuity with the early fathers in the Byzantine monastic tradition.”

Abbot Joseph goes on to explain that this tradition gained strength in the 7th to 10th centuries, most notably with three monks: John Climacus, Hesychios the Priest, and Philotheus. All of them, he writes, were synthesizers of Evagrian and Macarian thought. The fathers did not favor “many words” in prayer, and neither did Christ himself, who criticized the pagans of his day for thinking they could manipulate God with their many words. The one-word or one-phrase prayer was considered important for the attainment of concentration and hesychia (inner stillness). Since this monologic prayer usually consisted of or contained the name of Jesus, it gradually became known as the “Jesus Prayer.” Climacus writes, “Let the…Jesus Prayer go to sleep with you and get up with you….” Hesychios links the practice of the prayer with “watchfulness” (nepsis)—attention, vigilance, and “guarding the heart”—stressing continuous prayer and non-conceptual prayer in the Evagrian tradition of the quest for pure prayer.

For the Christian fathers and the yogis alike, the goal is a direct experience of Divine Light.

In the words of St. Hesychios the Priest, “The blessed light of the Divinity will illumine the heart only when the heart is completely empty of everything…. Indeed, this light reveals itself to the pure intellect in the measure to which the intellect is purged of all concepts.” Or, as Swami Rama put it, “When the mind is silent, meditation deepens, and samadhi, the awareness of the highest state of consciousness, illuminates the mind and heart.” For the Christian fathers and the yogis alike, the goal is a direct experience of Divine Light. Mantra is the means.

ABOUT Deborah Willoughby The founding editor of Yoga International magazine, Deborah Willoughby holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Virginia. After a career in Washington, DC, as a writer and editor, she turned her attention full-time to the study and practice of yoga. She has studied with Swami Rama and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait in both the United States and India and served as President of the Himalayan Institute from 1994 to 2008. She currently teaches meditation, vibrant aging, and yoga philosophy at the Honesdale campus.

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