What are the differences between these two forms of contemplative prayer?
Centering Prayer, as described by Basil Pennington in his classic text of the same name, is the recovery of the ancient stream of prayer found in the desert fathers, John Cassian and the Cloud of Unknowing, which encourages a contemplative state of prayer through focusing on a word, phrase or object. Christian Meditation as taught by the monk John Main is the recovery of the same ancient stream of prayer, with special emphasis on Conferences 9 and 10 of John Cassian, which encourages the same contemplative prayer but through the repetition of a mantra. The mantra recommended by John Main is the ancient Aramaic word “Maranatha” which means, “Come, Lord Jesus” (found in 1 Corinthians 16:22). This mantra is in effect a short version of the verse recommended by John Cassian, “O Lord, come to my assistance; O God, make haste to help me.”
In Centering Prayer the word is chosen by the individual praying as an expression of his/her loving intention towards God. The word is only sacred because of its intention. In Christian Meditation the teacher recommends the use of a mantra, which is sacred because of the wisdom of the tradition handed down. In Centering Prayer the prayer word is “like background music to our intention to be in God’s loving presence… we use it when we need it” (Pennington, pp. 68 – 70). In Christian Meditation there is more emphasis on the repetition of the mantra throughout the period of meditation as a way of shielding the mind from busyness of thought and guiding one to a place of rest in God. John Main also chose the word “Maranatha” because it has no images nor thoughts attached to it for most of us, thus facilitating the journey into silence.
Both types of contemplative prayer are influenced by Eastern meditation traditions. Yoga meditation focuses on an object with eyes open, similar to one form of Centering Prayer. John Main learned meditation from a Hindu teacher, who convinced him of the importance of tradition in the use of a mantra. Centering Prayer gives freedom to individuals to choose the focus that appeals to them and does not imbue the word, phrase or object with quite the same spiritual power as the mantra in Christian Meditation.
If you wish to enter a state of contemplation, in which your inward gaze is upon God, you should try any method of prayer that will sustain you and give you joy. The intent of both methods is to unite the believer with the stream of love that flows within the life of God. For more information about both methods please check these websites: