FindArticles > Ecumenical Review, The > April, 1999 > Article > Print friendly

The Prayer of the Frog Called into Question

T.K. Thomas

Censuring the Writings of Fr Anthony de Mello, S.J.

People's Reporter, a fortnightly Christian journal published from Bangalore, carried a letter to the editor in its 1-15 November 1998 issue in which the writer expressed his distress over the ban imposed by the Vatican on the books of Fr Anthony de Mello. The letter was full of praise for the writings of the late Jesuit priest, concluding with the hope that the ban would be lifted and the books made available again, perhaps "with the insertion of a caution". That, happily, has happened. The books are now available, and carry a rather ambiguous, though amiable, note of caution:

   The books of Father Anthony de Mello were written in a multi-religious
   context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists in
   their spiritual search, and they were not intended by the author as manuals
   of instruction of the Catholic faithful in Christian doctrine or dogma.

I must confess that I feel grateful for the banning, or the temporary withdrawal, of de Mello's books. I had heard of him, but never read his writings. Excommunication, somehow, has far more news value than beatification. So also the suppression of a book attracts greater publicity than its publication. My own work has been largely confined to editing rather than reading (and there is a difference between the two); and the editing was itself confined for the most part to Protestant and so-called ecumenical writings. It was not surprising that I had not read de Mello. What was surprising is that the students and teachers of theology I know seemed to share my ignorance of the work of this Roman Catholic writer. It shows how denominationally compartmentalized our theological interests and pursuits are, and that is distressing.

The Vatican is not normally interested in the dead, unless of course they are seen to qualify for sainthood, in which case the process of canonization is initiated, and gone through, with bureaucratic thoroughness. Fr de Mello did not obviously qualify for such treatment. He was raised up, more than a decade after he died, only to be put in his place. Not to be dismissed outfight, only to be warned against.

Thanks to this belated and rather dubious recognition of de Mello by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I started collecting and reading his writings. The collection has fared better than the reading, mainly because, although de Mello has written only a few books, these are not meant to be read through as books normally are. They are to be taken in small doses, and "read the way one would read a medical book - wondering whether one has any of the symptoms; and not a psychology book - thinking what typical specimens one's friends are."(1)

"I am not a writer" de Mello once said: "I am a story-teller ... I write stories and meditations, but not essays and treaties."(2) His books are for the most part collections of anecdotes, stories and jokes, drawn from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions - a compendium, in fact, of wisdom, humour and insights from everywhere, especially from Oriental cultures. They are invariably entertaining as stories, often hilarious, sometimes mischievous and in most cases thought-provoking. Precisely because they make interesting reading, we are likely to miss the point the writer wants to make and pass on without pausing to ponder and appropriate the message they are meant to convey or the critique they are supposed to provide.

Anthony de Mello, as the name indicates, was a Goan. He was born in Bombay in 1931. At 30, he was ordained a Jesuit priest, and in 1973 he established the Sadhana Institute of Spirituality and Counselling at Lonavla. He served as director of the Institute, conducting annual retreats, occasional seminars and regular renewal meetings. He travelled widely, and was in great demand to give leadership at spiritual retreats in many countries, especially in the USA. He died in 1987, while on a visit to New York.

The writings of de Mello

Nine of Fr de Mello's books have been published in India, six of them posthumously. The first, brought out in 1978, is entitled Sadhana: A Way to God; and a note on the cover, attributed to the Catholic Theological Society of America, calls it "perhaps the best book available in English for Christians on how to pray, meditate and contemplate".

The Sanskrit word Sadhana means spiritual training. Fr de Mello had spent several years as "a retreat master and spiritual director helping people to pray", and Sadhana is a collection of exercises to enable people "to get satisfaction and fulfilment from prayer". It is legitimate to seek such satisfaction; to secure it, one must pray "less with the head than with the heart".

The exercises are meant to increase awareness, facilitate fantasy and deepen devotion. Awareness is a key concept in de Mello's understanding and practice of Sadhana, and silence is integral to awareness. The very first exercise is to enable us to appropriate the riches of silence and it starts with a saying of Lao-tse: "Silence is the great revelation." The exercises are designed for contemplation groups, and are in line with the approach of a Hindu guru who advised one of de Mello's Jesuit friends to concentrate on his breathing: "The air you breathe is God. You are breathing God in and out. Become aware of that, and stay with that awareness."

Fantasy is much more than the mere recalling of events. It is reliving events, which helps us to recover the sense of God's presence then and there and at the same time to realize God's presence now and here. One of the exercises in this section invites you to look at your own body in the coffin laid out in the church for the funeral rites, to look at the people Who have come to see you off, to listen to the sermon and all the good things the preacher is saying about you, and then to become aware of your existence and the time at your disposal (Exercise 28). The exercise that comes after your funeral is a Buddhist "reality meditation", a fantasy on your corpse in which you are asked to "imagine your corpse in the grave as vividly as you can and watch it go through the nine stages of decomposition", spending a minute on each stage (Exercise 29).

While the exercises in the section on devotion are a little more traditional and scriptural, these too are drawn from many sources, including the Hindu practice of reciting the thousand names of God. The book itself is dedicated to "the Blessed Virgin Mary, who has always been to me a model of contemplation".

Sadhana was an instant best-seller, surprisingly so considering that it is presented as a way to God through the demanding discipline of spiritual exercises and not through ritual shortcuts or the mediation of affable saints. The book has been translated into 43 European and Asian languages; the Indian edition has had 22 reprints, a number of them after de Mello's death. Clearly there is a continuing demand for the book - in spite of the fact that towards the end of his life he regretted writing it.(3)

Fr de Mello's second book, The Song of the Bird, was very different from Sadhana. It is made up of stories ancient and contemporary, drawing on Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Hasidic, Zen, Sufi, Chinese and Russian sources. Readers are warned that these are not just to be read, not even to be read over and over again; they are to be carded around so that they may "speak to your heart, not to your brain ... and make something of a mystic out of you".

Fr de Mello makes clear, however, that he is not a free-lance mystic. He is a priest of the Catholic Church, though the book "has been written for people of every persuasion, religious and non-religious".

   I have wandered freely in mystical traditions that are not Christian and
   not religious and I have been profoundly influenced by them. It is to my
   Church, however, that I keep returning, for she is my spiritual home; and
   while I am acutely, sometimes embarrassingly, conscious of her limitations
   and narrowness, I also know that it is she who has formed me and made me
   what I am today. So it is to her that I gratefully dedicate this book.(4)

At the end of the brief introduction to the book is a glossary which is worth reproducing:

   Theology: The art of telling stories about the Divine. Also the art of
   listening to them.

   Mysticism: The art of tasting and feeling in your heart the inner meaning
   of such stories to the point that they transform you.(5)

It is tempting to quote from the stories and the comments that often conclude them. But readers have been warned: the stories are for them and about them; the comments are the author's own, personal and provisional. Readers must make their own comments. Here are two examples, the first on "The Guru's Cat", without comment, and the second on "Religious Hatred", with a comment.

   Each time the gum sat for worship with his students the ashram cat would
   come in to distract them, so he ordered them to tie it when the ashram was
   at prayer.

   After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied at worship time. And when
   the cat expired, another cat was brought into the ashram to make sure that
   the guru's order were faithfully observed at worship time.

   Centuries passed and learned treatises were written by the guru's scholarly
   disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is

   A tourist says to his guide, "You must be proud of your town. I was
   especially impressed by the number of churches in it. Surely the people
   here must love the Lord."

   "Well" says the cynical guide, "they may love the Lord, but they sure as
   hell hate each other."

   Like the little girl who when asked, "Who are pagans?", replied, "Pagans
   are people who do not fight about religion."(7)

Wellsprings, first published in 1984, is "a book of spiritual exercises". It is dedicated to "the Jesuit Order that I feel so proud and so unworthy to belong to". Nevertheless, the tenth edition (1996) carries the warning that "in spite of frequent references to Jesus Christ, whose disciple the author professes himself to be, this book is meant for persons of all spiritual affiliations - religious, a-religious, agnostic, atheistic".

The exercises are not meant to be "merely read", but to be done, preferably as groups. This is how de Mello concludes his introduction to the book:

   This book is meant to lead from mind to sense, from thought to fantasy and
   feeling - then, hopefully, through feeling, fantasy and sense to silence.
   So use it like a staircase to get up to the terrace. Once there, be sure to
   leave the stairs, or you will not see the sky.

   When you are brought to Silence this book will be your enemy. Get rid of

At the end of the book is a collection of single sentences - de Mello calls them "seedlings" - which are not to be forced open with our minds, but sown in our hearts where they may germinate and grow. Again, it is tempting to quote from the exercises, but it is pointless to choose self-contained extracts which will only inform and, by informing, distract. The seedlings may not bring instant enlightenment, but they are unlikely to encourage backsliding. Here are a few:

-- The Messiah is still around. When did you see him last?

-- Listen to the Good News: God is unjust - he makes his sun to shine on the good and bad alike.

-- Certainty is the sin of bigots, terrorists and Pharisees.

-- Compassion makes us think we may be wrong.

-- The God who deals in terror is a bully, and to bend the knee before him is to be a coward, not a devotee.

-- Repentance reaches fullness when you are brought to gratitude for your sins.

-- I am no great improvement on those who killed the Saviour.

-- If your God comes to your rescue and gets you out of trouble, it is time you started looking for the true God.

-- Doubt is Faith's friend. The enemy of Faith is fear.

-- The market is as good a place for silence as the monastery, for silence is the absence of the ego.

In One Minute Wisdom, first published in 1985, the Master takes over. The Master is no one single individual:

   He is a Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, a Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian
   monk, a Sufi Mystic. He is Lao Tzu and Socrates, Buddha and Jesus,
   Zarathustra and Mohammed. His teaching is found in the 7th century B.C. and
   the 20th century A.D. His wisdom belongs to East and West alike.(9)

The book is a collection of tales, each of which takes only a minute to read. The wisdom is what de Mello calls the "Silent Teaching". One does not so much read and understand it as chance upon it and be awakened and transformed by it. The wisdom is not so much imparted as mediated, for wisdom means "to be changed without the slightest effort on your part, to be transformed...merely by waking to the reality that is not words, that lies beyond the reach of words".

Here, too, readers are asked to take the tales in tiny doses, one or two at a time. Let us take three, not quite at random but because they are briefer than most others.


   The Master held that no words were bad if they were used in an appropriate

   When he was told that one of his disciples was given to swearing, he
   remarked, "Profanity has been known to offer spiritual relief denied to


   A group of political activists were attempting to show the Master how their
   ideology would change the world.

   The Master listened carefully.

   The following day he said, "An ideology is as good or bad as the people who
   make use of it. If a million wolves were to organize for justice would they
   cease to be a million wolves?.(11)


   The Master, while being gracious to all his disciples, could not conceal
   his preference for those who lived in the "world" - the married, the
   merchants, the farmers - over those who lived in the monastery.

   When he was confronted about this he said. "Spirituality practised in the
   state of activity is incomparably superior to that practised in the state
   of withdrawal."(12)

One Minute Nonsense, though written soon after de Mello completed One Minute Wisdom, appeared only in 1992, the last of his posthumous publications. It carries the same introductory note as the earlier book. The Master is the same person, and his style and approach have not changed; only wisdom has become nonsense. And that, perhaps, is explained, however ambiguously, in the very first entry which appears before the introduction.

   "The man talks nonsense", said a visitor hearing the Master speak.

   Said a disciple, "You would talk nonsense too if you were trying to express
   the Inexpressible."

   When the visitor checked this out with the Master himself, this is the
   reply he got: "No one is exempt from talking nonsense. The great misfortune
   is to do it solemnly."

That is why the Master says to a religious group which comes to ask for a blessing: "May the peace of God disturb you always."(13) And that is why the Master refuses to give an answer to the atheist's question whether there is a God. When his disciples ask him why he refused to answer the question, he says, "Because his question is unanswerable." But is the Master then an atheist?

   "Certainly not. The atheist makes the mistake of denying that of which
   nothing may be said."

   After pausing to let that sink in, he added, "And the theist makes the
   mistake of affirming it."(14)

The two volumes of The Prayer of the Frog were in a sense de Mello's parting gift. They contain the last pieces he wrote. In an introductory note he tells us that

   the stories come from a variety of countries, cultures and religions. They
   belong to the spiritual heritage - and popular humour - of the human race.
   All that the author has done is to string them together with a specific aim
   in mind. His task has been that of the weaver and the dyer. He takes no
   credit at all for the cotton and the thread.(15)

The two volumes together contain nearly 500 "story meditations" around the general themes of prayer, awareness, religion, grace, the saints, the self, love and truth, education, authority, spirituality, human nature, relationships, service and enlightenment.

The very first story, apart from being typical, explains the title. Brother Bruno was at prayer one night. Disturbed by the croaking of a bullfrog and unable to get on with his prayer, he shouted from his window: "Quiet! I'm at my prayers." Since Brother Bruno was a saint, his command was instantly obeyed. All living creatures held their voices, and there was total silence. But an inner voice now intrudes: "Can't it be that God is as pleased with the croaking of the frog as with Bruno's prayers?" The Brother is not convinced. What can possibly please God in the croak of a frog? But the voice persists: Why then did God create the frog and give it the ability to croak? Bruno gives in, however reluctantly. He leans out and gives the order: "Sing!" The bullfrog and all the frogs in the neighbourhood start croaking. And, to Bruno's surprise, it is no longer jarring. When he stops resisting, the voices actually enrich the silence of the night. "With that discovery Bruno's heart became harmonious with the universe and, for the first time in his life, he understood what it means to pray."(16)

One could reproduce, or at least summarize, more such stories here. And there is God's plenty to choose from, though some may wonder, and not without reason, whether all the stories are indeed God's. Let us content ourselves with just one more "study meditation".


   "Prisoner at the bar" said the Grand Inquisitor, "you are charged with
   encouraging people to break the laws, traditions and customs of our holy
   religion. How do you plead?"

   "Guilty, your Honour."

   "And with frequenting the company of heretics, prostitutes, public sinners,
   the extortionist tax-collectors, the colonial conquerors of our nation - in
   short, the ex-communicated. How do you plead?"

   "Guilty, your Honour."

   "Finally, you are charged with revising, correcting, calling into question
   the sacred tenets of our faith. How do you plead?"

   "Guilty, your Honour."

   "What is your name, prisoner?"

   "Jesus Christ, your Honour."

   Some people are just as alarmed to see their religion practised as they are
   to hear it doubted.(17)

Anthony de Mello was best known as a spiritual director. A collection of reflections he gave at retreats on themes related to prayer, penance and the love of Christ was published in 1990 under the title Contact with God: Retreat Conferences. He had once said in a sermon that only the contemplative will know "how to combine loyalty and obedience with creativity and confrontation".(18) The meditations included here, like much of what he has written, illustrate and emphasize this basic rationale for a retreat - not to escape from the world, but to be equipped for life here and now.

Call to Love is yet another collection of meditations Fr de Mello gave at retreats. The presentation describes them as "the memoirs of a mystic" and points to their autobiographical nature: they "portray the painful route by which Tony was led in the last years of his life to divest himself of all ideologies, to be alone". Each meditation begins with a biblical 'text, but the text, as far as one can make out, is hardly developed or even clarified in relation to the context; it serves only as a starting point. The claim that the meditations bring out "the deeper personal insights of these texts beyond all exegesis" is not quite convincing.

The meditations often break new ground, as when we are asked to be with people, but reject their formulas. "Then, even though you are surrounded by people, you are truly and utterly alone ... That solitude, that aloneness, is silence. It is only this silence that you will see. And the moment you see, you will abandon every book and guide and guru."(19) Or as when we are told that "to love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone".(20) All the 31 meditations in the book contain such insights that challenge and disturb. They are absorbing, but how they emerge out of or derive from the biblical texts with which the meditations begin is by no means clear.

All these books, including the ones published after de Mello's death, have been well received and repeatedly reprinted. They must have had and continue to have a large readership, although one suspects that in India this is largely limited to Roman Catholic readers, particularly to those belonging to or familiar with the Jesuit Order. Perhaps that explains why de Mello's lifelong search for a radically ecumenical spirituality is not better known. That may also explain why he is known more as a spiritual director, therapist and guru than as a theologian or a writer.(21) It does not however explain the following statement in a recent reprint of One Minute Nonsense, at the end of the notes on his writings - which include all the books we have reviewed above: "These are the only books that Fr de Mello ever wrote, all other books that are printed with his name as the author were not written by him."

The "magic" of Tony

It may be interesting to take a look at two books that were published in India, one of them soon after de Mello's death and the other in 1995. Both deal with what is referred to in one of them as "the magic of Tony". It has a striking rifle, We Heard the Bird Sing, and a more descriptive sub-title: "Interacting with Anthony de Mello, S.J.". It is a collection of personal testimonies presented without rifles and without identifying the writers. Here are a few excerpts:

   Tony saw in me the good I myself did not see; the bad I was bothered about
   did not bother him.

   One who could gauge the strengths and limits of others, who could affirm
   and warn in detachment. One who left us free. Daring, not taking anything
   on authority. One who knew his power and the possible danger in that power.
   Friend - Philosopher - Guide.

   This is the challenge I have gotten from Tony: to grow is to out-grow my
   fears and anxieties coming from an unexamined conditioning, to understand
   the impact this conditioning has on my present life, to realize how this
   conditioning keeps me an adolescent even in my mid-life.

   With Tony's guidance I became aware how paralyzed I had been for years -
   paralyzed by the belief systems, doctrines, shoulds and oughts, my need to
   please others, my fear of what others would think, do, etc. When I "saw"
   this I was freed. Life has not been the same for me.(22)

The other book, Unencumbered by Baggage - Tony de Mello, a Prophet for our Times by Carlos G. Valles, S.J., is an interpretative study of de Mello, a spiritual biography which presents him as guru, therapist and spiritual director. Valles had known de Mello as a Jesuit student; later he participated in a month-long retreat, a nine-month Sadhana course and three Sadhana renewals directed by de Mello. Through them he received a "joyful re-assurance" in his way of life and "greater clarity to see and strength to live"(23) far beyond his expectations. In a note meant for North American readers of the book Carlos Valles says:

   Precisely because of the great faith he had in his Christian convictions he
   could go out in sympathy to other doctrines and other experiences and
   assimilate all that was good and valid in them into his own Catholic
   practice. He could be openly ecumenical because he was unmistakably

In his spiritual quest de Mello was complying with the injunction of the Second Vatican Council "to recognize, accept and propagate the true spiritual values of their religions".(24) And in pursuing his spirituality "he was in tune with the best tradition of Christian mysticism, Muslim Sufism, Hindu Advaita, Zen's Atomism and Tao's emptiness".(25) Carlos Valles traces the stages - development may be a controversial word in this case - in the spiritual journey of de Mello. Sadhana is the way to awareness, but awareness must take me beyond what me stands for, beyond the I, the ego. During the last years of his life de Mello was pre-occupied with the need to eliminate the self. At the final renewal retreat he conducted, de Mello said to the participants:

