An Integral Catholic Leader: Father Anthony de Mello, SJ by Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera (Aug.-Nov. 2013)
Father Anthony de Mello SJ is considered one of the foremost mystical theologians of the late Twentieth Century. His simple and direct approach to life continues to untie all kinds of blockages preventing man’s acceptance of his spiritual nature, even decades after his unexpected death. De Mello’s radiated authenticity, love for all and his characteristic laughter tended to disarm any negative preconceived notions against his ideas. As far as my research goes, I’d say that most of those that knew him personally can attest to his sincere and friendly attitude to all as people from every religious persuasion felt comfortable and at soulfully at home near him.
Through his books, Anthony de Mello still speaks about happiness and freedom by illuminating us on how to perceive conflicts and paradoxes differently, that is, by showing us that there’s an enlivening core of wisdom which is far more fundamental than our attachments to partial conceptual stances. Kindly and sagely de Mello often used stories which offered unexpected solutions to paradoxical situations we might be able to relate with. Each of these solutions recapitulated an essential intuition that apparently sprung spring from his direct awareness of non-relative Truth. As far as I know, this intuition was integrated into his whole being exulting joy, care and an unassuming attentive sympathy towards those that approached him.
In his foundational years, Father de Mello originally learned with great discipline the spiritual practices of Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuit Order) and gradually became a master teacher in spiritual retreats which incorporating yoga, vipassana meditation and other oriental and multicultural spiritual practices. He was a man of much charisma and, after reaching beyond the confines of the Jesuit centers in Bombay, gradually became well known throughout the world. Through books, lectures and retreats and by taking at heart the humanitarian outreach recommendations of the Vatican II Council, Father de Mello showed the way for a possible renovation of Catholic ministry and for offering a deeper kind of understanding to individuals of all faiths or of no particular faith at all. Anthony de Mello, SJ used to call himself a “rolling stone” always available to move onto the challenges where Spirit took him. He expressed as a genuine brother to all and came to understand that the genuine Catholic Church encompasses all people: Christians and non-Christians.
Anthony deMello’s vision and path are attempts to bring to life what Ken Wilber calls the churches “Conveyor Belt” (read Wilber’s Integral Spirituality). However, long after his physical departure Father Anthony prompted a censoring reaction from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This, in turn, prompted a reaction in liberal sections of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church and in the Mid Asian synod. In his own way, Father de Mello stands as an example to follow for any integral Church that may emerge in the future and will more likely than not serve as a referent symbol in additional attempts to assist the Roman Catholic Church become a more contemporarily useful, integral “Conveyor Belt.”
I believe that Father Anthony de Mello, SJ also stands next to other important pioneers behind the emerging fertile integration connecting East and West wisdom traditions. I think that his works also stand in line (in their own subtle and profound ways) with an emerging Integral Catholicism contributed by Catholic creatives such as Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Fr. Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., and Fr. Thomas Berry C.P. It’s the way of the future: Out with prejudiced rigidity; in with embrace through an integrally expressed love!
In my view de Mello’s sufi-like, paradoxical short stories are superb. They are deceptively simple and yet perhaps as inspiring as Kahlil Gibran’s and as touching as the stories about Mullah Najrudin. Perhaps a pre-established 2nd Tier sensibility would be required to seek them out without being prompted by the advertising given to other more popular and somewhat similar, spiritually-inspiring authors. I recommend you to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_de_Mello where you’ll find a fine list of these works. However, the question I’ll attempt to inquire about in this essay is, what may have inspired Anthony de Mello’s mold-braking, practical-spiritual life?
Anthony de Mello was born on September 4, 1931 in an Indian family that was seriously steeped in the Catholic tradition. His family consisted of mother, father, an older and a younger sister and a younger brother. He was born at the outskirts of Bombay and his parents (Frank and Louisa) were natives of a Portuguese territory called Goa. Anthony’s father was a railroad worker and since Anthony was the eldest son, there were great expectations for him to work in the same business or –better- to become a professional studying at a university so as to be able to take care of his parents in later years. According to a biography written by Anthony’s younger brother Bill, he showed great intelligence and social skills in school (Stanislaus High School) and an early desire (a true vocation) to become a Jesuit priest. Interestingly, the opposite could be said of Bill who showed no particular interest in religiosity, spirituality or academic achievement and, rather, excelled in physical prowess.
