Tuesday Writing Conversation: Beginning in Montreal

For this week’s Writing Conversation, and to mark the publishing of a new limited-edition of In the Stillness Dancing —the journey of John Main, we are putting up this extract. This is chapter 11 and John Main has reached the point of establishing an entirely new monastery in the vital North American city of Montreal — at that time a city and society going through politically tumultuous times with the rise of Quebecois nationalism right into government and the ongoing cultural aftershocks of the 1960’s.

‘The whole thing here is a complete leap in the dark.’ That was how Father John described the Montreal project, and that was literally how it began. After their flight from London, Father John and Brother Laurence Freeman arrived in the evening at Mirabel Airport outside Montreal, in the rain and in the dark. The man who had so much to do with their coming, Bishop Leonard Crowley, was at the airport to meet them.

The meeting almost ended in a fiasco. Father John had left Ealing in a rush. T-shirts had been jammed into a bulging brief-case secured with the only fastener at hand, the belt from his trousers. This precarious arrangement withstood the pressures of the transatlantic flight. Unfortunately, at Mirabel airport, as Father John, beltless, stretched out his hand to meet his new bishop, the bulging brief-case burst open. Happily Father John’s trousers held firm; so did his remarkable composure.

He would need all his composure as he began the new enterprise in Montreal in the autumn of 1977. A week after he arrived with Brother Laurence, living as guests of the Ascension Parish in Westmount, Father John wrote to Father Michael Hall:

It is impossible to say what opportunities there will be for us or how the whole thing will take on. But basically I think the only important thing is that we are a group who want to pray together and to respond to the needs of the kingdom as they appear.

The needs of the kingdom, as they appeared, were mundane indeed. They related to the house John Main had purchased, with the Bishop’s help (virtually the only money the two Benedictines had was in their pockets) on Vendôme Avenue in the municipality of Notre-Dame-de-Grace near downtown Montreal. It was one of the historic Décarie houses, built by the descendants of Jean Décarie, who had come out from France about 1650 when Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, was trying to develop what would become the city of Montreal. But the house had fallen into a state of disrepair and there were other problems, as Father John explained to Lady Lovat about a month after arriving in Montreal: ‘ . . . we are still not able to get legal possession and wait, like orphans, on the doorstep’.

This was one of the first of many letters from Montreal to Rosamund ‘Rosie’ Lovat, a tall, reserved, regal woman with a loyal discretion that matched her generous heart. She became not only a strong supporter of the Montreal foundation but also a confidante to whom Father John turned for encouragement and reassurance. Not only her friendship but her commitment to meditation was a constant source of comfort to him: ‘I can’t tell you how delighted I was that so many of you really managed to understand the wonderful simplicity and richness of meditation. It is simply a matter of patient fidelity and a readiness for that full openness to the Lord.’

Simple but not easy. Already one of Father John’s Benedic­tine friends was having second thoughts about the project he and Father John had discussed so often. In early October 1977 Father John wrote to Father Michael Hall in Washington:

I can well understand your reservations about leaving Washington and of course I must in no way encourage you to desert what you see as your responsibilities. I understand your dilemma well because I went through the same at Ealing over the years. It may be that you will come (because the circumstances are different) to a conclusion different from mine. But whatever your decision rest assured that I will respect and understand it. Whatever you do decide I hope that you will come and visit us here from time to time.

Father John also reiterated there were no guarantees in the Montreal situation and they would not be living in the lap of luxury:

We shall be very poor! We have been given $57,000 in gifts and loans which will cover the cost of purchasing the house ($47,000) and some money for repairs and renovations. We will have to furnish from scrap and equip! We have $25,000 a year to live on, but the cost of living seems very high here and we will need to watch the way we spend. This I think will be a good thing for us all.

Bishop Crowley was responsible for the financial support of the new Benedictine foundation. The Bishop was very gratified by the generous response particularly of Quebec’s religious communities, including the French ones. Even Abbot Rossiter, at a time when Ealing could ill spare the money, sent Father John an ample donation.

