Anthony DeMello, the Jesuit spiritual teacher and psychotherapist, died suddenly of a heart attack on June 2nd in 1987 at the age of 56. In memory of his life, printed below is a piece Sister Joan wrote about him for an article entitled "The Spiritual Art of Three Modern Masters" that appeared in the U.S.Catholic magazine in June, 1994. The other two masters were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
I never met the man and I never made one of his retreats. I never read anything he wrote and I never studied his curriculum vitae. I've never talked to anyone who talked to him and I've never heard one of his tapes. But few people have had a greater impact on my life. DeMello was not a designer of spiritual systems. He was not a lawgiver. He was not a cheerleader for a collection of esoteric spiritual exercises. No, Anthony DeMello was a teller of ancient stories whose stories rearranged the human landscape. It is in the stories that he told that I met Anthony DeMello and knew at once that he was unforgettable.
Anthony DeMello, the Jesuit psychologist-spiritual director, is a spiritual figure of our time who will not soon be forgotten in ages to come. DeMello brought something to Western spirituality that had been mightily absent. DeMello brought all of us back into contact with the East, a treasure too long forgotten by too many. What I found in Anthony DeMello's stories that enrich contemporary spirituality is the quality of timelessness.
In the mechanistic West, it is not our style to look for wisdom. What we want in life is far more likely to be fixes than insights. Let others philosophize if they will; we push buttons and "make adjustments" and act. Consequently, we do not sit comfortably with the idea that pain is protective, that suffering is meant to be a symptom of a basic disorder in us, not an irritating inconvenience meant for quick cures and total elimination. We do not tolerate headaches; we do not brook opposition. We know what we want and we get what we go for. The name of the game is "The World According to Me."
Into that world view, as religious with its exercises as it is secular with its technology, DeMello brought a completely different attitude toward life. DeMello dedicated his work to the teaching of four basic principles: consciousness, wholeness, faith rather than belief, and spirituality.
For DeMello, presence and consciousness are the keys to life. In one of his stories, disciples ask the Holy One to teach them the secret of life. Because it was the Day of Silence, the master took a piece of paper and wrote just one word in reply, "Awareness." The disciples read the word and looked at one another in consternation. "Master," they continued, "Could you explain this a little more?" The Holy One took another piece of paper and this time wrote two words, "Awareness. Awareness." The disciples were clearly perturbed. "Holy One, "they persisted. "Can't you please explain more about what you mean by 'awareness?" The Holy One looked up from the prayer rug exasperated and this time wrote clearly and distinctly. "When I say 'awareness,' I mean Awareness! Awareness! Awareness!"
Clearly, coming to see the holy in the daily was, for DeMello, one of the essentials of life. It was awareness, he taught, that made us capable of growth, able to understand others, willing to be made new again. A capacity for the present, DeMello made clear, was the secret to happiness because it saved us from the hurts of the past and the tyranny of a fearful future.
Second, DeMello taught that we lose happiness when we make it dependent on anyone or anything else. "Holy One," the disciple pleaded. "Help me to be free." And the elder said to the disciple, "First find out who has put you in chains?" A week later, the disciple returned. "Holy One," the disciple reported, "no one has bound me." "Then," the Holy One said, "from what do you need to be liberated?" At that moment of enlightenment, the disciple suddenly became free.
The point is made. DeMello was clear about the fact that the secret to happiness is that it lies within us. Happiness, he taught, is measured not by what happens to us but by our ability to find satisfaction within ourselves. The fact that we attach happiness to things outside ourselves, outside our own control, in other words—this house, that job, these clothes, those friends, that recognition—is precisely what makes happiness impossible.
Third, DeMello maintained that we must be open to unlearning everything we have ever known in life if we are going to be able to grow from one place to another. "How shall I attain Eternal Life," the disciple asked the Holy One. "Eternal life is now. Come into the present," the Holy One replied. "But I am in the present now, am I not?" the puzzled disciple persisted. "No," said the Holy One, "You are not." "But why not?" The disciple demanded. "Because you haven't dropped your past," the Holy One said. "But why should I drop my past? Not all of it is bad," the disciple insisted. And the Holy One replied clearly and firmly, "The past is to be dropped not because it is bad. The past is to be dropped because it is past."
Obviously DeMello was no conserver of a pious and plastic religiosity. To go through life with an open mind, challenging the truisms in the light of new questions is a sign that our faith is greater than our beliefs. Beliefs, Anthony DeMello taught, trap us into close-minded positions but faith assures us that it is God who is really the faithful One. Faith tells us that God will once again and always see us through.
Finally, DeMello taught that if we are really going to be spiritual people that we will have to stop seeking "perfection" and start seeking enlightenment, an awareness of the sacredness of the most mundane. "Help us to find God," the disciples begged the Holy One. "No one can help you there," the Holy One said. "But why not?" the disciples demanded to know. "For the same reason that no one can help the fish to find the ocean," the Holy One said.
God is, indeed, everywhere for Anthony DeMello—in darkness as well as in light, in the ordinary life lived with extraordinarily consciousness, in the sacred center of a creation that is secular to its marrow. It is in the separation of life into categories of the holy and the unholy, the spiritual and the material, the earthly and the heavenly that the human soul gets divided as well. It is the loss of a holy viewpoint that turns my rag-tag, messy, disorganized, judgmental life unholy. DeMello brings us back to the secret: life is enough for us. It is not something to be endured on the way to something better. It is the stuff of which the transformation is made. Life itself, not religion, is the substance of spirituality.
Awareness, unlearning, faith and spirituality are rarefied perspectives in a culture that prizes being out of its senses and in control and being right and being religious. Religion, DeMello pointed out in clear and unequivocal terms, "is not necessarily connected with spirituality." Clearly, spirituality for DeMello is the ability to live whole and happy in the now, expecting nothing, demanding nothing, grasping nothing and so becoming open to all things.
The very thought of going through life open-handed is chilling to the western mind, which may, of course, be precisely why we need it so much, consider it so difficult and find it so unforgettable.
Anthony DeMello brought to a mechanistic world a commitment to a contemplative heart, a passionate soul, and a conscious mind, qualities that change a world, attributes that never die. And to do it, he told us stories.
He told us stories that made us wiser than ourselves. He told us stories that broke down the barriers of our souls. He told us stories that cast light into dark and realized the simple for its profundity and the pompous—even in religion—for its calculating attempt to turn the sacred into a product rather than a prophetic presence.
It is precisely these qualities that flamed out of him with consummate conviction and disarming humor to become a living light that is far beyond who he was as a person, where he lived, what he did, where he went in life. It is in those things that his life will live on, even for those of us who never met him, never heard him, never followed his life's particular meanderings.
DeMello said once, "You are never so good as when you have no consciousness that you're good. A good is never so good as when you have no awareness that you're doing it." By his own measure then, as unaware of us as we were of the person of him, Anthony DeMello may well have done his best work on those, like myself, who never knew him.