Writing conversation: In The Stillness Dancing excerpts

Preface and Chapter 1 from In The Stillness Dancing.


I first met John Main on a sunny day in the early summer of 1979, He was sitting in a rickety chair on the veranda of the historic Décarie House in Notre-Dame-de-Grace, a downtown suburb of Montreal. Dom (Father) John Main, a Benedictine monk, for twenty years, was dressed casually in an open-necked white shirt, brown-coloured trousers and sandals, I had not anticipated so tall a man, above six feet, with the bearing of a member of the British army (which he had been) and the blue-eyed twinkle of an Irishman from Kerry (which he was).

A few months earlier I was talking with an old Jesuit friend. I told him I was successful in my work, radio broadcasting in Montreal and happy in my marriage of seven years. Still, there was something missing. Both my wife, Catharine, and I had discussed this missing element and tried to put our finger on it. We could only agree that our lives, materially successful and happy, lacked a spiritual dimension. It was all we could think of to describe the sense of something lacking.

We both knew where to get a flat tyre fixed. But where do you go to get a spiritual dimension? The obvious answer was some religious group or institution. My wife was a Protestant, Her father had been a dedicated minister and missionary. For some years she had been associated with a Moral Re-Armament group, which she eventually left. She was wary of religious institutions and commitments, I shared her wariness.

For more than a quarter of a century I had been a member of the Jesuit Order, I had left in 1970 and I was not eager to join another organised religious enterprise. My wife and I went to Mass occasionally. But the service did not seem to mean much. So the vague feeling of something missing persisted. I mentioned my concern to my Jesuit friend. His response did not seem helpful: ‘Have you ever heard of Father John Main? I had not. ‘Perhaps you should see him some time.’

I let the matter drop for several months. Then one day, I looked for John Main’s name in the telephone directory and rang him up. The modulated voice that answered – was it British or Irish or both? – sounded warm and welcoming: ‘By all means, come round this Sunday morning if you have time’

So there we were sitting in the warm sun. John Main needed a larger house and he wanted to know about my raising money for Jesuit buildings, I also told him I had the devil of a time trying to pray as a Jesuit. I don’t think he made any reply. In fact, I don’t remember that we talked much about prayer at all,

I do remember asking him about the possibility of my wife and myself coming to the meditation groups he was instructing at the Priory he had founded after coming out from the Benedictine Abbey at Ealing in London in the autumn of 1977. John Main did not jump at the opportunity to sign up a high-profile prayer recruit from the world of the Montreal media. Instead, he said, I’ll send you over some tapes I’ve made. Listen to them quietly, see what you think, then we’ll have a chat again, He sent the tapes, my wife and I listened and, eventually, what we heard changed our lives.

This did not happen overnight. Early in 1980 we both began to go to the Priory on Tuesday evenings. The procedure was simple. People sat quietly on more rickety furniture or on the floor, there was a little classical music, then John Main began to speak. He spoke with a penetrating authority that I had never heard before. When he spoke about love, as he often did, you felt he not only believed what he was saying about love — human and divine – but that he had experienced both, personally and profoundly. I remember too with what clarity he distinguished reality from illusion: how few pursued the real, how many the illusory. This was an aspect of his cosmic vision. For him it was incongruous not to be able to distinguish between reality and illusion. John Main was at his very best in these talks on meditation – authoritative, penetrating, persuasive.

In the few years I listened to John Main giving the Tuesday evening instruction on meditation and the homily at Sunday Mass (simple, scriptural, provocative), I never heard him utter a false note. There was wit and laughter, there was hyperbole and a delightful amount of verbal pyrotechnics and leg-pulling. There were points with which I disagreed. But never a false note.

The first time my wife and I spent a weekend at the Priory, I asked Father John whether he thought it would be a good idea if we tried to start a meditation group in our home. He thought it would. We did and it remains one of the richest experiences of our lives. One of the last times I saw Father John outdoors he came bounding down the monastery steps after the Tuesday night meditation to ask us how our medi¬tation group was going.

The last time I was in his room at the Pine Avenue Priory, he was dying. During his life John Main gave many people a richer dimension for living. In his last hours he gave us an unforgettable perspective on dying. There was little sadness. Instead there was a sense permeating the monastery that a life had been waged and a victory was being won.

On the evening of the day he died, 30 December 1982, Father Laurence Freeman, his successor, asked me to write Dom John’s biography. In doing our research, my wife, Catharine, and I have travelled to those places where John Main had so many friends and relatives – Dublin, Ballinskelligs, London, Washington. For us the pilgrimage of medi¬tation, about which Dom John talked so often, has been a richer voyage than we ever imagined.

Once at his old monastery of Ealing, a close friend of John Main said to me at the end of our interview: ‘John was a good man. He led people to God. Whatever you write, remember John was a good man.’ In The Stillness Dancing is the journey of a modern monk and the story of a good man.

Perhaps the story of John Main OSB would not have been published at all (certainly not now) without the co-operation of Father John’s successor as Prior, Laurence Freeman OSB. It was his idea that a biography should be written. He discussed it with me and I agreed. Since I began the research in May 1983, in Ireland and England (with the help of my wife, Catharine), Father Laurence has been a tower of strength. He has given us material and insights from his long association with Father John. He has provided both encouragement and caution when these were required. He has never interfered with the integrity of the biography even when, I feel sure, he would have written a passage differently or omitted it altogether. Working with Father Laurence on Father John’s biography has been an enriching part of our pilgrimage.

