On Cooperating with the Inevitable
Awareness - Anthony deMello, SJ
I’m not the only one haunted by great questions. Lots of my friends are similarly afflicted with the will to wonder or, as my mother would say, to “wander” pretty far afield. (Mea Culpa, Mom). Many of my questions are of a religious/spiritual nature, probably because like many little Catholic kids, I flew high on the liturgy until real life struck hard. During those periods then and since, I’d sink to my knees and struggle to put the pieces of my world back together. Nothing ever quite fit. The only constant in my life that I can share is that I’ve always wanted to be a better person one year to the next no matter what, but honestly, the path has been difficult.
So, first author up on my “works that have changed me or at least made me think” list is the radical Jesuit Anthony deMello, S.J., who believed spiritual progress -- enlightenment , even – happened in proportion to our ability to, as he put it, cooperate with the inevitable. That’s an easy sentence to pass over lightly, but boy, there’s a world inside of it. You can find the ideas he discussed in Eastern and other belief traditions, but deMello was the first Catholic priest I encountered who made them simple, and wholly accessible to a mass American public.
Here’s what he said about the so-called religious mindset:
A religious belief… is not a statement about Reality, but a hint, a clue about something that is a mystery, beyond the grasp of human thought. In short, a religious belief is only a finger pointing to the moon. Some religious people never get beyond the study of the finger. Others are engaged in sucking it. Others yet use the finger to gouge their eyes out. These are the bigots whom religion has made blind. Rare indeed is the religionist who is sufficiently detached from the finger to see what it is indicating— these are those who, having gone beyond belief, are taken for blasphemers.
DeMello knew what he was talking about, and earned that knowledge the hard way. He skirted the line of appropriate teaching according to the Vatican, where much debate centered on how to contain and control the priest who’d developed a large following of lapsed Catholics and others who hungered for the sense of a living faith. His audience has only grown larger since his death in 1987.
DeMello wasn’t urging folks to be saved or to save the world by virtue of adopting the tenets of any belief system. Attachments to things and ideas saved no one in his view. The only way to change the world - to “awaken” it - would be to awaken ourselves. To have faith meant to see, to be vital and responsive, engaged with life in a way that our cynicism often will not permit.
We may be decent people, but lull ourselves into inaction through self-comforts like shopping for unneeded items, acquiring lots of stuff, taking drugs, obsessing or engaging in distractions that amount to nothing much of ultimate value to us or to anyone. It’s the excessive tendency toward trivial trappings that is the problem…the source of our literal entrapment. We live beneath the stifling bell jar of all-too-limited perspectives. We, society, also tend to find targets at which to take aim in any number of ways. Mindless distraction and hate, further complicated by insincerity and incivility create a world we allow to happen by virtue of our unawareness…our mindless participation in that which we wish were different.
If you were to fall asleep at the wheel of your car, what would happen? You’d crash. We’re driving through our years here, but most of us are sleeping. We’re in our grooves, compelled to be, act, purchase, and basically live by the guidance, rules, or manipulations of others. If we live on autopilot, and if we remain unaware throughout our life’s course, we’ll crash, and so will the world around us. His book Awareness begins with a parable:
“A father knocks on his son’s door. "Jaime," he says, "wake up!"
Jaime answers, "I don’t want to get up, Papa."
The father shouts, "Get up, you have to go to school."
Jaime says, "I don’t want to go to school."
"Why not?" asks the father.
"Three reasons," says Jaime. First, because it’s so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school.”
And the father says, "Well, I am going to give you three reasons why you must go to school.
First, because it is your duty; second, because you are forty-five years old, and third, because you are the headmaster."
Wake up! Wake up! You’ve grown up. You’re too big to be asleep. Wake up! Stop playing with your toys.
Stop playing with your life. Anthony deMello conveyed the essence of mystical truths upon which the world’s great faith traditions evolved. Were it not for the admiration of Francis Stroud, SJ, editor of his now best-selling works, the reading public may have never heard of him.
The best way to get deeper into the essence of his work is to let him speak for himself, so I’ll take the role of pretend interviewer:
I feel bad, and often guilty, when I think about some of my failings of the past. And it is so difficult to get past those feelings.
When you hear 'Repent for your past,' realize it's a great religious distraction from waking up. Wake up! That's what repent means. Not 'weep for your sins.' Wake up! Stop all the crying. Understand! Wake up!
When you are guilty, it is not your sins you hate but yourself. Understand. Wake up.
So what does it really mean to love? Can we pick and choose?
Is it possible for the rose to say, 'I will give my fragrance to the good people who smell me, but I will withhold it from the bad?' Or is it possible for the lamp to say, 'I will give my light to the good people in this room, but I will withhold it from the evil people'? Or can a tree say, 'I'll give my shade to the good people who rest under me, but I will withhold it from the bad'? These are images of what love is about.
The world feels endlessly dark and dismal. Many are suffering.
Here’s a parable.
"Why is everyone so happy except for me," asked the student.
"Because they have learned to see goodness and beauty everywhere," said the master.
"Why don't I see goodness and beauty everywhere?"
"Because you cannot see outside of you what you fail to see inside."
By the way…according to deMello:
Don’t say, “I am depressed.” If you want to say, “It is depressed,” that’s all right. If you want to say that depression is there, that’s fine; if you want to say gloominess is there, that’s fine. But not: I am gloomy. You’re defining yourself in terms of the feeling. That’s your illusion; that’s your mistake. There is a depression there right now, but let it be, leave it alone. It will pass. Everything passes, everything. Your depressions and your thrills have nothing to do with happiness. Those are swings of the pendulum. If you seek kicks or thrills, get ready for depression. Do you want your drug? Get ready for the hangover. One end of the pendulum swings over to the other.
DeMello was an advocate for what the Buddhists called the Middle Way. Platonic thinkers know it as moderation, and whatever you call it, it allows you to at least approach what the Taoists refer to as the “gateway to understanding.”
Since I first read him in 1993, I have studied more formally and deeply into the traditions themselves; I am still surprised that a Catholic priest came up with what he did, in an admittedly simplified but many find more useful language.
That’s why I love him – like Thomas Merton, aka Father Louis, he transcended traditional Roman Catholic boundaries. I do not practice the tenets of Catholicism, nor do I agree with everything deMello (or anyone) has said or written, but finding thinkers like these has helped me accept my own history…my own self. He’d approve – for him rejection of parts of one’s own self led to sickness. Better to understand one’s origins from a different point of view, and find healing there. That encounter is the only way it’s possible to change.
This was his prayer following a communion service; these are also his last recorded words:
Don't change: Desire to change is the enemy of love.
Don't change yourselves: Love yourselves as you are.
Don't change others: Love all others as they are.
Don't change the world: It is in God's hands and he knows.
And if you do that change will occur
marvelously in its own way and in its own time.
Yield to the current of life unencumbered by baggage.
Find more about Anthony deMello at: https://tonydemello.wordpress.com/
See a 1998 Vatican report on him: https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19980624_demello_en.html (Ratzinger, of course, is now Pope). The "ban" was later lifted, and henceforth the Vatican simply reminded Catholics, in statements printed in his books, that Father deMello was only trying to reach a wider audience with his expansive notions of holiness in this life, and spiritual wholeness.
If you want to, read Awareness in its entirety here. If you are a practicing Catholic, you have been warned.