On 6 December, the plumbing fixed, the deeds signed and the electricity turned on, Father John and Brother Laurence moved into the old Décarie House at 3761 Vendôme Avenue just a few yards from the busy Côte-St-Antoine road. By this time two of the young people from the lay community at Ealing, John Westby and Pat Hawes, had come to help with the move and to join, at least temporarily, the fledgling foundation. Guests began to arrive, welcomed sometimes by Father John, paint brush in hand. The first meditation group, which had met that spring with Sister Eileen Byrne at St Ignatius parish, was now joined by others. Montrealers, in slowly increasing numbers, came to ask for instruction in Christian meditation, usually given by Father John on Monday and Tuesday evenings, followed by a meditation in silence. Plans were made for a newsletter to go out to medi­tators and, after being in Vendôme less than a month, Father John was writing to Rosie Lovat about plans for her first visit and the need for more space. But there was play as well as work:

Some friends of mine came and took me off ‘snow-shoeing’ the other day — it was a sort of kidnap! But I enjoyed it immensely. We walked over a lake (frozen!) and through some pine woods, all in about three feet of snow and the deepest silence you have heard — really inspiring. I made a resolution to go snow-shoeing whenever I can.

Then, as he often did in letters to Rosie Lovat and others, Father John returned to the subject of meditation and the prayer groups:

I am delighted you have joined Fr Vincent’s group and I know that nothing will deflect you from fidelity to the simplicity of the mantra. Other teachers think it is useful to keep up the interest of the group with various things. I am sure that this is good provided it doesn’t compromise the main issue. There is really nothing to be learned — nothing to experience or anything like that. It is simply a matter of realization — we must realize who we are — in Jesus. The rest is really so much froth — but people do get a bit restless if you merely repeat, ‘Say your Mantra’, and so teachers think of all sorts of other techniques and clever things to say and so on. The only thing is to open your heart to the love of the Lord Jesus and the only way I know to do it is to be simply faithful to the mantra day by day.

Father John was writing this letter at the end of 1977. It had been a bitter-sweet year for him — the excitement of the new foundation, the sadness of leaving Ealing where he had become a Benedictine monk, been ordained a priest and where he still had many friends. He was happy, at the year’s end, to hear good news from Rosie about his old monastery:

‘I am so glad that things are going well at Ealing….It is often the case that things turn out that way. I think that my going made it possible. There is no doubt but that this is the Lord’s doing.’ ‘I think that my going made it possible’: no looking back in bitterness or regret at what might have been; but looking forward with enthusiasm to what would be.

In the first week of January 1978 he wrote to tell Michael Hall that more prayer groups would meet that week: ‘At Ealing we went from five to two hundred in six months. I hope the expansion will be somewhat slower here.’ The structure of the meetings was much the same as those at the Ealing Prayer Centre: ‘an introductory talk, music, a half-hour meditating in silence together, the raising of questions or a discussion’. Early in the new year a small group of priests began meditating. By this time Father John was able to tell Michael Hall that the daily monastic regime was gradually being put in place: ‘office, the Eucharist, work, three periods of silent meditation, recreation, music etc. No TV!’ (Although he considered recreation important, Father John had concluded that, by and large, television was damaging to community life.) He described both the joy and the difficulty of the monastic schedule:

We have now established our full round of monastic prayer and it has been a great joy to return to the regular life. . . . Of course we have our problems to get everyone entirely together, but the uniting factor is the commitment of everyone to the prayer together.

Seen here at the Vendôme priory - Laurence Freeman, the Dalai Lama, John Main.

Seen here at the Vendôme priory – Laurence Freeman, the Dalai Lama, John Main.

That relatively few people came to Vendôme in the early days did not seem to concern Father John. He never played the spiritual numbers game. Gradually more arrived to be taught Christian meditation (the Monday night talk) and to progress more deeply into it (the Tuesday night session). Before the prayer Father John spoke about meditation for about twenty minutes:

Learning to meditate is the most practical thing in the world. You require only one quality when you begin. That is seriously to want to learn to meditate. The process is absolute simplicity…. You need to find a quiet place . . . and, having found it, you sit down. . . . When you are seated and are still, you close your eyes and then begin to repeat, interiorly and silently in your heart, the word Maranatha (‘Come, Lord Jesus’). In some traditions this is called a ‘mantra’, in others, a ‘Prayer phrase’ or ‘Prayer word’ . . . [Maranatha] is an Aramaic word and its importance is both that it is one of the most ancient prayers there is and that it possesses the right sound to bring us to the silence and stillness necessary for meditation. . . . And that is all you need to know in order to meditate. You have a word, and you say your word, and you remain still.

When anyone asked Father John about progress in meditation he would reply, with a smile, that the first 20 years were the most difficult. Nor did he ever suggest, or even imply, that meditators formed some kind of spiritual elite. He once referred to a Tuesday night group (including himself) as ‘this motley crew’ and he told Michael Hall, ‘We are really a very ordinary group doing a very ordinary sort of job! As if you did not know.’ During the early months of 1978, the outlines of‘the very ordinary group’ at the Vendôme Priory were clearer. It comprised three levels: the monastic community, still only two, Father John himself and Brother Laurence Freeman; the lay community, then three young men from England and two women (a nurse, Pat Hawes, and Sister Eileen Byrne); and finally the meditation groups.

During this early period of the foundation Father John was under considerable pressure in terms of space, financing and the scarcity of monastic help. There is a hint of this in a letter to Michael Hall. Apparently some of the Benedictines in Ealing, whom Father John had been counting on, now might not come. A hint, too of the loneliness John Main occasionally felt, so far from all his old friends:

We don’t get much news from Washington. . . . Do write when you have a moment and give all your news. I hear very little from Ealing and so have little word of them. We hope that Vincent will come to join us here but the Abbot seems a little uncertain about it.

Presently Father John’s fears about manpower from Ealing were confirmed: ‘I hear from Ealing that Vincent will not now be coming, and Vincent suggests that no one will be spared. So we will have to work on that supposition.’ Father John adjusted to what must have been a major disappointment with remarkable resiliency: ‘I have cancelled all my engagements in Europe during the summer. I had thought Vincent would be here and that it would be good for him to be on his own with the group but now I must think again. I am very pleased.’

….

By the summer of 1978, Father John’s vision of the kind of community he wanted to build in Montreal was emerging. He referred to this in a letter to Rosie Lovat in July:

Our plans go ahead here and we are now coming within sight of our dream — that is a community of monks, sisters, lay community and married people and families — all joined together by meditation — obviously at different levels of commitment but each with a growing commitment.

One of the most exciting and revolutionary elements in Father John’s fresh vision of community was the role of lay people, both those living inside and outside the community itself. As the community developed so would the active participation of the laity, single or married. This would be one of Father John’s contributions to modern monasticism — a community life where, for example, the oblates (those with a special commitment to prayer and the office) were not just a passive guild of pious women but a group of people who formed an integral part of the monastic community, its prayer life and its activities, some of which they initiated. In a real sense the monastery was to be the centre of a growing family linked by strong spiritual bonds. This was a vital and developing monasticism — flexible, prayerful, vitally connected to the real world. Father John described the thrust of the Montreal experiment in Letters from the Heart:

In this society of entertainment and spiritual eclecticism, but marked, too, by so much genuine concern for a true experience of absolute value, it seemed to me that the monastic witness of the kind we were making in Montreal was of supreme importance — simply to prove to a culture built to such an extent on ‘conditional discipleship’ that only the absolute commitment can bring the liberation they seek and so often do not find.

A part of the ‘monastic witness’ in Montreal that most encouraged Father John was the number of people who came to Vendôme regularly to participate in the prayer life and share meals with the community. They formed, in a sense, an extension of the lay community. One of these was a young salesman in his twenties, Paul Lafontaine. He came to the Priory for the office and meditation three times a day and shared most of his meals with the community. He and Father John became friends, partly through their common interest in music. Paul was astonished at Father John’s appreciation and knowledge of music: ‘He was a musician’s musician, with a very good ear and a pleasing tone.’ Paul Lafontaine recounts an interesting theory Father John had developed about Baroque music:

He would point out how there existed, in Baroque music, a relationship between the musical pulsings and the duration of a breath in a human at relaxation. Thus the music corresponded to a rhythmic harmony in humans, making it suitable for relaxation, attentive appreciation and even digestion. He felt that the Haydn Symphonies and the Mozart Concertos were ideal vehicles to listen to at meal times given their structure and length, about 25 minutes.

Music, meditation, talks — Father John also made time for an extensive correspondence. An old Irish friend, Monsignor Tom Fehily, pastor of the delightfully named parish of Castle-knock-Porterstown-Clonsilla, wrote to him about organizing meditation meetings. He replied:

  1. In regards the format of your meetings, we have found that the talk time should not be more than 15 minutes and ideally only 5-7 or so. I think the rest of your format is good. Assemble — listen to talk — meditate — discuss. I think it important to stress that the discussion should not be on ‘what happened’ but on more practical things like good time, good reading, good posture, etc. etc. As regards reading. In the initial stages the less the better. Advise against getting into too many technicalities.
  2. About teaching others. As long as you are scrupulously honest and only try to teach what you know and don’t mind saying ‘I don’t know the answer to that’, I would say start a group wherever you can. You can always use some tapes for the initial stages. The important thing is to meditate. I think a weekly meeting of the group is of enormous help if it can possibly be managed.