Other Benedictines who knew Father John have also helped in the project. I am indebted to Bernard Orchard OSB for arranging interviews for me at Ealing in London and to John Farrelly OSB for doing the same at St Anselm’s in Washington. Michael Hall OSB provided me with some of Father John’s key letters and he shared many of his own reminiscences.

I am also much indebted to the immediate members of Father John’s family for making the research, especially in Ireland, not only more accurate but also more fun. I should mention Yvonne Fitzgerald, who shared her memories of her brother and arranged much of our Irish trip. Also her sisters, Diane O’Neill, and Kitty Stanley and her brother, Ian Main. In Dublin too. E. Y. Exshaw, Professor of Law at Trinity College, arranged interviews and made records available.

The help of Sister Madeleine Simon RSCJ, founder of the new Christian Meditation Centre in London, was indispens-able. She interviewed Father John’s associates, wrote letters, tracked down obscure records and provided me with much essential material. So, need I say, did Diana Ernaelsteen (Searle) whom Father John met when she was a little girl and considered a special friend all his life. Diana shared with me her memories and her letters and gave me the benefit of her perceptions and insights. I am also in the debt of Lady Lovat who made available many of the rich letters she received from Father John.

In Montreal two people, John Hallward and his wife, Clare, made a difference from the beginning. John’s enthusiasm and advice made the book easier to do; Clare’s encouragement and editing made it a better book. The suggestions of Sister Gertrude McLaughlin SNJM were invaluable. At the Montreal Priory, for help with preparing the manuscript, my thanks to Helene Mercier, Doreen Romandini and Janet Johnson. My editor at Darton, Longman and Todd, Teresa de Bertodano, used the carrot far more often than the stick. Both were effective.

Finally, my wife Catharine, to whom the book is dedicated, supported the project with good humour and effective effort from beginning to end. She discovered material and people I never knew existed. We saw the book as a joint effort because we considered Father John a mutual friend to whom we both owed much. We did a lot of work but we also had a lot of fun. That seems appropriate for a book about John Main.

As these acknowledgements indicate, the material for the book came from many sources. The responsibility for the conclusions suggested in the book is mine alone.

Neil McKenty
Montreal, 1986

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’, Four Quartets.

Introduction: The Journey Within

As the aircraft rolling down the runway of Washington’s International Airport in the summer of 1974 gathered speed John Main should have been content. He had been a Benedictine monk for almost fifteen years. He was leaving Washington for London via Australia after four years as headmaster of St Anselm’s private boys’ school in the north-east section of the American capital. St Anselm’s had prospered under his leadership and he had made many friends during his stay in Washington.

Still, as his aircraft climbed into the sky for the flight to San Francisco, John Main was not content. He was concerned. What he had observed during his five years in education in Washington had increased his concern about his Benedictine Order, the state of the Church, the effect of Christian education on young people, even the role of Christianity itself in the modern world. What John Main had detected in America was a malaise that none of the institutions he knew best were able to cope with. He described this concern to his old friends, the Akers-Jones, then in Hong Kong, with whom he had been associated in the British Oversea Civil Service in Malaya in the mid-1950s: ‘The situation is so volatile you never know when it is going to blow up in your face. There is a tremendous amount of anxiety about and people live at the very edge of their nervous limit.’

It was the younger generation that concerned John Main for, despite his successful years as a headmaster in Washington, he questioned how well the staff at St Anselm’s had prepared their students for life in the world: ‘Would they know life in the dimension of spirit … or would their contact with life be restricted to the sense of a struggle for success?’

Why were so many younger people abandoning the institutional Church and seeking in the East what they could not find in the West? Why did the journey East so often turn out to be a spiritual cul-de-sac, just another ego-trip? Or as John Main described it: ‘ … we all know that the last ten or fifteen years have shown that the search for experience out of context only leads back deeper into the labyrinth of egoism’. Even when people do not leave the institutional Church why do so many merely use religion as an anaesthetic for their anxieties? Why do so many others seek refuge in chemicals such as drugs and alcohol?

‘Is That All There Is?’ was how a popular song tried to capture the emptiness of materialism and success:

What more and more of us are understanding in this world [he wrote] is that the human spirit cannot find fulfilment in mere material success or material prosperity. It isn’t that material success or prosperity are bad in themselves but they are simply not adequate as a final, ultimate answer to the human situation.

Increasingly John Main saw ‘the human situation’ as one in which men and women easily lost contact with reality, the reality of themselves, the reality of the world around them. Instead, illusions – marriage without love, work without meaning, success without satisfaction – replaced reality or were mistaken for it.

This phenomenon increasingly concerned John Main during his years in Washington at the beginning of the seventies. He suggested that most would not diagnose their anxiety as a loss of ‘essential harmony, awareness, conscious¬ness or spirit’. Instead, he says:

We would be much more likely to point to particular features of our life such as work, relationships, health, and to attribute our unhappiness or anxiety to one or all of these. Many people, indeed, would not even see all these different aspects of their life as having any common point of contact. . . . The result of this is that modern life so often lacks a centre, a point of convergence, a source of unity.

The longer he lived, the more John Main saw lives that were

fragmented, shallow and that lacked a spiritual dimension. And the longer he lived, the more determined he became to confront this tragedy.

By the time he left Washington to return to London in the summer of 1974, Dom John Main had concluded that organized religion was not adequately coping with the anxieties and frustration of the human situation. Some years later he underlined this inadequacy:

Out of every area of Christian thought and activity today there comes the same insistence that abstract or legalistic answers to the riddles of our lives are inadequate. Rulebook regulations applied without human compassion for the uniqueness of each individual are as futile as the neat intellectual formulas that have no integral power to change the way we live.

This became the fundamental question that lay at the base of John Main’s future work. Indeed it formed the basis for his own spiritual journey, ‘What is the power to change the way we live and how do we make contact with that power?’ At the heart of this question, for John Main, lay the failure of the Church: ‘As if a city without electricity was lighting its streets with candles while a great power source lay untapped. . . .’ People turned elsewhere.

Yet John Main became convinced that people, far from discarding real religious truth, were more thirsty for it than ever:

There is a great feeling among our contemporaries, I think, of the need, perhaps even the extreme urgent need to recover the spiritual dimension of our lives. There is a feeling that unless we do recover that spiritual dimension we are going to lose our grip on life altogether.

At the same time John Main was no kill-joy. A commitment to spiritual values, far from being a rejection of the daily joys of living, led him to a deeper enthusiasm for life. He had friends all over the world. He had an intense appreciation for good music, good books, the beauty of a flower, the expanse of the sea. John Main believed those who embarked on a voyage of discovery to live life in the deep led, even at the

human level, a more exciting life than those who lived in the shallows.

But how to recover this dimension now that the old formulas, the trite answers no longer sufficed? Wherever John Main travelled he sensed this search for a spiritual dimension, for a relationship with God that was not itself an illusion but real. But how? John Main was beginning to formulate a way:

It seemed to me that the generalities with which people had been conditioned no longer satisfied them. The search for God, for absolute value and personal meaning, was a search for a way to pray, to find God in self and self in God and, above all, to find a way that was possible for modern men and women.

And again:

All of us feel … a need to find something, some principle in our lives that is absolutely reliable and worthy of our confidence. All of us feel this impulse to somehow or other make contact with rock-like reality.

But again the practical question. How do we move from the shallows to the deep? How do we harmonize and unify a life that has been split and fragmented so long? John Main put the problem this way:

The question . . . which is asked by all modern men and women and not just by religious people is: ‘How can we get back into touch with ourselves? How do we recover a sense of confidence in ourselves, the confidence of knowing that we really do exist in our own right?’

How then do people whose lives have been largely directed by others, whose expectations and goals are determined externally, who feel frustrated and fragmented – how do they turn their lives around?

John Main describes this alienation in Moment of Christ: I think people suffer a great deal of frustration because they cannot be themselves and cannot make contact with them-selves. James Joyce once described one of his characters as “always living at a certain distance from himself”.’ How is it possible to reduce this crippling gap between what we

appear to be (especially to others) and what we were meant to be? Is there a way to our own centre where we can simply be — where we don’t need to justify ourselves or apologize for ourselves but where we simply rejoice in the gift of being ourselves?

The answer to that question depends on a closer analysis of the problem. John Main goes to its root this way:

The great illusion that most of us are caught in is that we are the centre of the world and everything and everyone revolves around us. . . . This is a very easy illusion to fall into because in the opening consciousness of life it seems that we are understanding the external world from our own centre. And we seem to be monitoring the outside world from an interior control centre. And so it seems as though the world is revolving around us. Then logically we begin to try to control that world, to dominate it and to putl it at our service. This is the way to alienation, to loneliness, to anxiety because it is fundamentally unreal.

How does one move away from alienation, anxiety and loneli-ness? Is there a bridge from illusion and the unreal to the real? How does one turn from the periphery to find the centre? In a word how does one begin ‘the journey within’?

For John Main ‘the journey within’ began on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, a Malayan city in the spring of 1955. There John Main, newly graduated from Law at Trinity College, Dublin, was assigned to study language in the British Oversea Civil Service. And there, in sight of the Malayan jungle, he happened to meet a Hindu swami at his school and meditation centre. The two talked about prayer and meditation. John Main began to meditate using a short Chris-tian prayer phrase now commonly called a mantra. Some years later the meeting with the Hindu swami led John Main to discover another meditator. His name was John Cassian. He was a Christian monk who lived in the desert near Cairo in the fourth century. He also used a short prayer phrase or mantra.

It was not until twenty years after he met the Hindu swami that John Main fully realized the power of Christian medi¬tation to change the way we live – in our homes, in our

churches, in our world. He began in the summer of 1975 by forming a small prayer group at his Benedictine monastery at Ealing in London. The effect was like tossing a pebble into a deep pool. It scarcely broke the surface. Only later would the ripples spread across Britain and Ireland and the oceans to the world. From the beginning John Main considered it absolutely necessary to meditate together in silence with those who came to the first groups at Ealing. And he followed this practice for the rest of his life. But gradually, from the experience of the silent prayer itself, John Main began to ponder and reflect, then to write about the tradition and the process of Christian meditation. Several themes developed: prayer is a journey to the God dwelling within, rooted in St Paul’s teaching, ‘the secret of Christ in you’. This journey within requires silence (the active, concentrated silence of a watchmaker poised over his watch). This journey to the centre avoids thoughts and images about God. How can an infinite God be circumscribed by human thoughts and imaginings? John Main, always wary of the potential words have to distort, tried to find the words to describe Christian meditation:

To meditate means to live out of the centre of our being, that profound centre we find when we determine not to be shallow, not to be content to rest on the surface, to live out of the depths of our being.

