Archive for the ‘Christian Meditation’ Category

Neil interviewed about John Main

January 26, 2017

Click below to hear Neil talking to Joe Cannon about In Stillness Dancing — the journey of John Main.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3 – sound quality not perfect for this part.

Part 4


December 31, 2016

After many requests, here again is Neil on a different format, on the other side (No, not the force!) but the other side of the microphone on a personal level.

Here are two videos of Neil.

”Amazing privilege to have shared nearly 40 years together.  Remembering with gratefulness and joy.  What a guy!”  Catharine

”Neil McKenty was one of the most complicated and interesting men who ever lived.  For much of his life he wrestled with demons, but through it all he had a great capacity for friendship”  Daniel Freedman


November 23, 2016

A Special Treat.

An inside look at Neil McKenty in his home talking about his career and his life in general with his wife Catharine, for the show Park Avenue Metro on CFCF-12 .

Tuesday Irish photo

May 24, 2016

Here we are at Trinity College in Dublin where we did a video conversation about John Main. The setting was appropriate because John Main had taught law at Trinity – and much later Neil McKenty’s biography of John Main was launched here.

Trinity College, Dublin

In front of a lilac in bloom in the quad at Trinity, from left to right: Rosemary and Richard Rice; Catharine McKenty; and Michael Lane.

Tuesday Writing Conversation: “civilised, sophisticated, roguish, Irish…”

May 2, 2016

An early review of In The Stillness Dancing: The Journey of John Main by Neil McKenty.

“…an attractive and indeed inspiring account of Main’s intriguing personality and interesting life…

The author gives a full account of John Main’s method, and an engaging picture of the man: civilised, sophisticated, roguish, Irish, yet with an essential spiritual solitariness. It is a fine introduction to a stimulating teacher…”
The Church Times, U.K.


Today we are celebrating the new edition of In The Stillness Dancing being released by

Journalist, soldier, barrister and Benedictine monk, John Main’s spiritual odyssey was a deep seated quest for an authentic life of prayer. The door finally opened when he met an Indian swami who taught him to meditate using a mantra, only to close again when he entered the Benedictine noviciate and adopted a more traditional form of prayer.
Long after ordination in 1963, John Main discovered that the form of prayer advocated by the swami already existed within the mainstream of Western Christianity but had fallen into disuse. From then on, he was to devote his life to restoring this form of christian meditation to its rightful place within the Church. His work began with the foundation of a meditation centre at Ealing Abbey in London and led, some years later, to the foundation of the Benedictine Priory of Montreal and the establishment of a worldwide spiritual family linked through the daily practice of meditation.
Neil McKenty paints an attractive portrait of this compelling Irish monk whose teaching and writing on meditation were to transform the lives of thousands of men and women.

Click below to hear Neil being interviewed about John Main

John Main

John Main

Some more reviews of In The Stillness Dancing:

“Neil McKenty has presented this remarkable man with enthusiasm and devotion, warts and all. The account of his last illness when he struggled against, and finally accepted, his cancer, is movingly told”.
Catholic Herald, U.K.

“This is a remarkable book about a remarkable man.

The author sees three major contributions made by Dom Main: rediscovery of a formula, a discipline for ‘pure prayer’ as an instrument of reform for the monastic life; made ‘pure’ imageless prayer more accessible to the person on the street (as St. Paul always urged).

McKenty introduces the reader to a man who made a deep impression during his too short life, a man many would liked to have met”.
The Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, N.B.


December 25, 2015


On this Christmas day, I thought a little Irish Christmas songs would be a nice way to enjoy this day and also would have pleased my friend.

So with no further due, here are The Irish Rovers.




The Irish Rovers is a group of Irish musicians, half of whom now live in Canada. The Canadian Irish folk group created in 1963 and named after the traditional song ”The Irish Rover”.


Jean P.


From ‘McKenty Live!’ to ‘In the Stillness Dancing’

March 12, 2015

An extract from the newly-published McKenty Live! also discusses In the Stillness Dancing:

Christmas Letter, 1987

To say that Catharine and I haven’t written a holiday letter often is a gross exaggeration. We’ve never written one.

But those from some of our friends have given us so much pleasure we thought we’d give it a shot. Of course the result will be erratic – like our cross-country skiing in the Laurentians – but we have fun doing that, and we’re hoping you’ll have some fun reading this.

The past year has been indeed remarkable. It began in January when my second book, In the Stillness Dancing, was published in London, England. To back track a moment. I had been doing public affairs broadcasting since 1972 … during my last ten years, I hosted what became a popular phone-in program, “Exchange.” So why did I resign? That brings me back to the book.