It’s very good I think to be in touch with a Community and feel absolutely welcome to be in touch with ours. Anytime you want to write or anyone wants to come and stay (The Maple Leaf fare is quite cheap!) you will always be welcome. . . . The Community dimension is important because it does provide a point of reference for you that gives confidence to your group. This is the idea behind our newsletters. . . . Our work is expanding quite rapidly here and in all sorts of places in the world.

One of the places where the work was expanding was London, and one of the people there whose interest meant much to Father John was Diana. He was surprised to learn she had listened to his meditation tapes: ‘How strange that you should have listened to the tapes.’ He tells her he hopes to see her and her family early in 1979: ‘So you are 43. I can hardly imagine it. Of course I am nearly sixty myself!’ (This was a typical John Main exaggeration; he was in fact 52). Then he recommended a book to Diana: ‘You must read 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is a wild tale of imagination and reality that is one of the great books of all times.’ Then, as he often did with Diana, Father John described some aspect of the outdoors they both loved so much, this time an autumn tree outside the driveway of the old Décarie house on Vendôme:

It has been staggeringly beautiful here for the last weeks. A very slow Fall with the leaves getting more and more unbelievable — reality is really so much more fantastic than fantasy — or as someone said Nature does really imitate art. We have a tree at the entrance to our drive that has looked like an old lady growing gracefully and more and more beautifully old — starting with full reds going to light browns, then to golds and then to frail spun gold.

By the close of the first full year at the Vendôme Priory, the structure of the new foundation, still fragile, was becoming more firm. At the end of 1978, the Priory received its first oblate, Rosie Lovat. The big problem, as the new year began, was not lack of activity but lack of space.

After a round of talks and retreats on meditation in the early part of 1979, in England, Scotland and Ireland (where he had a short visit with his family), Father John returned home to sad news. Diana wrote to say that her father, Harry Ernaelsteen, had died. When John lived with the Ernaelsteens at the beginning of the war, he had grown fond of Diana’s father:

Harry’s death must have been so hard for you as I know how much he relied on you. I loved him very much — he was really such an important figure in my life. Only during these last days have I realized how much. I think he gave me almost all the confidence I have! Isn’t it strange and I don’t think I have known that clearly all my life. I shall always keep him in my heart and daily remember him in the Mass that meant so much to him in recent years. I think it must have been that I saw his faults clearer than my father’s, and his faults somehow made him greater in my eyes — there was something generous there that was very attractive.

It was almost forty years since Harry Ernaelsteen had told John Main he could be anybody he wanted to be, do anything he wanted to do, preferably neatly dressed. John Main had never forgotten. In her reply to his letter about her father’s death, Diana took up the notion of human faults. She did not perceive people having ‘faults’ so much as their having a continuum of qualities that would be perceived differently by different people. Nor did she think it fair to assess individual qualities; the whole man must be considered and the sum total of his contribution. As usual, John Main found Diana’s letter both stimulating and moving. He speculates about their long-lived mutual empathy and understanding. Was it owing to his mother and Diana’s grandmother meeting and becoming close friends in Belgium before World War I:

I was so delighted to get your letter and very moved as I read it. It is so curious that we share so much in spirit. Could it have been those early genetic meetings in the pre-first-World-War Brussels that gave us such an affinity? But whatever it is it is extraordinary.

Perhaps it was environment — a people is made a people by its early memory — and I suppose we were both in our own way affected by those brief years or was it months in W.G.C. [Welwyn Garden City].

Whatever the explanation, the affection of those teen-aged years at W.G.C. ripened into love and then into a selfless service to others, Diana, a doctor in the practice of healing, John, a monk teaching meditation, a service that subsumed their own love but did not extinguish it.

During these early months trying to develop the community at Vendôme nothing gave Father John more encouragement and stimulus than hearing about meditation groups elsewhere. He wrote to Rosie Lovat responding to some of her questions about prayer:

Your union and communion ideas are perfectly sound, ‘How can you say you love God who you cannot see if you do not love your neighbour who you can see?’ (St John).

Love of neighbour is the perfect preparation for prayer (loss of self in God) and prayer is the perfect preparation for love of neighbour (loss of self in others). It is sternness and the ability to encounter it without fear that is the beginning of love.

Then he referred to one of his favourite thoughts from Teilhard de Chardin: ‘Union differentiates . . . the more we love (ourselves) in the other the more we become ourselves.’ He also told Rosie about the Anglican bishop, Henry Hill, who would later join the community and become another of its first oblates: ‘We had a delightful Anglican bishop with us for nearly three weeks — the Bishop of Ontario. He fitted in perfectly and loved meditating with us four times a day’:

The wonderful thing about meditation is that it prevents all fooling around with religion. If you really want to say your mantra then you can harbour [no] resentment and irritation in your heart. That is not to say that you won’t feel it! At least from time to time — but as soon as it presents itself it must be banished. The beauty of it is that it is banished not by our will but by God’s Love.

Father John had enjoyed good health in Montreal. But a medical problem emerged in the late summer of 1979. After giving a retreat to the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame at Mabu in Nova Scotia, followed by a brief sea-shore holiday, he returned to the Priory. He first noticed pains in his lower abdomen in September. They became worse. A doctor at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital diagnosed cancer of the upper bowel.

It was decided to operate immediately. Father John wanted to tell some of his closest friends himself. He telephoned Rosie Lovat at her home in Scotland and followed the call with a letter:

How lovely it was talking to you on the ‘phone’. I was so sorry to give you bad news but I didn’t want you just to hear it third-hand.

It is apparently quite a serious operation — the doctors say — serious but not grave!! [No matter what the circumstances Father John could seldom resist his proclivity for punning].

. . . It’s strange how suddenly this illness has developed! I haven’t quite got used to the idea of it yet. But I feel very calm and am totally open to God’s will whether it be life or death. I hope I will be able to say the mantra throughout the uncomfortable bits of it. Keep me in your heart.

The beauty of meditation is the real simplicity it leads you to — a real capacity to respond to what IS.

The doctors operated on 9 October. They pronounced the operation a complete success. One person, who had been increasingly concerned by Father John’s long silence, was Diana in Welwyn Garden City, then practising community paediatrics in Hertfordshire:

Douglas had not written for a long while. I found myself awake several nights running, acutely anxious about him and with him in my thoughts I then wrote a (relatively) angry letter, in funny vein, saying that only a brain tumour would do as an excuse for not writing.

Although he was just out of hospital, Father John replied by post-card:

Dearest Diana,

This is just to give you a bad conscience!! But not too bad!! But I am just recovering (2 days out of hospital) from major surgery. Was quite ill for a few weeks. Growth in bowel — seems to be a great success — no infection in lymph nodes. Will write as soon as I am stronger. Much love. Douglas.

He then added a typical remark, ‘Really enjoyed your letter. Sorry I can’t match the invective!’ In response to this card, and for the first and only time, Diana telephoned Father John in Montreal:

I got through to him immediately and his feelings, usually so carefully covered (indeed virtually always) were revealed by a strained voice, ‘So you do care after all.’ He made light of the hard times in his life and wrote of the successes and highlights.

Unfortunately, because he was still recuperating, Father John was unable to attend one of the ‘highlights’ of 1979, Brother Laurence Freeman’s solemn profession as a Benedictine. Bishop Crowley was present as, indeed, was Abbot Rossiter who made the long journey from England. The Abbot visited Father John, whose doctors advised him to spend a few weeks in the warm South to regain his strength. Just before leaving Father John wrote to Diana for her birthday:

Forgive my prolonged silence, but I have put all my energy into recovering from the surgery. It seems to have worked. I am now back to full health! Blood – all sets of tests — including haemo or is it heamo-globins or whatever, all counting perfectly, pressure fine and weight back to a somewhat portly 190 lbs which is what it always has been for several years now.

So in the first week of January 1980, Father John, accompanied by Brother Laurence, flew to the Bahamas, to stay at St Augustine’s Benedictine Monastery in Nassau for a month. It was a sunny way to leave the shadow of illness, and as he stood on a hilltop in the sunshine looking out at the sea, Father John, now sporting a light grey beard could feel his health swiftly reviving. And, as he wrote to Rosie Lovat, he enjoyed the sea and the sun: ‘It is quite lovely here. Very silent — very remote from the tourist part. A small Community (no one over five feet) but very friendly and welcoming.’

Still there was work to do. While Brother Laurence did the editing, Father John wrote the Introduction to the first series of Newsletters from the Priory, later published as Letters from the Heart. And he wrote to Rosie about one of his basic themes, the distinction between illusion and reality:

There is the true self (Atman) which is Christ, in him, with him and through him we are in God (Brahman). There is the false self (Ego) which has no reality and does not exist — it is only illusion. The false self burns away and gives way to the true self in the fire of Divine Love who is Christ. ‘My me is God; neither do I know myself save in him’ (Catherine of Genoa). In other words there is only God — he is the one supreme reality. We can only know him with his own self-knowledge which is the life of the Trinity. Our intention is to leave illusion — to leave unreality — God’s call is to leave the ‘I’ and become ‘me’. We must all become ‘me’. I hope that clarifies rather than obfuscates.

After what he described as ‘a splendid rest’, Father John and Laurence returned to Vendôme to an intense round of engagements. They flew to Victoria, British Columbia, at the invitation of Bishop Remi de Roo to give a week’s series of talks in the cathedral. The crowds were large and enthusiastic. Back home the whole community was busy preparing for Laurence’s ordination. As Father John wrote to Rosie: ‘Laurence is really very excited but playing it cool!’ In June in the lovely chapel of the motherhouse of the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, Bishop Leonard Crowley ordained Laurence Freeman OSB to the priesthood. This was the climax of Laurence’s successful studies in theology at the University of Montreal.

At this time too Father John’s writings on meditation were having a wider influence. He explained to Rosie:

I had a lovely letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury saying how much he had enjoyed ‘The Other Centeredness of Mary’. He said that he was due to preach at Walsingham soon and that it had stimulated him in preparing his sermon. It was a very warm and friendly letter.

Now it was time for Father John’s usual trip overseas to give retreats, days of recollection, talks to meditation groups and enjoy a brief visit with his family in Ireland. He wrote to Rosie in July:

Kylemore Abbey where I gave the first retreat is a lovely place. The nuns were very delightful — very simple like children some of them. One of them said to me ‘And where Father did you get that grand English accent and coming from the depths of the County Kerry?!’

Some of them I think got the message of meditation but by no means all. I am now with a group of Dominican Sisters and I have the impression that they may be more on the wave-length.

Still, his expectations were modest:

Ireland was damply beautiful and I enjoyed the two retreats which were really restful for me. In each of the Communities there were two or three who really understood and who will tread the pilgrimage to the end. This is a great grace.

After his return to Montreal in mid-July, the Priory was inundated with guests. If some tried his patience, they did not squelch his humour. He told Rosie, ‘We are full of guests and I have to spend much time with them as they are all so anxious for an immediate encounter with the Absolute!’ There is also a word about suffering:

. . . let me tell you what I feel about suffering. There are situations in life that are so unbearable that only terrible violence seems able to bring relief and deliverance. The Cross itself is the archetypal instance. When such violence seizes hold of people they act only out of the narrowness of their violence and not out of the fullness of their humanity. Hence the ‘Father forgive them they know not what they do’.

Forgiving really does mean unremembering – letting go all remembrance of the violence and allowing only the full humanity to be.

At the same time he was writing to Rosie Lovat, Father John was also keeping up a large correspondence with other meditators around the world. He wrote to one in Ireland:

I am so delighted to hear that meditation has meant so much to you. There is great healing in it. As you become more quiet and go deeper into the mystery of God you begin to understand that the mystery is of the infinite depths of the Divine Love which is absolutely all-sufficing. You begin to understand that you don’t have to live out of your own limited resources but out of the infinite compassion of God.

And with typical John Main enthusiasm he added, ‘Isn’t it absolutely wonderful!’

What was also ‘absolutely wonderful’, at a different level, was the news about a new site for the Priory (which the previous summer had transferred its affiliation from Ealing to Mount Saviour in New York State.) With the assistance of Montreal businessman, Jean Prieur, Father John started to search for a larger property. Then, almost miraculously, came the possibility of acquiring one of the most spectacular mansions in a city famous for them.

The story of how the McConnell estate became the Benedictine Priory is an astonishing one. On his way back from a trip to England, Father Laurence met a middle-aged couple on their way to Montreal. They seemed interested in meditation so he told them about the Priory. Later, their daughter spoke about Father John and meditation to a friend, David Laing, son of Mrs Peter (Kit) Laing who, in turn, was the daughter of the late J. W. McConnell, a prominent Montrealer who had once owned one of Canada’s most respected newspapers, the Montreal Star.