The greatest obstacle to the journey within, to living from our own depths, is our preoccupation with ourselves, our self¬centredness:

Self-consciousness is like having a mirror between ourselves and God. Every time we look into the mirror we see ourselves. The purpose of meditation is to smash that mirror so that we no longer look at reflections of things and consequently see everything backwards, including ourselves. . . . Perhaps that is what brings most of us to meditation. We don’t want to look into that mirror and see everything backwards for the rest of our lives. We want to look through it, beyond it, and beyond ourselves.

Why do most people begin to meditate? Why did the meditation groups at Ealing expand so rapidly? John Main’s speculation on this question has profound implications for the modern Church:

What we began to see more sharply was that [the spiritual crisis of our times] was not just a crisis of materialism, of a loss of spiritual values. . . . The crisis was the men and women of deep spiritual seriousness and hunger who were being denied the vital reference points of their growth to maturity and who lacked the personal communication of teaching authority and experience – it was these who were really in crisis. . . . These were the real apostles on whom the building up of the Body [of Christ] depended. . . . And if these ordinary people living and working in the world lacked the transforming experience in their own hearts, where would be their power to transform their world in love?

Why did these ordinary people, living and working in the world, come to the prayer groups at Ealing? ‘They came to us for the most part because they felt they did lack it [i.e. the transforming experience], though exactly what “it” was they would not all perhaps have been able to say.’ All these ordi¬nary people knew was they had asked for bread and received a stone. In Letters from the Heart John Main writes that those who came to Ealing ‘knew, often in a very simple faith trained in the old ways, that ritual obedience and personal devotions could not of themselves be the gospel experience. They felt the void but were no longer content to try to fill it with religious distraction.’ On the contrary, quite the opposite was the case:

The lay people who came were in serious and profound search for a way to enter into the direct and personal experience of God and, if they were Christians, they believed that this meant the way of prayer – a prayer that could no longer be defined as talking to God, but a prayer that could only be described as their awareness of God in Jesus.

In the words of one of John Main’s favourite writers, Cardinal Newman, a ‘notional assent’ to dogma and ritual was no longer adequate. People were seeking a real participation in the experience of the Risen Jesus.

The way to this experience was through prayer. Nothing John Main said at Ealing or later provoked more difficulty than his words on prayer. Most people in the Christian tradition have been taught vocal prayer, usually a prayer of petition. If they had been introduced to mental prayer at all, chances are it was a kind of mental prayer teeming with inner words, images, thoughts and speculations. Like the world we live in, it was a busy kind of prayer. It was not the prayer Dom John spoke about: ‘We are all basically aware that we cannot apprehend God by thinking about him.’ If God cannot be grasped in thought (like a proposition of Pythagoras or Einstein or Lonergan) how can he be experienced? John Main answers in Letters from the Heart

The God who cannot be thought of or imagined can be known in love. … So often when we talk to God we are talking about ourselves . . . the structure of the words keeps us at the centre of our own consciousness. … In meditation God the unknowable is at the centre. And as we move steadily into union with that centre, we come to know him by his own light – always a progressive loss of self and self- consciousness. . . . The attempt to imagine God or Jesus is as fruitless an exercise at the time of prayer as talking to him or theologizing about him. We imagine only those who are absent.

Often when speaking of‘imageless’ prayer John Main returns to the image of human love. He had experienced human love in the warmth of his family and as a student at Trinity College, Dublin. He did not just think about love, or imagine love or express it in words; he shared the experience, often in silence. As with human love, so with divine. For John Main it was not enough to develop images about love or speculate about it or discuss it even with the beloved. Love must be shared and experienced, at its deepest level, in silence.

Still, if prayer is not an internal dialogue (or monologue) with God, what is it? In the summer of 1976, John Main tried to answer that question put to him by the Trappists at

Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, for so long the home of Thomas Merton:

… all Christian prayer [he said] is a growing awareness of God in Jesus. . . . And for that growing awareness we need to come to a state of undistraction, to a state of attention and concentration – that is to a state of awareness . . . the only way that I have been able to find to come to that quiet, to that undistractedness, is the way of the mantra.

Twenty years before, John Main had been initiated into the way of the mantra by the Hindu swami. Gradually, the way of the mantra became the vehicle of John Main’s own prayer. He usually recommended the prayer phrase or mantra, ‘Maranatha’, an ancient Aramaic prayer, ‘Come Lord’. The reasons for repeating the mantra quietly and unceasingly, during the time of meditation were two: to wean the mind from thinking about its own pre-occupations and to induce an interior silence that was the predisposition for God’s action, in faith, at the deepest centre.

