A man vowed that he would do one hour of spiritual practice every day. It wasn't long before he went to his spiritual adviser to admit that he'd failed. He was just so busy! In the morning, he had to exercise, read the newspaper, and get the kids off to school. He was always pressured at work, and in the evening he had chores or shopping to do. Then he just wanted to relax with his wife and family. He couldn't find an hour for prayer. "What should I do?" he asked his teacher. The reply: "Two hours a day."
Sound impossible? Most of us would have trouble carving out two hours a day for prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, or service. But you don't have to be like the man in the story, defeated and resigned to failure. Instead, you can do a spiritual practice that can be easily integrated into the daily rounds of your life.
The mantra method of prayer is one such practice. A simple phrase is repeated silently as you go about your regular activities. The mantra becomes a constant companion, reminding you of your steadfast relationship with God and helping you navigate all the distractions your mind and heart may be prone to. By using a mantra, you can tap into and even expand your inner resources of patience, strength, and faithfulness.
Christian use of a mantra is rooted in the practices of the fourth century Desert Fathers who would select a short verse from Scripture and repeat it again and again to keep their minds trained on God. In the Orthodox Christian Church, the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner") has been used in this way for centuries. In Islam, repetition of the names of God in Arabic are ways of remembering and invoking God's presence.
In some Eastern religions, mantras are recognized as words of divine origin with the power to move the individual from one state of consciousness to another. They are chanted in Sanskrit, regarded as a sacred language, and may be given to devotees by a guru through an initiation. The sound itself, the cadence, and the transmission from a teacher combine to increase the mantra's impact.
On the homepages devoted to the 37 practices in the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy at SpiritualityandPractice.com, we offer brief phrases that can be used as mantras. The prayers may be whole sentences you can reflect upon or just a few words.
The key to mantra practice is repetition, and you should repeat your word or phrase as often as possible. There are an amazing number of opportunities for this prayer practice during a day: while standing in the elevator, brushing your teeth, watching a page load on your computer, sitting on the bus, making the bed, petting your cat. All the times you have to wait — in doctor's offices, for the TV show to begin, at the checkout counter — can be regarded as practice periods. Two minutes here and five minutes there can easily add up to one or two hours of spiritual practice a day.
The choice of a mantra is a very personal thing. Pick one that you feel at ease with and that has special meaning for you. Some teachers recommend that you choose only one and stick with it. In the beginning, however, you may want to try different mantras to see which resonate with your personality and your experience of God. We tend to use different mantras depending upon the setting. Here are some of them:
- "Maranatha" is perhaps the oldest Christian mantra. It means "Come Lord" in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke. Saint Paul included it at the end the First Letter to the Corinthians. There is a calming and healing rhythm to this phrase, which has the added value of conveying a feeling of connection to other Christians who have used it over the centuries. We find its four syllables come to us naturally when we are walking, making this mantra a particularly nice companion when we are out and about. We realize that in repeating it often, we are calling the Lord into our surroundings.
- Some mantras come to us spontaneously when we are inspired by the works of God. "Glory be to God" is one of these. We have noticed that this simple acknowledgement of God's glories helps us notice more examples of them all around us.
- Other mantras emerge in times of difficulty, exhaustion, or stress. We might use a mantra voiced by St. Francis of Assissi — "My God and my all!" — or one from the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin — "Trust in the slow work of God."
- A mantra can be a reminder of God's active presence in our world. It can be an expression of our fervent desire for a closer, more faithful and trusting relationship with God. And it can be a self-instruction. Bede Griffiths, a twentieth century monk, spoke the following words as he was dying: "Serve the growing Christ." This is our favorite Christian mantra because it revolves around that word "growing." The more we repeat it, the more we consider its implications.