David Laing, an engaging young man with nervous prob­lems, began going to the Priory to meditate. Later he had several discussions with Father John who gave him some clear-cut advice. David learned that the Priory desperately needed more space. He casually remarked to Father John that his family owned a house in downtown Montreal. (Jean Prieur had also learned that the house was available.) Just as casually Father John went with David Laing to look at the house with its palatial terraces, turrets, court yards and tennis courts. It was situated in a wooded estate above Pine Avenue half-way up the magnificent Mount Royal with a breathtaking view of Montreal down to the St Lawrence River and beyond to the green hills of Vermont. This was the McConnell mansion (with its eighteen bedrooms and a spacious coachhouse), one of the half dozen most celebrated homes in Montreal.

Father John realized immediately the house would be ideal as a Priory because of its secluded environs and central location. But was it a real possibility? Father John invited ‘Kit’ Laing for tea at Vendôme. To his delight and surprise (the McConnells were from a staunch Protestant background), he learned that ‘Kit’ Laing favoured her old home (now used mainly for social events) becoming a Benedictine Priory. But she was just one member (albeit the president) of the foundation that controlled the estate. What would they say? In their discussions one gentleman asked Father John, ‘And how long have you been around?’ ‘About 1,500 years,’ Father John replied.

Then he wrote to Rosie to explain another difficulty raised by the foundation, though one not shared by ‘Kit’ Laing herself:

Out of the blue we have been offered a very large house on Pine Avenue (downtown) as a gift. Unfortunately they were about to sell the gardens for a considerable sum to a developer. As this would make the house useless for us I told them that I couldn’t really accept the House for the Community unless they gave me the land too! They are now considering this and I am waiting to hear from them. It would be a very good interim solution.

It was a risky response. No grounds, no house. But it revealed more about John Main than it did about houses. He knew what he wanted. And whether it was a house or a commitment to meditation he wanted all or nothing. The risk was worth it. The McConnell mansion, grounds and all (including even the butler) became a Benedictine Priory in June. The plans were to move in during the fall. After so much excitement over the new house, Father John went off in early September to give a meditation retreat in St Louis, Missouri, where ‘the weather was hot — 100 degrees F. each day’. For someone who had never been that keen on sport, he took drastic measures to cool off:

After [the retreat] was over I went down to visit some friends in Southern Missouri who have a lovely house on the North Fork River, a tributary of the Missouri River. While there I did some white water canoeing! It was great fun shooting the rapids at high speed — we only came out once! You soon learn at that speed.

Shortly after his return to the Priory from St Louis, Father John was delighted to welcome a new member to the monastic community. Paul Geraghty, a young solicitor, 26 years old, from Liverpool, had spent about six months at the Vendôme Priory in 1978. For some years he had been thinking of the monastic life. As early as 1975 Paul had gone to see Abbot Francis Rossiter at Ealing. The Abbot suggested he talk with Father John who was guest-master at the time. Later, in 1975, Paul joined Father John’s meditation groups at Ealing. After his stay at Vendôme in 1978, he returned to Liverpool to practise law, then, when family responsibilities permitted, he returned in October 1980, a shy, extremely capable and like­able young man, a solid addition to the monastic community. He arrived just in time for the big move and also to help welcome the most notable visitor of the year, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists.

Father John, who had done so much to enrich the prayer life of the West by his personal experience of prayer in the East, was delighted to invite the Dalai Lama, while on a Canadian tour, to the Benedictine Priory. He was also pleased that the Dalai Lama and most of his entourage shared the mid-day Office, responded to the prayers and meditated with the community for half an hour in silence. For Father John, this silent prayer of those from the East with their brothers and sisters of the West, had profound significance:

We meditated together in absolute openness to love and to the Lord of love. We were not trying to convert one another. Our challenge as Christians is not to try to convert people around us to our way of belief but to love them, to be ourselves living incarnations of what we believe, to live what we believe and to love what we believe.

There was only one jarring note. As Father John walked out of the meditation room after the half hour of silence one of the Dalai Lama’s security people, a worried look on his face, grabbed his arm and asked warily, ‘Say, what was going on in there?’

After the visit of the Dalai Lama, all hands were mobilized to help with the move. Rosie Lovat was planning to come over for a visit (as she usually did a couple of times a year). Father John wrote to her:

Just to let you know that the donation of the house is now complete. The Board met last week and confirmed that they would give us everything – house, land and furnishings. They have given us November 1st as our date of entry. So you will be able to be with us as we start this new chapter in our history.