John Main described the function of the mantra or prayer phrase in many ways, including some derived from his days with Army Intelligence in the Second World War:

The mantra … is like a harmonic that we sound in the depths of our spirit, bringing us to an ever-deepening sense of our own wholeness and central harmony. It leads us to the source of this harmony, to our centre, rather as a radar bleep leads an aircraft home through thick fog. It also rearranges us, in the sense that it brings all our powers and faculties into line with each other just as a magnet drawn over iron filings pulls them into their proper force fields.

But he insisted the mantra was not some verbal abracadabra:

As you all know from your own experience the mantra is not magic. It is not an incantation, and learning to say your mantra means learning to follow a way of life in which everything in your life is attuned to God. And so, in a sense, everything in your life is attuned to the mantra.

And the mantra, he sometimes said, is not taught, it’s caught.

Obviously John Main was sensitive to the suggestion (sometimes the accusation) that he was promoting some new-fangled ‘imageless’ prayer based on a mantra imported from some exotic land. What was this so-called Christian medi-tation if so many people had never heard of it, let alone practised it? Actually the tradition of mantric prayer has been around a long time. It was implicit in the ancient Jewish custom of‘blessing the Lord at all times’. Perhaps it was also veiled in the rhythmic Aramaic phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer phrase or mantra was explicitly used in the Orthodox Churches in the well-known words of the ‘Jesus Prayer’ (‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’). The use of a single prayer phrase first entered the West through a monk (and a teacher of St Benedict himself), John Cassian, toward the end of the fourth century. Cassian received the mantra from the desert fathers who placed its origins in Apostolic times. Much later, in the fourteenth century, the anonymous author of the spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, urged serious meditators to relinquish thoughts and images and to ‘pray not in many words but in a little word of one syllable’.

Nor did John Main have much patience with those who argued that ‘imageless’ prayer was only for the select few. His prime witness for the opposite view is St Paul. Paul urges his readers – without exception – to unceasing prayer at the same time that he tells them they don’t know how to pray. For St Paul, as for John Main, there was only one prayer. It was the unceasing prayer of Jesus to his Father made present in every human heart by the Holy Spirit. The task of the meditator was not to construct some other prayer but to become present, in faith, to the prayer of Jesus to the Father. The first step is to begin, by an act of faith, the journey within. Then, turning away from the consciousness of self with the help of the mantra, the meditator develops in faith a growing presence to the prayer of Jesus to his Father. Was this prayer for the experts only, the elite religious in monasteries? Not according to St Paul and not according to John Main.

There were several views on prayer that raised John Main’s Irish hackles. One was the suggestion that Christian medi¬tation was only for the illuminati staring into the wild blue yonder from their cloistered gardens. In Word Into Silence when he was describing the need for stillness and concentration as conditions to dispose the meditator to participate, in faith, in the prayer of Jesus to his Father, John Main wrote: ‘Now many Christians would still say at this point, “Very well, but this is for Saints, for specialists in prayer,” as if stillness and silence were not universal elements of the human spirit.” John Main gave this objection short shrift: ‘This type of obstinate false humility is based on a plain unawareness of who St Paul was writing to in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus. He was not writing to specialists, to Carmelites and Carthusians, but to husbands, wives, butchers and bakers.’

Nor was John Main talking to specialists in prayer. He was talking to labourers, to people who worked the night shift, nurses, teachers, professionals, families with children. He often said little children caught on quickest to what he was talking about, being present to God through faith in prayer.

About twenty centuries after Paul’s letters on unceasing prayer for all, a famous monk modified his views about the accessibility of meditation. Originally Thomas Merton considered meditation or contemplation so difficult few would ever progress in it. Merton thought the practice of contem¬plation, the simple prayer of presence, should be restricted to the professed religious in contemplative orders. Later in his published works Merton qualified his position. He raised the possibility of meditation being available for everyone. Merton had come to see that contemplation was not a professional exercise for professionals. Instead Merton realized that mental prayer was a personal experience to be authenticated.

Thomas Merton’s biographer describes his changed views on prayer this way:

. . . He saw now that, definitions apart, contemplation could only be made real to others when it was demonstrated in a life. Contemplation and living drew closer together. It was more urgent than ever to free both of self- awareness. . . . He saw more and more clearly that it was the lived life, not the written life, that should be contemplative. . . . Out of prayerful meditation upon emptiness would come a sense of intimate relationship with God, a God free of the limits of concept.

To be free of self-awareness and to be present in faith to ‘a God free of the limits of concept’ were words that John Main might have written. As for Merton he was using the ‘Jesus Prayer’ eleven years before his death. At the beginning of 1966, Merton, who seldom described his own prayer, wrote to an Eastern friend:

Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centred entirely on attention to the presence of God. . . . Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind that would be a kind of idolatry. … It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible.

Still later, by 1968, according to his biographer, ‘Thomas Merton had become an existential contemplative. This meant only that he had discovered the authentic journey and much of it would have to be made in silence.’ And so, near the end, Merton was moving in the spirit of his prayer to his patroness, Our Lady of Carmel, ‘Teach me to go to the country beyond words and beyond names.’ In Ealing in 1975 John Main’s prayer groups were in ‘the country beyond words and beyond names’.

In the autumn of 1977, at the invitation of Bishop Leonard Crowley, Dom John Main and a Benedictine associate, Laur¬ence Freeman, left Ealing to establish a monastery in Montreal. Soon would-be meditators from a broad spectrum – store clerks, professors, businessmen, students, artists – came to the monastery in an old historic house in an inner suburb of Montreal. So strong was the response that in two years the monastery moved to more spacious quarters, an estate in the city’s centre on the slopes of Mount Royal Park overlooking Montreal and the St Lawrence River.

Dom John Main did not fear that city life need distort monastic values. Rather he felt urban pressures would simplify monastic life: ‘This was so because the world, in a small way, was coming to us, and its mobility, joined creatively with our stability, was to form a new kind of cloister

. . . with a spiritual continuum below the world’s restlessness.’ John Main saw the monastery and the prayer groups as vital spiritual cells of stability and simplicity:

There is no way any society can achieve internal harmony or belief in its own meaning without such centres of spiri¬tual simplicity and commitment operating in peace and seriousness out of resources that are beyond social control. . . . More and more the monastery will fulfil its prophetic role by living in the cities where the experience of community and spirit are all but lost. There, in these modern deserts, it will bloom by the proof of the power of faith and absolute generosity to achieve the impossible in liberty of spirit.

By the autumn of 1982 prayer groups had formed in Montreal and Quebec, spread through the other provinces of Canada, in Europe, Africa and South America, in the United States and in England and Ireland which Dom John tried to visit each summer. Thousands of other people (many of whom would never meet John Main) had become serious twice-daily meditators by listening to his tapes and reading his books such as Word Into Silence and Letters from the Heart.

These prayer groups and their meditators were a cross section of the population. Some were Christians; others were not. Some Catholics; others not. An Anglican bishop from Ontario meditated. So did students of Eastern religion. A journalist covering the carnage in Beirut meditated when he could. So did a woman doctor, a member of the Irish Medical Missionaries of Mary, who was attached to a nomadic tribe in Africa. A Sanskrit scholar meditates with her husband in London. A meditator, originally from Holland, organized a weekly meditation group for senior citizens in Montreal. A woman musician and a bio-chemist lead a group in New Zealand. A Protestant Minister and his wife formed a group in New York City, as did a writer and his wife, the manager of an art gallery, in Boston. And so it goes on, an actor in London, an English professor at Harvard, a radio broadcaster in Montreal, a nun working with orphans in Honduras, a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in Canada, a student of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an editor in New York, a calligrapher and a violinist in Montreal.

Father John tried to keep in touch with all the meditators through a newsletter he wrote, which was published about four times yearly at the Montreal monastery. In these letters he never minced words about the efficacy of the prayer- tradition he lived by and wrote about. If some objected to the claims he made for Christian meditation, Dom John did not then dilute the teaching: ‘If I seem to be intolerant of other ways it is not because I wish to dismiss other ways or traditions. It is only because the faith I have in this monastic way and tradition is a loving and urgent one.’

Urgent. It was an apt word to describe Father John’s later years. He had always seen the basic Christian paradox as the losing of one’s life to find it. It is impossible to resolve a paradox. One can only transcend it – through the power of love at the human level, through meditation at the divine. In speaking of this – losing one’s life to find it, transcendence, the power of love – Father John wrote to all the meditators, ‘I feel a great sense of urgency to share this with all of you.’ This sense of urgency became more acute after the autumn of 1979. At that time the doctors operated on Father John for cancer. The operation appeared to be successful. But the cancer reappeared. In the summer of 1982, John Main was getting about his monastery in a wheel chair. The cancer was spreading rapidly.

About five months after John Main’s death, on 30 December 1982, a meditator wrote about his future biography:

Sometimes I felt he was so far ahead that it was discour- aging for those of us who were still struggling at a lower stage. Often I felt I would have preferred his letters if he would say something of the struggle – his struggle which he must have experienced from time to time. I guess what I am trying to say … is that I hope . . . you can present not just the finished product, as it were, but something of the man and his struggles.

For example, in my last talk with him, I said it must be very difficult on the one hand to have people who adored him and, on the other, a constant battle with pain. To which he replied, ‘It is all in the Lord.’

I think I know what he meant but it is a high stage of spiritual development and I would like to know more about how he got there.

In the Stillness Dancing is about the man and his struggles and something of how he got there.

1. Beginnings in Ballinskelligs

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 thirty-four, 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.

The journey began at 12 Egerton Gardens, Hendon in London where he was born on 21 January 1926. His father, David Patrick Main, had been born in 1893 in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, on the southern coast of Ireland where he worked as a ‘cable telegraphist’ for the Western Union Company. His grandfather, also David Patrick, had arrived from Scotland to become superintendent of the first trans-atlantic cable station established near Ballinskelligs in 1866. After he retired from the cable station John Main’s grand­father helped build a hotel, called Main’s Hotel. For many years, Main was the important name in Ballinskelligs. Besides the hotel the Mains ran a grocery store, a post office, a fleet of boats and chauffeured cars for the tourists. Unhappily for his own fortunes, Main’s Hotel was not left to John’s father but to an older brother.

His mother, Eileen Hurley, born in Moat, County Meath in 1887, was six years older than her future husband, David Main. It was through his mother that he acquired a famous ancestor, the Irish nationalist, author and journalist, Charles J. Kickham, born in 1828. A description of Kickham fits his descendant: ‘keen, piercing eyes, which had a strange power of reading one’s very thought. . . .’ In his most popular novel, Knocknagow, written a year before his death in 1882, Charles Kickham wrote: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth enthusiasm.’ It was an epitaph that described the lives of Eileen Hurley and her son.

After her education in Moat, Eileen went to Belgium for finishing school and later became a nurse. It was as a nurse that she, then 32, first met her future husband. In 1919 David Main, aged 26, was in bed with influenza. Eileen had gone to Ballinskelligs to help in the influenza epidemic. She was small, blondish, pretty and refined. Almost immediately David Main fell in love with his new nurse. But there was a problem. Eileen Hurley was engaged to another man. David said that would not make any difference. And it did not. David simply told Eileen to break her engagement. He even suggested that she do this at the Metropole Hotel in Cork and he went along to make certain there were no slip-ups. There were none.

Then David took his bride-to-be to Roach’s jewellery store to purchase an engagement ring. ‘Mickey’ Roach was aston- ished to see Eileen accept a second ring from another man. But David Main was never one to waste time. He and Eileen Hurley, the future parents of six children, were married at St Peter and St Paul’s Church in the city of Cork on 7 February 1920. After their marriage David and Eileen spent only a short time in Ballinskelligs where, as the mountains of Kerry slope into the sea, the Skelligs Rocks rise off the shore, the site of one of the most spectacular and ancient monastic communities in Europe, a community that would exert an influence on John Main’s life. Then, in the early 1920s after the birth of their first daughter Kitty, on 10 November 1920, Western Union transferred David Main from Ballinskelligs to London.

During their first three years in London, David and Eileen had two more children, Ian in 1922 and Yvonne in 1924. Then came Douglas, with a quick and easy birth, on 21 January 1926. Ten days later he was baptized Douglas William Victor at Our Lady of Sorrows, Egerton Gardens, Hendon, the Main’s parish church. William and Victor were after his two uncles, his father’s brothers. But where did ‘Douglas’ come from? Apparently his Aunt Ethel, his father’s sister, was reading a book whose protagonist was called ‘Douglas’. When the baby was born earlier than expected Aunt Ethel cast about for a third name. So Douglas William Victor it was (the name John only when he became a monk). After Douglas in 1926, came two more children, Diane two years later and Allan Patrick in 1929.

A new city, another position with Western Union and six children in the space of nine years meant a bustling Main household. David Main was a strong disciplinarian with an explosive temper that sometimes frightened his children. He was a man’s man with an eye for pretty women. He would waltz into the Main’s post office at Ballinskelligs, singing ‘Home Sweet Home’ at the top of his fine musical voice, and kiss the first good-looking young woman he saw. Then he would go home and tell Eileen all about it.

David Main was a man whom most men liked and most women found attractive. He played tennis, golf and billiards and, despite a slight limp, he was usually dressed to the nines and cut a dapper figure about London, Belfast, and later Dublin. He never allowed the mundane to interfere with his polished appearance. If Eileen wanted a pound of sausages, David had them carefully wrapped, not in a greasy brown bag, but inside his gleaming brief-case. When he travelled he sold Irish sweep tickets on the side. His family was never in want but money was sometimes scarce. Despite the fact he was in some ways unpredictable and quick-tempered, David Main loved his family. They loved him and they shared fun together. Every summer there was a family holiday. Once David hired a man and his lorry to transport the Main family, all eight of them, around Sussex. This time the lorry was parked near a travelling circus. Perhaps intrigued by the Main menagerie, a giraffe stuck its head into the back of the lorry. Whereupon David Main instructed the lorry driver to avoid the police at all costs lest the whole kit and caboodle be charged with running an over-loaded and illegal transport service.

David Main was a born actor. Once his constituency Member of Parliament was making a speech filled with the usual political cliches. At the end of the speech, David Main jumped up and demanded a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to a very convoluted question. The puzzled parliamentarian confessed, ‘I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.’ Whereupon Main stood up again to accuse the poor man of stonewalling. The crowd burst into laughter and cheers. David Main had turned a dull evening into an exciting event. It was a lesson Douglas learned well: to make an adventure from the humdrum. On another occasion in his own drawing room in London, David interrupted a discussion on George Bernard Shaw, about whom he knew little, with the remark, ‘Ah yes, Shaw. Of course, he was quite an unknown quantity, you know.’ The guests, some of whom knew a lot about Shaw, were stunned. But Douglas who was present saw the moral of the story at once. Lack of knowledge was not fatal. Self- confidence was the thing. Later Douglas, who once described his father as ‘a wild Irishman with a mop of black curly hair’, would often use self-confidence and braggadocio to highlight a humorous situation.

There’s no doubt David Main had self-confidence to burn. He burned it selling sweepstake tickets (typically he gave that up once they were legalized), he burned it at the race-track and he burned it in shaky business transactions. As a respite from these and the constrictions of raising a large family on modest resources, David Main liked nothing better than to get back to Ballinskelligs (a liking not shared by his wife) and chew over the local news in Gaelic with his buddies in Kerry. The stories and the Irish whiskey were a potent brew for the ‘schanachies’ (Irish story-tellers) as they spun their tales around the bar of Main’s Hotel in Ballinskelligs. In another emanation David Main would have made a splendid character actor (as indeed would his son, Douglas). As a family man, however, David, in some ways, was ‘a street angel and a house divil’.

Whatever the hullabaloo, Eileen Hurley Main never seemed to lose her composure. She was quiet, gentle and very Irish. She shared with her husband a strong Catholic faith. In religious practice, however, Eileen never insisted on the letter of the law, for example, not eating meat on Friday if the meat would then go bad. Eileen said God was more concerned with the waste than he was with the rule. She worried about people down on their luck. She called them ‘waifs and strays’ and more often than not (usually after a telephone call from the local parish priest) Eileen would invite a ‘waif’ or a ‘stray’ in for a meal, maybe to stay the night or longer.

There was the time the wife of an official of the famous Raffle’s Hotel in Singapore showed up on her door step in London. Eileen knew the woman had a drinking problem. She invited her in, gave her a good meal, then ensconced her in the master Main bedroom for the night. Sometime after midnight David Main arrived home unexpectedly. Naturally thinking he would find his wife in bed he bustled into the master-bedroom, threw back the covers and discovered instead the wife of an official of Raffle’s Hotel. ‘My God, woman, what are you doing?’ he shrieked. Eileen merely laughed. ‘When you have a guest in the house,’ she said, ‘you give the guest nothing but the best.’ It was a custom Douglas never forgot.

David Main usually knew better than to argue with his wife. Later Douglas would call his mother ‘the gentle persuader’. She normally got her way without losing her temper. She was easy-going, more reticent than the Mains, sometimes living in a kind of dream world. When one of her children said, ‘I’d like to dye my hair,’ Eileen did not say ‘No!!’ She asked, ‘What colour?’ When the children played hide-and-seek it didn’t fuss her to find one in her laundry hamper. She just put the lid back down. Sunday night was family night at the Main household, not just for the Mains but for half the families in the neighbourhood. David Main had a fine singing voice. He wanted everybody to sing. What’s more he ordered them to. There were games. People wrote down a subject for a one-minute speech. Then the topics were drawn from a hat. Douglas’ older brother, Ian, was outraged when he drew the topic suggested by Douglas, ‘Early Byzan- tine Architecture’. Even at this time, aged seven or eight, no one was quite certain how seriously to take Douglas. Throughout his life, Douglas had fun with exaggeration and hyperbole. His sisters and surviving brother still remember, aghast, ‘the lies he used to tell’.

There was a mischievous side to Douglas. Once he and a group of his friends visited a local cemetery. Douglas noticed that some graves had flowers, others did not. He suggested they redistribute all the flowers. They did. Playing ‘doctors and nurses’ with his older sister, Yvonne, about to have her leg ‘amputated’, Douglas would say, ‘Don’t worry, Madame, this knife is quite blunt.’ Sometimes Douglas would entertain guests while his mother made tea. Once he startled a north London matron by asking, ‘What do you think of the Abyssi­nian question?’ From his parents’ marriage, not romantic, volatile at times, but built on a solid bond between two complementary personalities, Douglas first experienced the warmth of human love.

But even in these early years there was another side to Douglas: quiet, shy, introspective and religious. From his father, accurate and pragmatic, Douglas acquired his precision. From his mother, spiritual, more of a dreamer, Douglas gained his insight into religious values and his imaginative flair. From the beginning there was a strong bond between Douglas and Eileen. She had immense influence on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was proud of his mother. Much later he would join clubs in various cities. One of the reasons was so that he could take Eileen dining in style.

Others noticed this close bond between Douglas and Eileen and also his quiet, reflective side. An older relative described Douglas at seven or eight:

He was, I thought, a very quiet and serious little lad but he always seemed to be making a study of people. Maybe this is why he was such a good mimic. . . . Maybe his appearance as a serious child was all part of the act. . . . Douglas was always a popular child and very much so with adults. This again, I think, is because he made a great study of all.

There was also a steady religious influence in the Main home. Naturally, in a Roman Catholic family then, there was regular Mass on Sunday and prayers in the evening. The Main children, like children in many Christian homes, played ‘religious’ games. Douglas and his brother, Ian, often played a game called ‘Bishops’. Although Ian was older, invariably Douglas was the bishop and Ian his assistant. Somewhat indecorously, the altar bell was sounded on a chamber pot. Douglas used to dress up as a priest with a dash of red to denote ecclesiastical rank. He made an ‘altar’ in his bedroom and his sisters were dragooned into ‘serving Mass’.

Many years later a boyhood friend saw these early religious ‘games’ as the real beginning of Douglas Main’s spiritual journey:

When he eventually made the break and went to Canada to concentrate on his meditative studies, one or two people said to me rather unkindly: ‘Typical Douglas – I always knew he would start a new religion.’ To me it was only the logical outcome of that facet of his character and forming inner self that I had seen so vividly in childhood. . . . Early in his life I was privileged to see on an intimate basis what was later to develop so strongly. He never really changed. From his childhood his later life was inevitable.

1 Comment »

  1. 1
    Rudolf Says:

    This is a great site Ty! Lots of people will benefit from it and you’re saving life everytime. Brilliant.

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