In the fall of 1977 two Benedictine monks, John Main and Laurence Freeman, arrived from London to begin a meditation centre in Montreal. Because of a chance remark, I met Dom John Main in 1979 – a tall, impressive man with a sparkling Irish wit rooted in his own origins in County Kerry. Gradually we learned more about his life: Jesuit educated, British Intelligence Service, a student and later a professor of law at Trinity College, Dublin, civil servant in Malaya, barrister, Benedictine monk. In Malaya John Main met a charismatic Hindu near Kuala Lumpur who led him by a circuitous route to a Christian form of meditation going back to the 4th century and beyond – a form of meditation that induces deep interior silence through concentrating on a prayer word, or mantra. It was this form of Christian meditation that John Main came to Montreal to develop and teach.

His teaching was intense, but short. In December 1982, John Main died of cancer at the age of 56. The night of his death his close associate and friend, Dom Laurence, asked me if I would be interested in writing John Main’s biography. I accepted immediately … during the next couple of years, Catharine and I spent as much time on research as we could. This involved intense working trips to Dublin, London, and Washington, where John Main spent most of his adult life. (Catharine tried to convince me that we should go to Malaya, but Il y a une limite.) Publicizing John Main’s biography was a joint enterprise.

In this effort, Catharine and I were helped by many friends. Sister Gertrude McLaughlin advised us on the book from the beginning. John and Clare Hallward lived through every phase of the book with us. Clare is an excellent editor which means she not only improved the text but she also never took my tantrums seriously. John’s enthusiasm carried us through the difficult periods inherent in writing any book. All of us had fun at the book launchings in Montreal, especially at the Double Hook with Judy Mappin, the Anglican Diocesan Book Room with Jack Sheppard, and the United Church book store with Mary Beth Moriarity. I was able to talk about the biography on radio, and it was especially gratifying to return to my old program, “Exchange,” where my successor, Joe Cannon, asked me to stay for a second hour.

In Montreal, the festivities climaxed with a reception hosted by the Prior, Laurence Freeman, at the Benedictine Abbey on Pine Ave. About this time, Catharine and I flew to Syracuse, New York, to give a seminar on Christian meditation – it is not as difficult as you might think. All the important parts are in silence.

While all this was going on we still managed to get to the Laurentians for several week-ends of cross-country skiing. Catharine and I are not great skiers, but we enjoy the outdoors, the lovely Laurentian mountains, and the camaraderie around the blazing fireplace. Joining the winter instead of fighting it seems to make it shorter. It seemed short indeed this year because in the spring we were off on a trip to which we had both long looked forward.

The first stop was Dublin. The highlight of our stay was a reception at Trinity College (founded in 1591) to launch the biography. Main had been a student and a law professor at this cottage and lived in a lovely suite of Georgian rooms where his sister Yvonne helped him entertain students, some from his beloved Malaya. We stayed in a house near the sea where James Joyce once walked and wrote. We flew to London for ten days, where we explored Churchill’s cabinet war rooms. After seeing a couple of plays, and dancing up a storm at a lively Italian restaurant, and making my usual pilgrimage to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, Catharine flew off to Germany and I flew back to Montreal making vague plans to write a biography of Catharine’s grandfather, R.J. Fleming, four-time Mayor of Toronto. These plans were rudely interrupted by a telephone call from the executive producer at Montreal’s only commercial English language television station, CFCF-TV.

More of Neil’s letters are available in McKenty Live! The lines are still on the cover below for more information.


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




Tuesday Writing Conversation: Beginning in Montreal

March 10, 2015

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 to reserve a copy.


John Main: the first English monk since reformation called to the bar.

March 1, 2015

To commemorate the forthcoming new edition of In The Stillness Dancing – the life of Father John Main here is chapter 6. This is a description of the interim period in Douglas (John) Main’s life after being called to the bar, after his return from Malaya to a new career teaching law, and before the future where his ideas would lead to his founding of a new monastery in the New World.

After being called the bar, John Main put his law career on hold and spent a year in Malaya. After this (described in Chapter 5) he returned by boat Malaya to Ireland in the summer of 1956, Douglas consulted with some of his former professors and colleagues at Trinity. They needed another lawyer on the staff and Douglas was urged to apply. He did so and won the position in open competition. During the next four years he taught Administrative, Roman and International Law. He especially admired the order, rationality and precision of Roman law. Generally Douglas was popular with his colleagues and his students. Professor Edward Stuart from the Chemistry Department thought Douglas ‘that rare sort of individual with absolute integrity and probity’. A few students found him too cerebral, too Jesuitical and too ready to argue about the number of angels on the head of a pin. As one of his students, Michael Dixon, put it: ‘Trinity was neither Catholic nor intellectual—Douglas Main was both’.

John Main was called to the bar: the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.

John Main was called to the bar:, the first English monk so honoured since the Reformation.

Some knew him at the Laurentian Society, a social club and meeting place for Catholic students. Mary Lodge, a student, remembers Douglas as a gently impressive man, very approachable. He was deeply religious and he radiated a quality of goodness. I trusted him. There was peace and tranquillity in him and a sense of presence. I wonder if some of his friends and colleagues really appreciated the subtleties of spirituality evident in him even during the Trinity years. You don’t forget a man like Douglas Main.

Thirty years later Mary Lodge Jennings had not forgotten him. Nor had others at Trinity. Dermod D. Owen-Flood remembers:

I would describe him as one of the finest, if not the finest legal mind I have ever met. He had studied Thomistic law in Rome, as I recall. I think this gave him a tremendous edge on his legal studies. He was very definitely cut out for the law. Apart from being academically first class, his ability was leavened with great common sense, fairness and social responsibility. I think, had he stayed in the law, he would have gone to the very top. He would have been a superb barrister and an even better judge. I believe that as a lawyer he would have been able to do a tremendous amount of good for the law and for the community as a whole.

One of Douglas’s colleagues on the law faculty, Professor Frank Dowrick, also remembers his flair for the law: ‘He could cope with a heavy work load. And that’s what we gave him. Had he remained with the law, Douglas would have added to Irish legal scholarship. He would have become a national authority on the laws of Ireland.’

Naturally Douglas Main did more than teach law at Trinity. He lived on the campus in a lovely set of Georgian rooms, where his sister, Yvonne, acted as his hostess for small gatherings, often including students from Malaya. Douglas was on Trinity’s wine committee but normally the inimitable ‘Slattery’ (the college’s ‘family’ butler) would pour the appropriate wines. Later when wine was served Douglas would remark, ‘Give it the Slattery twist!’ He enjoyed a drink with old friends. Many years later he would write about the pain of ‘partings’ from friends he loved. On the other hand, he was always happy to meet unexpectedly a companion from the old days. Robert Farrell describes a delightful encounter with Douglas years after they were students together at Trinity:

Years later when he was a lecturer in Trinity, I met him one day on college green. He had a couple of brown paper parcels under his arm, and motioned me to come up to his chambers. He unwrapped his parcels and displayed a bottle of hock and a record of harp music.

We sat with glasses in hand listening to the music. When the last sad notes had died away we talked about some of the people we’d known and the coincidence of our meeting.

He smiled. ‘It was the hand of God’, he said, and held out his hand. . . .

Although he enjoyed old friends, good dining, first-class Irish theatre (he once took a group of relatives from England to see The Playboy of the Western World), and the occasional dance, Douglas invariably began his day at Trinity by attending morning Mass. He does not seem to have talked much about his experience of meditation in Malaya. But according to his own recollections of this period, he continued to meditate:

On my return to Europe to teach Law at Trinity College, Dublin, years before the advent of the Beatles and the discovery of T.M., I found no one who really knew about meditation as I now understand it. I first tried to raise the subject with priest friends but to my surprise my enquiries were mostly received with great suspicion and sometimes even hostility.

As far as I could gather from my conversation these good men practised very faithfully a Jesuit-type of meditation and the best amongst them prepared for their morning mental prayer by systematically going through a list of points for the morning. To me it seemed esoteric and somewhat complicated. . . .

But for me personally there was all the joy and excite­ment of the pilgrimage of my morning and evening medi­tation. All the time there was a growing attraction to medi­tation and the morning and evening times became the real axis on which my day was built.

Douglas was also involved in an effort to make the Catholic presence at Trinity more acceptable, especially to the Catholic authorities. Along with others, he helped write and signed a letter to the Irish Times deprecating the ecclesiastical ban on Catholics attending ‘the Protestant University of Trinity College’. On another project, the attempt to start a new Roman Catholic newspaper in Dublin, he worked with an influential group of business and literary people including his friend, Garret Fitzgerald — then an economic journalist and later the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Douglas emerged as a leading member of the group. When he realized financial and personality difficulties were too serious, he advised the Archbishop, John Charles McQuaide, to withdraw his support. The Archbishop accepted his advice and the paper never began.

In addition to these activities and his lectures in law, Douglas frequently travelled to London ‘to eat his dinners’, preparatory to his being called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, a step that would further his academic career at Trinity. While in London he often stayed with his friend and former Trinity class-mate, John Boland, in his Chelsea flat. Boland, who later became the Public Trustee for England, has almost as many stories involving Douglas as there were visits to his flat.

One of these concerned a wedding to which Douglas had been invited. It was a formal morning wedding followed by a reception, champagne and tidbits. For some reason Douglas and one of his aunts missed out on the food. Famished, they repaired to Derry and Thoms, a fashionable store in Kensington High Street. Douglas was wearing a morning suit in full fig, swallow-tailed coat and striped pants. After being seated in the restaurant, they realized they had forgotten a newly purchased book two floors below. Undaunted, Douglas sailed across the restaurant, his swallow-tailed coat billowing behind him. Just as he reached the lift to return, book in hand, a harried looking woman with two children, thinking he was the floor manager, asked, ‘Do you sell children’s shoes?’ To the astonishment of everyone in earshot, Douglas smoothly replied: ‘Yes madam, we do. But they’re not very good.’ As the doors of the lift closed he suggested, ‘If I were you I should go elsewhere!’

Naturally, while in London ‘to eat his dinners’, Douglas saw other friends including Diana Ernaelsteen to whom he had written while in Malaya and from Dublin. By this time, 1957, Diana was 22 (nine years younger than Douglas), had successfully completed several years of her medical studies and was engaged to a young man from Welwyn Garden City, Geoffrey Searle. Still, she and Douglas shared at least two interests, a penchant for long walks (fortunately Diana was tall, almost as tall as Douglas, and lithe) and a desire to make this world a better place in which to live.

John's childhood friend Diana Ernaelsteen in 1958 aged 23

John’s childhood friend Diana Ernaelsteen in 1958 aged 23

So the law professor and the doctor-in-residence would walk half way round London discussing everything from the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on birth control (although she was from a Catholic background, Douglas took a stricter position on contraception than Diana did) to James Joyce and Ulysses (Diana thought Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory a lot easier to read). One of their frequent conversations was on the nature of socialism: how did socialism relate to a better world? On a walk to Golders Green Hippodrome to see Stravinsky’s ballet ‘The Firebird’, Douglas raised the question of a community of people living together as one possible form of a more loving kind of society. Diana wondered how she would fit into that scheme.

In London, in the late April of 1957, the sun was shining brightly and daffodils sprinkled the parks. Douglas had invited Diana to luncheon at the restaurant, L’Écu de France and was waiting for her there with two of his close friends from Malaya, David and Jane Akers-Jones (with whom he had often spoken in Kuala Lumpur about Diana, whom he affectionately called his ‘Dutch Vet’). Two Buddhist monks, also friends of Douglas’s completed the luncheon party. Diana had to leave early to return to her medical courses. Douglas was a little dismayed. She agreed to meet him the next day.

This luncheon at L’Ecu de France began the most intense emotional period in the relationship between Douglas and Diana. They had now known each other since the early days of the war. They met the next day and Douglas remarked casually that one of his friends thought they should marry. Without making any commitment, Diana replied the sugges­tion was not such a bad idea. During the next few days, while Diana skipped classes, Douglas met her at the hospital and they visited the places they enjoyed, such as the Tate Gallery. They talked about furnishing a home together and Diana pointed to a picture for their dining room. They started walking in the sunshine from Pimlico to King’s Cross scarcely noting the distance. Along their route Douglas noticed the little French Church off Leicester Square. He suggested to Diana they go in to give thanks for the happiness they were sharing. They knelt together in the fresh spring light. Suddenly, without any warning, Diana experienced the over­whelming feeling that their relationship was doomed. Perhaps Douglas shared the feeling. Neither spoke of it to the other. They left the soft light of the silent church and hurried down the steps into the bustle and sunshine of Leicester Square. Douglas had to return to his lectures at Trinity, Diana to her medical studies. They parted at King’s Cross Station. It was a difficult parting. There was so much left unsaid, so much longing.

For a short time the feelings of ‘doom’ were suppressed and events moved swiftly. Diana told her parents she was in love with Douglas. She broke her engagement to the young man in Welwyn Garden City. In Dublin, Douglas told his mother, Eileen, then the rest of his family, that he was engaged to Diana and hoped to marry her. Most of Douglas’s family did not take the news of his engagement seriously. Most of Diana’s family did. They tried to influence her to break off with Douglas: he would want a large family like his own parents; what would that do to her medical career? how would she manage financially? was she not being unfair to her former fiance? Douglas had only loved her for a short time. He would get over her quickly. He could manage without her. Diana was susceptible to this family bombardment, especially the view that Douglas could get on without her: ‘this last was true and I knew it. I believed he could get over it and that he would find happiness with a nice Catholic girl. I believed I could get over it too, like the books say. But you don’t and we didn’t.’

Meanwhile, in Dublin, Douglas was writing regularly to Diana. He told her that she would ‘adore’ Dublin and she could finish her medical studies there. (Diana was not so certain. A medical colleague of hers had a difficult time switching from London to Dublin). Douglas also reiterated his position that only natural birth control was compatible with a Catholic marriage. This was a discussion that Diana and Douglas had gone over many times. It was the traditional Catholic position on birth control but it was a position that Diana found increasingly untenable, partly influenced by her parents, who favoured small families (Diana was an only child). But quite apart from the moral issue, the practical problem of starting a medical practice and a family at the same time was not an easy one to resolve.

It is possible these problems and others, such as the attitude of both families, could have been worked out, even though Douglas remained in Dublin and Diana did not even have his telephone number. He exacerbated the difficulties when he suggested they write each other less frequently because their work would suffer. But there was another problem at a deeper level that Diana had sensed in the French Church off Leicester Square and that Douglas had wrestled with for a longer time. How does human love—strong and pure as this love was—withstand divine love? This was the problem, grasped by Diana as well as Douglas, that underlay all the others.

For several weeks Diana (trying to study medicine in London) and Douglas (attempting to teach law in Dublin) struggled with an anguish that was splitting their hearts. But the struggle could not last. In the end it was Diana’s father, Harry, whom she loved dearly, who urged his ‘darling daughter’ to make a quick and firm decision about her life:

It seems so strange for all this upset when we should be the happiest of folks, yet I suppose it seems a difficult task for you to choose your life’s partner. Unfortunately, Diana, we cannot get everything and no one is perfect.

Your dear Mummy and I only wish you every happiness and whatever your choice we have no say in the matter except if you consult us.

There is nothing against Douglas and although you may have committed yourself one way or the other, for God’s sake, darling, make up your mind once and for all.

A few days later Diana wrote to Douglas she had made her decision. She had become re-engaged. Douglas then wrote a note to Diana’s mother, Ivy:

I have heard today from Diana that she is re-engaged . . . so I trust that she has now resolved the difficulty in which I placed her.

You and Harry must have been very concerned that Diana had so worrying a decision to make and I must tell you that I am very sorry that I was the occasion of your worry on her behalf. For a few rather delirious days I thought that there was some chance that I might make Diana a good husband. But she has decided otherwise, and I am sure you will understand me when I say that her happiness is my greatest concern.

This note that assumes so much and says so little was like Douglas himself, proper, private, guarded. Except for the words ‘a few rather delirious days’ of happiness when he thought his future might have been shared with the woman he loved, there is scarcely a hint in this rather formal note of the struggle that had engaged Douglas and Diana too. A few months later Diana was married in the French Church off Leicester Square where she first realized that Douglas belonged to God. In some sense it was her final good-bye. Both Diana and Douglas had shared the searing experience of a human love subsumed into the divine.

A few months after Diana’s marriage, another event occurred that changed the course of Douglas Main’s life. His 11-year-old nephew, David, the only son of his widowed sister, Yvonne, died suddenly from an inoperable brain tumour. Douglas was close to David as, indeed, he was to the many children of his own family and their friends, David died on 8 September 1958, the morning he was to start back to school. Douglas went to David’s school with his mother Yvonne to explain to David’s class-mates that he would not be joining them. Douglas then helped his sister make all the arrange­ments for David’s funeral.

The boy’s death affected him profoundly. Later he wrote:

The death of this child had an enormous effect on me and brought me face to face with the questions of life and death and the whole purpose of existence. As I reviewed my life at this time I was forcibly struck by the fact that the most important thing in my entire existence was my daily meditation. I decided, therefore, to structure my life on my meditation and sought to do so by becoming a monk.

So in the space of a few months, much to the surprise and disappointment of his colleagues in Dublin, Douglas resigned from a promising law career at Trinity College and was accepted, for September 1959, into the Order of St Benedict at Ealing Abbey in London. In one sense the search was over; but the pilgrimage had just begun.

Click below to hear ‘Best of McKenty’