Anthony De Mello: Be Aware! Be Alive! Be in Love!
I am always looking out for good Lenten spiritual reading. What I look for, especially, are books about conversion, repentance, deeper prayer, transformation—all core Lenten themes. It turns out a Jesuit housemate of mine, Dan Kendall S.J., edited, recently, some earlier (from 1975) lost writings of Anthony De Mello S.J., an Indian psychotherapist and spiritual writer whose earlier writings (Awareness, Sadhana and The Song of the Bird) have made him renowned as an internationally famous, best-selling, spiritual guide. He had founded, in 1973, near Pune, India, the Sadhana (“Way to God”) Institute. De Mello, an Indian Jesuit, died in 1987 but his books, videos and conferences still garner much interest. Kendall’s new edited book, Seek God Everywhere: Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is based on talks about The Spiritual Exercises which De Mello gave at the Sadhana Institute.
For De Mello, The Spiritual Exercises represent “a crash program for centering our hearts in God.” They help us enter deeply into silent prayer. De Mello views silence in the following terms: “We keep silence not to stop talking but to open our ears” so we can listen more deeply. The ultimate aim is to love everyone and everything in God. We do not give up our other loves but purify them in God whose love takes utter priority.
Thinking of Lent and its theme of repentance, I was taken by De Mello’s treatment of the first week of The Spiritual Exercises. He asserts: “Repentance would be better defined not by saying ‘O My God, I am sorry for my sins’ but rather by this: ‘O my God, I love you with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul.’” Repentance is about our slow but steady movement to love God who is active in all things. The psychotherapist’s voice can be heard at several points in the book. De Mello insists that repentance allows us to understand that God went “mad” out of love for us. That not only tells us how lovely God is but reminds us, also, how lovely we must be, if God so loves us. For De Mello, repentance moves toward freedom. There are dangers, he thinks, ingredient in the First Week of The Exercises focused, as it its, on sin and repentance: the danger of false guilt; the delusional desire to have a clean slate; a desire to placate ( rather than love) God; seeing sin as an obstacle to God’s love. But nothing—not even our sins—can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ.
For De Mello, the especial fruit of The Spiritual Exercises is interior freedom. Like Ignatius, and like any good psychotherapist, De Mello warns against self-deceptions. Sometimes we need a kind of “surgical” prayer to reach true freedom--to move away from inordinate or misplaced attachments (but not from attachment, as such). In a brilliant exposition of the Ignatian doctrine of the discernment of spirits, De Mello cites Blessed Peter Faber: “Even if the Holy Spirit scolds us, he scolds us so gently, so sweetly.” Thus, when God admonishes us and administers a scolding, we feel deeply consoled and peaceful.
The Exercises of Ignatius seek a unique, even paradoxical, set of balances. De Mello summarizes them this way: (1) A total love for creatures (as in the Ignatian “Contemplation of Finding God in All Things”) and a corresponding total “detachment” from creatures. “Detachment” here means loving creatures, choosing them in and through God and not against God. (2) A deep sense of personal worth (Jesus died for me; God loved and loves me) and also a deep humility ( all is grace, all is gift); (3) A simultaneous sense of our own sinfulness and our deep love-ableness; (4) A total peace of heart, yet having, simultaneously, the stance of a “spiritual warrior.”
The aim of The Spiritual Exercises, De Mello argues, is less contemplation or action (or some mix of contemplation and action) but union with God, whether in contemplation or action. At times we contemplate. At times, just as God emptied himself out of love for us, we turn from “dwelling in God” to move out to love our fellow humans. De Mello trenchantly reminds us: “Most of us suffer in the spiritual life because we do not accept ourselves. Maybe this is the biggest obstacle to the spiritual life. We cannot see our own beauty or our own power, unless we see it against the backdrop of God’s loving us.” Toward the end of his reflections, De Mello urges those entering The Spiritual Exercises (or, more generally, Ignatian spirituality which, like The Exercises, is about spiritual freedom; loving God deeply; moving from sin to joining Jesus in working to bring about God’s kingdom) to adapt the following attitude: “Let the Spirit work. Stop straining your spiritual muscles. Become attuned to your deeper self and let the force of life take over. Let the Holy Spirit take over.” I suppose, in one sense, The Spiritual Exercises, much like the Alcoholic Anonymous Program, moves us, in various exercises, reflections and challenges to: “Let Go and Let God!”
I am, personally, quite conversant with The Spiritual Exercises. But I think even those who are not will be profoundly moved by De Mello’s long essay on them. Like all authentic Christian prayer and repentance, The Spiritual Exercises give us tests about “being aware” (aware of delusions; aware of the movement of various spirits within and without us; aware of our deep potentials; aware of our deepest desires, as touchstones for finding God’s will). They give us clues about how to “become alive”--since conversion is less about renunciation than about becoming fully alive and since the glory of God, as Irenaeus so aptly put is, is the human person come fully alive. They help us also “to be in love”—not only with God but with all creation, inasmuch as we know and see that God is active in all things, drawing us to him.
No one reading, Seek God Everywhere, would easily understand the strictures or warnings about De Mello by the Congregation of Doctrine and Faith in 1998. Like any good Jesuit, De Mello is Christo-centric. He does not strike me as simply equating—as the Congregation seemed to suggest--Jesus with any other avatar of God. De Mello, to be sure, cites Buddhist and Hindu wise men and their sayings. It seems he took seriously that Ignatian deep motif that God (who is the Father of Jesus and, with Jesus, the Sender of the Spirit) is truly active in all things and persons and traditions. Hard, at least for a Jesuit, to find any heresy in that!
John Coleman, S.J.