During a time of great economic uncertainty because World War II was raging (along with a growing collective desire for national independence led by Mahatma Gandhi), Anthony told his mother that he would pray to God for her to conceive (in her 40’s) a brother that would replace him so that he would be able to join the priesthood. When this improbable event happened he said “So now I can become a Jesuit priest.” According to Bill, Anthony also had a sweet romantic side and had promised a young local girl that “someday he would marry her and that he would take all the stars in the sky to make her a wedding dress.”
During his last year in high school, Anthony attended a career counseling course and re-announced his resolution at home. As his mother rightfully feared that he would not be able to visit home for long periods, she asked him to join a secular order and he would have sadly agreed if she had remained firm about it but she understood that he would have been very unhappy. Thus, in July of 1947, Anthony de Mello joined the Society of Jesus in the seminary of Vinalaya, at the outskirts of Bombay. Anthony quickly blossomed in his new life, studying abroad and becoming rector of the seminary between 1968 and 1972. Then, in 1973 he founded the (still operating) Sadhana Institute to assist many more people of various persuasions by conducting spiritual retreats.
According to his friend, Fr. Carlos Vallés, he had “an exact memory, a warm spontaneity and a capacity to live in the present (nothing existed before or after). He directed his attention to each person in a differently appropriate manner and, thus, everyone was able to understand him. Vallés mentions that “he learned by ‘helping others to learn’ fully giving himself to his own contributions and always perfecting his qualities as a communicator.” According to Vallés, Anthony said that he “grew with each of the courses given because with them he ‘developed himself,’ (the courses) helped him to clarify his ideas, to deepen his feelings, to strengthen his mind.” Vallés also declares that, furthermore, Anthony had immense fun, a great sense of humor and that he was characterized by being unpredictable. Vallés remarks that Anthony was “an individual capable of changes without caring about criticisms. He possessed unlimited generosity and this probably led to his early demise.”
According to his biographies, not long after his inclusion in the seminary, Anthony de Mello showed what seemed like a strong dogmatic conviction a certain day when one of his sisters visited him at the seminary and he strongly vented his views at her all inflamed saying “our mother church is just and you are guilty. You must not doubt that and don’t forget that the pope is infallible.” The reason for firing away with this strong statement is not revealed.
In any case, Anthony soon broaden his state of mind and understanding when in 1952 he was sent for three years to study philosophy in Barcelona, Spain and was also sent to study psychology and counseling at Loyola University in Chicago. He was soon inspired by the psychology of Carl Rogers which later helped him to “lead (spiritual retreats) without leading.” According to Mr. Malcolm Nazareth, a former Jesuit that trained under the guidance of de Mello, “Before and after his 1962 priestly ordination Tony worked in diverse capacities in the land of his birth. He is best remembered in South Asian Catholic circles as a spiritual mentor to countless persons of scores of nationalities and languages especially those who had embraced religious life and the priesthood. Tony’s first language was English. However, he mastered Spanish and was fluent also in-believe it or not-Ciceronian Latin. Tony also knew Marathi, French, and other languages. This may in part account for his popularity as a teacher of healing and of spiritual insight in English and Spanish-speaking parts of the world among Christians, non-Christians, and no-religionists as well.”
Mr. Malcolm Nazareth in his November 3, 2001 workshop presentation “Here & Now with Anthony de Mello,” given at the Call to Action Conference tells us that we could divide Anthony’s life in two basic stages: Sadhana One and Sadhana Two. Mr. Nazareth (who eventually left the Jesuit Order, married and founded the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research and the Center for Interfaith Encounter) also attests to have been a broad minded spiritual seeker when studying under Anthony’s spiritual guidance. He tells us that during Anthony’s life in Sadhana One “Tony’s theology of religion was primitive at that time. Having made my preliminary explorations into Hindu religion and spirituality, I approached him with my questions about Christology. The Tony of Sadhana One provided me with a set of answers that were most unsatisfactory. I told him so. I walked away from him knowing that Tony hadn’t dared to encounter any non-Christian religion with openness and vulnerability. His Catholic Christian conditioning was blocking his spiritual progress, if I may presume to say so.”