The beginning of ‘this new chapter in our history’, the move itself, helped by many friends from the Priory, went off smoothly and was embellished by a typical John Main inci­dent. Father John, like the lay community and other helpers, was wearing working clothes. A man living nearby was watching this moving crew in action. He asked whom they worked for. Father John replied, ‘The National Moving Company.’ Could they move a sideboard to his nearby home in Westmount? They could and they did. Could they move another piece of furniture downstairs? Father John replied they had to get back for Vespers (‘which apparently he thought were some kind of Italian motorcycle’).

So by early November, the Benedictine ‘National Moving Company’ had the community ensconced in its new Priory on Pine Avenue. By now three monastic novices, including two Americans, had joined. It had been a busy and fruitful year for the Montreal Priory,

Early in 1981 Father Laurence went for an extended trip to visit and encourage the prayer groups overseas. He stopped in Germany to speak with other meditation groups on his way home. Father John went to California (one of his favourite places) in February to speak to his largest crowd ever. He refers to this in a letter to Diana:

I have been postponing writing to you so that I could send you a worthy closely argued treatise on reflections on life now that I am in the mid-fifties! But in case I never get around to that I am sending you this brief bearer of loving tidings.

Life has been full. Had my first experience of talking to a large crowd — 8,000 — in the Anaheim Convention Centre outside Los Angeles. After that took part in some ‘conventions’ in San Diego. I can’t understand why everyone in the world doesn’t live it up in Southern California.

In the spring Father John’s book, Word Into Silence, a compendium of his essential teaching, was published. He continued to give the Monday and Tuesday evening talks which the Priory was now beginning to distribute in cassette form under the title, ‘The Communitas Series’. He also kept up his correspondence. Rosie Lovat had asked Father John about words like ‘empathy’ and ‘surrender’. He preferred

empathy more than surrender. Empathy is perfect reci­procity — our dear and courteous Lord invites us to this. Surrender suggests a power of struggle but the essence is pure gift — God gives himself to us and we enter into the fullness of his gift — this is empathy. It puts God and ourselves in a much truer light than surrender — surrender seems to lessen the marvel of his courtesy. . . .

At the end of course it is all words — but some words reflect the reality a little more clearly — empathy is a bit better than surrender. . . .

I hope I have answered all your questions. Oh yes, there must be no desire for God — rest in him — do not want to possess him. Be still. Desire is not in itself desirable. Desire suggests distance. Jesus tells us that he is with us. More words of course but desire for God is a confusing concept. Realize do not desire.

Then Father John added: ‘In the spiritual journey there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female — only the Lord God and those he loves.’ Which was another reason he was so pleased with the first Holy Week services at the Pine Avenue Priory:

On Good Friday for the first time an Anglican Bishop presided at the Liturgy of the Word and the Veneration of the Cross and then I presided at the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We had broken Henry Hill into the Liturgical Function when he helped with the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. A very inspiring time.

After Easter Father John made plans for his June trip overseas and wrote to Rosie again, trying to explain one of his favourite distinctions:

About illusions and reality. I think the truth goes something like this. Of course you are right. Reality is everywhere — we have no monopoly of it in Montreal. What I think may be the case, however, is that reality comes in to somewhat sharper focus when you tread the path with the sort of attention we are blessed to enjoy here. It is not only the quiet of the place but the single-mindedness of all those who are here and who come here. Does that sound reasonable?

After his trip to Ireland and a busy summer at the Priory, Father John took a few days in October with the Davitts, at their place on Cape Cod. From there he wrote to Rosie:

I am away in Cotuit on Cape Cod and really enjoying a week of complete change and rest. It is beautiful weather — frosty mornings and bright sunny afternoons with the magnificent Fall foliage brilliant in the sunshine. Yesterday I was on Nantucket Island for the day.

In November Father John wrote to tell Diana of the progress of the Montreal foundation:

Our work is expanding every week and we are kept busy. Yesterday we had the entire Anglican Hierarchy of four Archbishops and 40 bishops with us for the afternoon. Today we have 14 High School kids from Ontario and the next day a group of Buddhists from Vermont USA!! We are truly catholic.

There is no doubt the Community in Montreal, less than four years old, was thriving on a number of levels. But with the progress and the success there were problems and difficulties. Some of these could be traced to the personality and leader­ship of John Main himself.

The end of chapter 11.

—–

The new edition of In the Stillness Dancing — the Journey of John Main is available to pre-order. Send an email to linesarestillblazing@gmail.com to reserve a copy.

 cover

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: