Appeared in Fall 1995, Vol. XXI, No. 3
“Mantra,” you may be thinking, “isn’t that a word you say over and over again, with your eyes closed, when you want to relax? Aren’t mantras supposed to put you in touch with your inner powers, your Cosmic self?” These general views of mantra in the West owe much to the influence of Hindu Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teachings through the spread of the Transcendental meditation movement in the past few decades. Popular understanding of the word mantra in Europe and America today defines the term as a single word or syllable whose effectiveness depends on its repetition. And here it is important to note that no common concept of what mantras ought to effect exists. Keeping in mind this common definition then, let us consider how an anonymous Christian spiritual director who resided in England in the fourteenth-century has been credited by some individuals in the twentieth-century with promulgating a doctrine of so-called “Christian Mantra.” Very simply, the Cloud author, so named after his spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing, holds that “Contemplatives rarely pray in words but if they do, their words are few.” Furthermore, maintains the Cloud author, “a word of one syllable is more suited to the spiritual nature of … [contemplative prayer] than longer ones.” And since the Cloud author himself actually names only three words for use in contemplative prayer – “God,” “love,” and “sin” – might it not be inferred that this form of prayer is necessarily repetitive? As we see, superficial connections between popular definitions of mantra and the Cloud author’s single-word form of prayer are obvious. In order to determine whether these connections are anything but superficial, however, we must examine mantras and the Cloud author’s prayer within their individual religious contexts.
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