Later on, Mr. Nazareth goes on explaining that “It was sometime in the mid-70’s that Tony opened his heart and mind to vipassana meditation practice. I’m inclined to think that this was a major turning point for Tony as he slowly began to move into Sadhana Two phase. After seriously practicing vipassana and thus exposing himself to Buddhist spirituality, Tony dared to confront the theology which he had learnt in theological school with, what now seemed to me to be the vital existential questions of our time: What is our human situation? What are the various religious responses to the human predicament? Is the response of Jesus Christ to the human predicament substantially different than the responses of Krishna, the Buddha, Moses? If the spiritual response of Jesus Christ was qualitatively different than theirs or Confucius’, Lao Tzu’s, Muhammad’s, or Baha’ullah’s how or why is Christ different? Why should I as a catholic care about such differences? And finally, from the point of view of ultimate reality, do the similarities and differences between the various religious paths matter at all? In a nutshell, what is spirituality?”
Mr. Nazareth then leads us to Anthony’s conceptual response to the important question “what is spirituality?” by saying that “In his 1982 Song of the Bird we find Tony’s terrific reply: Spirituality is that which succeeds in bringing a person to inner transformation. Question: ‘If one applies the traditional methods handed over by the masters, isn’t that spirituality?’ Tony’s response: ‘It isn’t spirituality if it doesn’t function for you. A blanket is no longer a blanket if it fails to keep you warm.’ Question: So spirituality does change?’ Tony wrote: ‘People change and needs change. So what was spirituality once is spirituality no more. What generally goes under the name of spirituality is merely the record of past methods.’”
Regarding Anthony’s continuously expanding shifts in understanding I think that he may have had one or more eye-opening mystical experiences somewhere along the line. This I surmise from my conversations with Mr. Nazareth who tells me that he had such an experience under Father Calderas and from interpreting a segment of Bill de Mello’s biography of his brother. In Mr. Nazareth’s email dated May 31, 2009, I’m told: “I don’t know where you read that de Mello was a changed man after his return from Spain. Do you know what year that may have happened?” (Note: This may have happened in 1952 because in the biography written for his brother Bill de Mello lets us know that Anthony changed around that time his rigid, traditional outlook into that of an understanding brother or “mellow de Mello.” Bill writes that “In 1952 Tony was sent to Spain to study Philosophy for three years during which time some personal evolution took place. He gained charisma that made him a leader of men&rdquo.
Mr. Nazareth continues his letter by writing “I remember him saying in one of his public talks that one of the first major influences on his spiritual transformation was in a 30 days retreat which he made under Fr. Calveras, S.J., in Spain (probably during De Mello’s tertianship (final segment of Jesuit formation). Calveras was a world famous authority in conducting the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Perhaps Prabhu would be able to fill the gaps in my knowledge on this issue, so I’m forwarding this post to him.
During that Calveras’ retreat, de Mello had a very powerful mystical experience which gave him profound insight into the spirituality of St. Ignatius. After that, de Mello himself was much sought after for his skill as a retreat master. He conducted 30 days retreats but he also conducted weeklong retreats.”
Mr. Malcolm Nazareth also mentioned in his workshop presentation at the Call to action Conference on November 3, 2001 that “His 1985 book One Minute Wisdom, in my view, makes Tony an incipient heretic (a la Ratzinger). Because here Tony dares to come up with bold statements that only mystics can utter so brazenly. Here he sounds now Buddhist, now Sufi, now Taoist, now Hindu, now Jewish. The master in Tony’s book is clearly an interfaith master. The Christian is hidden, but absolutely there. Tony has begun to point out that theological formulas, including theological and spiritual ones are no more or less than formulas, intellectual concepts, fabrications of the human brain that cannot but think in terms of binaries. Tony’s final expressions of spirituality in his posthumous “One Minute Nonsense” (Loyola, 1993) are basically supplements to his One Minute Wisdom.” Regarding Anthony’s “interfaith master” I wonder if he is one and the same as the voice of the “Integrated Big Mind-Big Heart” referred to by Zen master Genpo Roshi (see http://integrallife.com/applications/big-mind-process-big-heart).
Mr. Nazareth tells us that “Tony’s charisma was compelling. He very easily charmed and convinced his audience to radically sacrifice their earthly possessions to favor the poor. He magnetically drew his admirers to commit themselves to the making and conducting of 30-day Ignatian exercises. Tony strongly encouraged his audience to become practitioners of vipassana and to go study this form of Buddhist meditation under Burmese master Goenka. In his earlier years Tony had delved deeply into Ignacian spirituality which he mastered in Spanish under the guidance of Father Calveras, SJ. Later on, Tony had been gripped by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. Tony had also come for a while under the spell of Bertrand Russell. Tony had been taken by the British philosopher’s brutal honesty. In Tony’s final years, however, he was quite captivated by J. Krishnamurti. In my estimate this was when the Tony of Sadhana Two reached the zenith of his achievement as an East-West healer-and-guru.”
Analysis with an AQAL Approach
Anthony de Mello lived in a multicultural environment which was predominantly Christian and Hindu. According to testimony, he demonstrated a high level of (UL) cognitive intelligence in childhood and also a high level of (LL) interpersonal skills. Thus, at least two of his lines of development probably scored high. Interestingly enough, even from childhood, he manifested his desire to become a priest and, therefore, probably was also born with a high level of latent spirituality and/or his position as the eldest son in the family led him to conceive of a way to fulfill the highest possible expectations. Apparently his (UR) physical constitution was normal although not particularly athletic. His mother must have been around 27 years of age when he was born, a likely ideal age to give birth to an intelligent, healthy child (when his brother Bill was born she was forty, probably having something to do with a less integrated brain structure and a lack of interest for academic learning).
We could say that Anthony was born with a great potential in his spiritual line of development and that life would likely lead him to a natural expression of a level that may have been present in previous lifetimes. We also could say that Anthony’s (LL) cultural milieu was not only steeped in the centuries- old Catholic tradition but also steeped in a strong work ethic since the inhabitants of Goa (a Portuguese colony in those times) such as their immigrant parents were highly estimated by the British rulers of India, not only due to their Christian faith, but by their educated background and by their proficiency in the English language. Near Anthony’s home there was an apparently wholesome school which (if current indications reflect what was like back in Anthony’s time) promoted high values and discipline and may have appeared to young Anthony as a wonderful place to excel and develop. We cannot know for certain but, after the birth of his brother Bill, both of them may have strengthened their opposite psychological characters (Anthony responsible and ruly and Bill less responsible and unruly) in order to differentiate from each other.
The (LR) social situation during Anthony’s childhood would have been agitated because there already were intimations of an incipient revolution for a free India (Mahatma Gandhi was already in action) and because Second World War raged on for part of that period. Maybe (as Bill de Mello lets us know) economic security was an issue that kept everyone alert. Anthony would have also known what it is like to be part of a minority because his family had moved from a Portuguese colony to Bombay which was predominantly populated by Hindus. The need to speak different languages (at least Hindu, English and Portuguese) was also apparent.
We don’t know what may have arisen interiorly for Anthony but we could make a case for validly saying that his innate outgoing characteristics were also assisted by the conjunctive support of reality elements in all quadrants: A healthy brain, an ethical family proselytizing strong spiritual traditions within a well-established culture, a social need to be flexible and multicultural and a nearby adequate –and likely- open-minded school (Jesuits are known for fostering intellectual freedom) that offered rigorous academic training. Anthony himself may have come to his lifetime with a certain level of evolution potentially ready to latch on to any opportunity to unfold but it’s also as if a portion of the Universe as a certain objective, historical time and space had collaborated to assist Spirit to leave a mark in humanity through Anthony. Perhaps (remembering Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism) sometime and somewhere outside and inside human time and space, Anthony had become a “Tathagatha,” having completely “crossed over” in total availability and openness. His lifetime would have been a recapitulation as well as a new phase.
Anthony de Mello’s “Kosmic Address” (altitude + perspective) at the time he joined the Jesuits right after High School, may have been partially Second Tier in that he sincerely wanted to dedicate his life to a universal calling but was nonetheless well-possessed by an amber mental structure. He probably naturally experienced a persistent state of heartfelt openness (an indigo sensibility) which called for being filled in by information from a Second Tier perspective. To me, his incessant curiosity and continuous development in perspectives shows that perspectives themselves gradually caught up with his basic inborn altitude. At the moment of his death most of his being lines of development may have been well into an indigo Second Tier as his ability to find truth in the resolution of paradoxes, his having emptied himself as a vessel for the service of God or Spirit and of others attests. We could affirm that –as a perceiving subject- Anthony’s quadrivia had become quite developed and functioning in harmony later in life. The aspects of reality (quadrivium) that he perceived/disclosed in his “Sadhana Two” phase set him apart from the majority of religious people and he knew that only speaking in apophatic (via negativa) ways he would be able to transmit anything meaningful inspired by his direct spiritual experiences.
Anthony’s intellectual understanding had probably reached a non-dual, post trans- systemic level and his experience or inward-participatory sense of people, God and all of nature (as LL meaningful discourses and LR systemic, mutually needed relations) may have also reached a high level of intuitive understanding. I think that his non-dual altitude was accompanied by an Integral, all-around intuitive perspective which, nonetheless, still held a Green altitude theoretical level in some aspects like psychology. Anthony’s overall high altitude called for a structural understanding and this structural understanding probably also inspired him to soar in higher altitudes.
What would Anthony’s shadow(s) have been like? As far as we can tell he didn’t abuse anyone and he always seemed to be a paragon of virtue and excellence. However, he probably shouted to his sister at an early age. In the biography written by his brother Bill, there’s mention that Anthony “never complained.” This may be indicative of a level of unhealthy self-denial or of a lack of need to complain. I don’t know but it would have been extraordinary. Since Anthony’s relation with his family seems to have been a healthy one we I cannot speculate about an “evolutionary shadow” in this respect. Maybe during his early “Sadhana One” phase and earlier Anthony might have had a “bright” or “emergent” shadow” since he may have been unable to tolerate non- amber theorizing or what may have first appeared to him as openly non-dogmatic points of view. In this I see a possible trend manifesting in that, maybe highly evolved human beings not showing “submergent” shadows will be found to have them in emergent or more refined, less spiritual differentiated, involutionary levels of being. Actually, perhaps the fact that Anthony’s understandings only prospered among a rather small percentage of priests; the fact that his views were censored by the Church and, the fact that he died unexpectedly at a premature age was due to a spiritual manifestation blockage in his most refined inner levels of being. In this levels of being perhaps all human beings on Planet Earth are connected and the “We” relationship that allows or doesn’t allow the influence of a particular person on the whole is directly connected as one with that person’s innermost being.
Anthony de Mello’s specific spiritual practices were practices to become aware of a grander spiritual life through an acceptance of the “still and small voice” of the heart. This can be appreciated in his book Sadhana (which became a classic of contemplative prayer) and in all of his published works. Anything that works to stop the egoic self-mind from blocking the perception of the simple wonder of God’s presence in every aspect of life would have been welcomed by Anthony. Reflections with surprising resolutions, or specific breathing and yoga practices practiced at one’s own pace and aiming at openness and sincerity rather than at methodological perfection would have worked. For instance, in exercise 13 of Sadhana, Anthony asks the practitioner to simply listen to any body sensation without naming it, then to do the same with any sound and then he tells the practitioner that he or she will notice a “great calm,” a “profound silence.” Then, Anthony advices us to focus on this quietude and to experience how good it is simply to be in the here and now without having to do anything; just simply being…being. Later on, he advices the practitioner to feel God in the air, the sounds, the world of the senses, the sensations of touch, to surrender to God.
As previously stated, Anthony’s definition of spirituality came to be “that which succeeds in bringing a person to inner transformation.” This definition allowed for an open-ended large array of methods and, I’m suspicious that Anthony had a kind of Integral Post Metaphysical intuition on this issue. Here he seems to be giving priority to method over definition as he had probably come to see that specific definitions of spirituality evolve over time or are not universally applicable to people from every cultural background. In this way, without apparently having developed an explicit complex theory or Meta theory, Anthony de Mello seems to have demonstrated an intuitive (or perhaps, incipient conceptual) post postmodern understanding about spirituality due to his own profound familiarity with it. I would also say that this intimate familiarity could have stemmed from his lifelong search for radical openness and authenticity, a required feature for spiritual advancement according to Chogyam Trungpa.
