I believe the truth of God weaves itself in and out of all of man's cultures and religions. There are few absolutes that make up reality, one being that there is no place where God is not. He is everywhere. (Romans 8:39) We only have to cultivate our inner senses to pick up His presence within and all around us.
Man has been finding ways to "tune" into the Divine and center himself for thousands of years now. Most likely from the very beginning when man's eyes beheld the rising sun spreading it's first garment of light over the horizon in early morning and like a flame, consciousness was realized. With the awareness of consciousnesses one who becomes introspective soon discovers the awareness of the Other, of the Self, of God within.
That discovery has become the quest of spiritual seekers from all the wisdom traditions and religions beyond. It is the pearl of great price. One must shed all the layers of their ego to become spiritually naked in order to fully become one with God. We must become empty to be filled. Man's praise, material possessions, earthly honors and recognitions all ring hollow as compared to the peace that surpasses all understanding that occurs in the moment one's soul is consummated with God's Spirit. A divine union of infinite proportions. The bride coming home to her groom. A true awareness of the transcendence of being and interconnectedness with all that is.
There are most likely as many ways to discover God's presence within as there are souls searching for such union. God's love and mercy creates pathways individualized to those who seek Him earnestly. We all have different personalities, different ways in which we appreciate and connect to that which is around us. So, it makes sense that there isn't just one way to come into God's presence. A thoughtful diagram revealing the many different contemplative practices can be seen here: http://ascendingthehills.blogspot.com/2011/10/when-wonder-wanes.html Perhaps you might consider trying out one or two new practices in your spiritual disciplines.
I'd like to address the practice of using mantras as a spiritual discipline and pathway to centering oneself to receiving God's presence. I think there are a lot of misconceptions regarding this practice and it is a bit disconcerting to me at times that so many Christians I come across demonize this beautiful tradition that has been practiced for hundreds and hundreds of years in monasteries and holy places all around the world. I sincerely believe that both mantras derived from ancient Christianity as well as Eastern mysticism practices can be beneficial for the Christian. I'd like to focus more on dispelling the demonization of practicing mantras derived from practices born from the East.
Eastern mysticism has a culture brimming with beautiful chants that are full of meaning and have helped its meditators center themselves in their practices for countless centuries. I believe there is nothing to fear, as a Christian, in implementing these chants in one's own disciplines for they can have a deep centering effect when meditating. We can learn a lot from our spiritual brothers and sisters in the East. Some Buddhist chants that I have found useful while meditating have been: Om mani padme hum (the chant for compassion), Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om (the chant for peace) and Om gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā which translates "Gone, gone, gone to the other shore beyond.”
I am not alone in my open approach in incorporating elements of Eastern meditations in my contemplative practices. Respected Christian leaders and voices from around the world have come out with similar sentiments and have seen the benefit in becoming acquainted with Eastern philosophies. Such voices: Morton Kelsey, Henri Nouwen, Father Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton...and so many more!
Renown Catholic monk, Father Thomas Keating, in his book , Open Heart, Open Mind, wrote:
“We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age old wisdom of the East and “capture” it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible… Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices, especially where they have been initiated by reliable teachers and have a solidly developed Christian faith to find inner form and meaning to the resulting experiences”. p. 38
The purpose of chanting for the Christian differs in some ways from that of Buddhist. This difference would be an article unto itself, but basically those in Eastern mysticism seek to empty themselves completely and remain emptied, achieving a nondual state. While the Christian meditator often seeks to be emptied in order to encounter and be filled with God's presence. Though the objective can sometimes vary, the means in which to center oneself to achieve the desired outcome of producing a stillness within, can be the same.
Morton T. Kelsey, in his book, " The Other Side of Silence: A Guide to Christian Meditation", helps illustrate the difference between Eastern and Christian meditation in the excerpt below while also echoing Father Thomas Keating's sentiments in encouraging Christians to explore Eastern meditation practices:
"...if you really envision all life ultimately merging into the effortless, suspended bliss of Nirvana, then you will try to make your meditation another step toward release from the illusion and burdens and pains of this life. You will consider it a way of entering a state of imageless enlightenment in order to experience the bliss of mature relationship with the universe. This is the meditation found in Zen and other disciplines derived from Buddhism.
Christian meditation in its most developed form is quite different...It is based on a view of the world that finds each individual important, both in the material realm and in the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. In this practice of meditation one expects to meet someone, and the encounter is usually experienced as a relationship with a person....Outer aids and actions may also help to bring one to the encounter, and of course there is no reason why Christians should not use the techniques of Zen or TM or Yoga. These are valuable as long as one is aware that there is another element in Christian meditation, an addition that makes it quite another practice. Christian meditation is not a way of escaping from one's condition. Rather it is something we undertake in order to bring the totality of our being into relationship with a person, an Other to whom we can relate. " p. 57
The use of a "breath prayer" or, in other words mantra, has been used since the times of the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers were men (and some women as well) who removed themselves from society, choosing to dwell in the wilderness regions of the Middle East beginning from around the 4th Century, to devote themselves fully in the pursuit of seeking to encounter God. From all the sources I have read, they are said to be the first among Christianity who promoted the use of the mantra as a tool for meditation and becoming attuned to the Divine within. Their presence and practices within Christianity brought rise to monasticism and to the rich tapestry of chants that can be seen in various forms. Examples: Ambrosian, Gregorian, Hildegarian and Byzantine chants.
In his book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen cites John Climacus, a 6th century Desert Father, instructing others to use a simple word or phrase, repeated, to achieve a stillness:
The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart...A word or sentence repeated frequently can help us to concentrate, to move to the center, to create an inner stillness and thus to listen to the voice of God. When we simply try to sit silently and wait for God to speak to us, we find ourselves bombarded with endless conflicting thoughts and ideas. But when we use a very simple sentence such as "O God, come to my assistance," or "Jesus, master, have mercy on me," or a word such as "Lord" or "Jesus," it is easier to let the many distractions pass by without being misled by them. Such a simple, easily repeated prayer can slowly empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God. This way of simple prayer, when we are faithful to it and practice it at regular times, slowly leads us to an experience of rest and opens us to God's active presence." p. 25
The Eastern Orthodox church has long implemented the Jesus Prayer as a mantra in their practices. This is one of the mantras I use most commonly when I am seeking to achieve a state of stillness within. It is simply : Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
There is a lot more that can be written on this subject. It has been the object of already many published books. Hopefully, though, this gives a little bit of a background on mantras and helps dispel some of the fear that others try to spread in order to keep Christians away from investigating the potential riches Eastern mysticism can provide them in their spiritual disciplines. As, Thomas Keating suggests, the Christian should only branch out and incorporate Eastern meditation practices in one's own disciplines if, first, one is firmly rooted in Christ. Let the Spirit be our teacher and guide in determining what practices we implement and approach. She will never lead us astray but only deeper into the heart of God.
Comments? I'd love to hear them. Please leave them in the Comments section. Thank you!