Writing conversation: In The Stillness Dancing – The Life of Father John Main

From The Inside Story, Neil writes about how he came to write In the Stillness Dancing, The Life of Father John Main.

John Main

About this same time, despite a happy marriage and challenging jobs, Catharine and I felt there was something missing in our lives, a spiritual dimension of some kind. We began to search for a guide and, thanks to a word from a former Jesuit colleague, we discovered Dom John Main, a Benedictine monk who had come to Montreal in 1977 to start a meditation centre in a dilapidated house in Notre Dame de Grace. John Main, then about fifty, was a tall, impressive looking man with a military bearing, a ready wit – redolent of his beloved County Kerry, his family’s early home – and a voice modulated like an actor’s, which indeed, in another dispensation, he might have been.

John Main had been taught by the Jesuits. He had joined a British intelligence unit during the war, studied and taught law at Trinity College in Dublin, and spent a couple of years in Malaya in the mid’ 1950s with the British Civil Service. It was in Malaya that John Main’s interest in prayer was further developed by a Hindu swami who taught him silent meditation using a sacred word, or mantra. Much to his delight, after he became a Benedictine monk at Ealing in London – where the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton had been born – John Main discovered this form of silent meditation using a mantra was also deeply imbedded in the Christian tradition.

So it was to teach Christian meditation that John Main, accompanied by a young Benedictine associate, Laurence Freeman, came to Montreal at the invitation of Bishop Leonard Crowley. Catharine and I began going weekly to his talks and we started to meditate twice a day. One of the fruits of meditation that Catharine noticed was that my bursts of anger became less frequent and I was more relaxed and easier to live with. We continued our attendance after John Main moved his meditation centre to Pine Avenue, on the slopes of Mount Royal, into a large mansion, a magnificent gift of the McConnell Foundation. McConnell had been publisher of The Montreal Star. I remember spending one weekend there and generously offering to clean the carpets outside John Main’s room. Unfortunately, my cleaning was tying the carpets into knots. It was only when John Main himself came out to see what the trouble was that I discovered I was not using a carpet cleaner but a floor polisher.

Sadly, John Main was not able to develop the community he had hoped for at the Benedictine Priory on Pine Avenue. Cancer, which had been successfully treated in 1979, recurred, and he died at the early age of fifty-six on December 30, 1982. To my surprise, Dom Laurence Freeman O.S.B., John Main’s associate and his successor as Prior of the Benedictine community, asked me on the night of Father John’s death if I would be interested in writing John Main’s biography. I immediately agreed, and over the next three years our research took Catharine and me to Ireland and England. We also went to Washington, where John Main had been headmaster of a private boys’ school in the early seventies. The biography, In the Stillness Dancing, was published in London and New York in 1986 and again by Unitas Books in Montreal in 1995. It was well reviewed, and I have always been grateful to Father Laurence Freeman for giving me the opportunity to do it.

The cover of the Crossroads edition.

The blurb from the Crossroads edition (USA):

IN THE STILLNESS DANCING

The Life of Father John Main

On a February night in 1960 a Benedictine monk from Ealing Abbey in a suburb of London dropped by the Chelsea flat of an Old Trinity College friend. He stayed just long enough to change from his habit into evening dress. Then John Main left for the festivities at Gray’s Inn where he had been called to the Bar, the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.

Who was this slim, tall young man just turned 34, with his sandy hair and piercing blue eyes who moved so easily from the spiritual world of Ealing to the secular temples of the courts? Why had he left a promising career in the law, a closely-knit family in Ireland and the young woman he loved, to become a Benedictine monk? How was it that John Main became so excited by the prayer life of a Christian writer who lived in the desert in the fourth century and to whom he was led by a Hindu Swami?

Why would the Prior of an established Monastery in London later give it all up to go off and set up shop in an old house in Montreal, Quebec? And how was it so many people, seeking a new dimension in their lives, journeyed to the Priory he founded in Montreal, discovered John Main and were forever changed by the discovery? The answer lay in John Main’s own journey.

“A fresh, and helpful approach to meditation from an inspired teacher. ” Ann Morrow Lindberg

To find out more about this book and the other McKenty books visit the bookshelf.

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