Dear Donagh, I was at a meditation meeting recently and the speaker used the word “mantra” at one stage. One of the people there reacted very crossly and said it was something that Christians should have nothing to do with. The speaker was very patient and tried to explain, but I think it upset everyone there. I heard later that the man was telling people not to go to that prayer meeting anymore because it was heresy. Can a Christian use a mantra or should it be avoided? I try to do a bit of meditation myself and the mantra seemed a good idea. What do you think? Miriam
Dear Miriam, The word ‘mantra’ is a Sanskrit word, and for a start it is just that: a word. To say that Christians should have nothing to do with mantras is like saying that Christians should have nothing to do with words. The use of mantras (though not under that name of course) goes back to the early centuries of the Church. Mantras have a practical use: our concentration is mostly flickering and intermittent, and the repetition of a sacred word is an aid to concentration in prayer.
Here is what the author of the 14th-century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote about it: “Take a short word, preferably of one syllable…. The shorter the word the better, being more like the working of the Spirit. A word like ‘God’ or ‘Love’. Chose which you like, or perhaps some other, so long as it is of one syllable. And fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there come what may. It will be your shield and spear in peace and war alike. With this word you will hammer the cloud and the darkness above you. With this word you will suppress all thought….”
When Christians speak about ‘mantra’ they are using the Sanskrit word to refer to something that is part of the Christian tradition - because the Christian tradition did not supply a word for it. Let’s not be scared off by a word. English is brim full of words from every part of the world. ‘Bungalow’, for example, is a Hindi word - it is related to ‘Bengal’ - but I don’t hear anyone say that we should therefore have nothing to do with bungalows. Lots of words come from Hindi: bangle, cot, dungarees, jungle, shampoo, etc. etc. One in particular ought to be of special interest to witch-hunters: the word ‘juggernaut’. It should strike terror into them, because it is named after Juganath, a Hindu god whose image is carried in procession around the town once a year in a huge cart. No, we mustn’t react to words in a pre-human way. That person’s reaction to ‘mantra’ was like a dog’s reaction to ‘sit’ or ‘walk’.
If you want to follow up on contemplative prayer using a mantra, look at the website of the World Community for Christian Meditation (just google wccm). There you will find useful information, profound teaching, and a list of local contacts. It is a method of contemplative prayer, based on the Christian tradition and adapted for modern use, devised by John Main, a Benedictine monk (1926 – 1982). The movement is now worldwide. Click on your part of the map of the world and you will see local information. You can also have a weekly teaching posted to your email address.
Take care, Miriam.