I don’t have much information regarding Anthony’s ILP physical (UR) practice. Perhaps they include yoga asanas. Nonetheless, I’m quite certain that he did pray or contemplated in a regular manner. I’m also quite sure that he was an avid learner and that he read regularly. Thus, his (UL) practices were probably quite skillfully developed. We are told that Anthony was a good listener and that he listened to each different person differently, so I suspect that he also intuitively had a regular (LL) hermeneutical practice that included effective means or translation. In terms of practical worldly relations his activities as communicator, as spiritual director and founder of Sadhana Institute and, previously, of the Jesuit seminary in Bombay would have kept him busy with practical business and inter institutional duties. It is also well known that he was heavily influenced by Vipassana and I believe that he didn’t just recommend it but practiced it regularly. In other words, I think that Anthony de Mello had most of his ILP quadrants covered, perhaps with the exception of his (UR) physical quadrant. I just don’t have any information regarding his physical exercises (except perhaps for the possible practice of some yoga exercises) or his diet. As most of us in search of a balanced Integral Life Practice leave out a significant quadratic aspect (due to lack of time or other influential reasons) Anthony may have simply left out an important aspect, which also perhaps led him to an ‘untimely’ death.
I don’t have any specific information regarding Anthony’s aptitude with specifically trained states but suspect that, since he was a ‘master teacher’ in spiritual exercises, he must have been able to sustain some kinds of higher states of consciousness. Actually, I don’t think that he would have been able to live the kind of life he did without being able to rest in some kind of contemplative abstraction. What we know is that he had become proficient in Ignatian practices early in his career, so much so that he seems to have had one or more transformative mystical experiences. I think that, maybe, Anthony had a deep awareness of God along with greater or lesser levels of abstraction from the outer world, but he probably didn’t flaunt about it. Anyhow, he might have been able to sustain levels of self-absorption or “ß as he was familiar with Yoga, Vipassana and self-emptying Contemplation.
The location of Anthony’s faith community on the “conveyor belt” would probably be in a special situation within the Roman Catholic Church since Jesuits in general (especially after the Vatican II Council) had become like the intellectual, “free thinkers.” His more local community was also positioned in the middle of India’s great religiosity and transcendental ethos thus being stimulated by LL and LR forces to create a more attractive, understandable and ecumenical approach which naturally re-emphasized some kind of direct, experiential mysticism. The superiors of the Society of Jesus defended themselves and their spiritual-religious, Mid-Asian ways.
I think that Anthony de Mello’s faith community was so well settled in modern, rational outlooks and methods that it was ripe for post-rational explorations, especially in the multicultural setting of India. I believe that –generally speaking- this community is still vying to move forward amber structures and awarenesses in today’s world and that, perhaps one day along with the contributions of other pioneering elements in their church (elements quite at home with free thought and with contemplative prayer), the church will be eventually lead by a splitting and less exclusivist, unimaginative and rigid faction.
Anthony de Mello is an example of an enlightened man who offered his life to serve Spirit and mankind in the milieu available to him. We don’t know why a person becomes likes this. He might have been born with the propensity. He may have been chosen. However, a spiritual experienced did hold a transformative sway in his life. His life will serve as an example for many of us today trying to ignite an integral civilization. It will serve future efforts aimed at recreating the relationship between man, religion and spirituality in an integral way. Anthony displayed –perhaps in an intuitive and/or conscious way- not only many of the characteristics of a universal, wise man but of a radically genuine Integral or Second Tier person. His understanding surpassed his era’s and his openness probably taught us that those possessed of a loving heart and a particularly developed spiritual line can overcome many cultural and structural deficiencies in their societies and rise to be pioneering representatives of a truly Integral stage.
Bárcena, Elcira Díaz (date unknown). Biografía de Tony de Mello SJ. Retrieved from: http://www.geocities.com/tony_de_mello/index.html
DeMello, Bill (circa 1989). Tony deMello, SJ –a short biography. Retrieved from: http://users.tpg.com.au/adsligol/tony/index.ht