   See, I am simply made up of my body and soul, yet I introduce that "I" over
   them, and speak of "my body" and "my soul". Who is that "I" to whom my soul
   and body belong? As the Irishman asked his parish priest, "When I die, my
   body will be in the grave, and my soul in heaven; but ... where will `I'
   be?" In reality there is no such "I", but we somehow imagine that there is
   little person at the back of our skull who owns our mind and body, feels
   responsible for them, controls them and so it becomes an "I" controlling
   "me", which is an impossible bind. Think of the expression "I have to save
   my soul". Who is this "I" that has to save "his" soul? Someone different
   from the soul, isn't it? Otherwise how could "he" save it? So we have put a
   Self in charge of the soul. The Self will save its soul. But who now, pray,
   will save the Self?. Obviously we have to put another Self in charge of the
   first Self ... Unless we get rid of the first Self there is no way out of
   the labyrinth.(26)

Words such as self-denial and self-control are meaningless expressions. Self is the final obstacle to love. Once the self is dropped, all the attachments we have been trying to get rid of will drop off on their own.

The question "what remains?" is hardly raised and remains unanswered, as far as one can make out. Not that this mystical approach is new; it is in fact an integral part of Hindu metaphysics. But how it can be accommodated within the world-affirming orientation of the biblical faith is not clear - an affirmation of the here and now which is celebrated in much of de Mello's own writings.

Both these books testify to the impact de Mello had on people, as friend and mentor. They are not uncritical, but they affirm that people heard the bird sing, and for them de Mello's role was profoundly corrective and inspiring. The part de Mello played in making people aware of encumbrances of every kind - credal, scriptural, institutional and so on - cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant.

The "Notification" of the Vatican

The official church's more recent assessment of de Mello's work is far more critical.(27) And understandably so.

That assessment is in two parts. The first and shorter one is a "Notification concerning the writings of Fr Anthony de Mello, S.J.". It begins on a positive, if cautious, note. Fr de Mello's work contains "some valid elements of Oriental wisdom" which can help people to achieve self-mastery (a word that de Mello would have dismissed as nonsensical, even "insane"),(28) to break the chains that keep them in bondage and to equip them to face the vicissitudes of life. Especially in his earlier writings he had "remained within the lines of Christian spirituality" though the influence of Buddhist and Taoist thought was discernible even then. In these early writings he dealt with the different kinds of prayer - petition, intercession and praise - and the contemplation of Christ's life and work. Even in these writings, however, and much more in his later work "one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith".

   In place of the revelation which has come in the person of Jesus Christ, he
   substitutes an intuition of God without form or image, to the point of
   speaking of God as a pure void. To see God it is enough look directly at
   the world. Nothing can be said about God; the only knowing is unknowing ...
   This radical apophaticism leads even to a denial that the Bible contains
   valid statements about God. The words of Scripture are indications which
   serve only to lead a person to silence ... Religions, including
   Christianity, are one of the major obstacles to the discovery of truth ...
   "God" is considered as a cosmic reality, vague and omnipresent; the
   personal nature of God is ignored and in practice denied.(29)

Fr de Mello claims to be a disciple of Jesus. But Jesus for him is a "master alongside others", though he is fully awake and wholly free unlike other masters. There is no recognition of Jesus as the Son of God. Belief in God or in Christ may impede one's search for truth. The Church, making an idol of the word of God in holy scripture, "has ended up banishing God from the temple" and, as a result, lost the authority to teach in the name of Christ.

The Notification, adopted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in June 1998 in order "to protect the good of the Christian faithful", declares that such positions are "incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm".

An Explanatory Note, considerably longer than the Notification, covers much the same ground, Fr de Mello ignores the personal nature of God and reduces God to "a vague and omnipresent cosmic reality". As a result of such "unilateral and exaggerated apophaticism, he is sceptical of all God-language". This, in turn, limits the role of the Bible and of all sacred scriptures. They can only serve as "signposts". All religions, in so far as they make monopolistic claims for God's love, do less than justice to God. Concepts and beliefs, the creed and the faith, are all part of our conditioning, hindering us rather than helping us in our search for enlightenment. The Explanatory Note concludes, with logical finesse:

   Clearly, there is an internal connection between these different positions:
   if one questions the existence of a personal God, it does make sense that
   God would address himself to us with his word. Sacred Scripture, therefore,
   does not have definitive value. Jesus is a teacher like others; only in the
   author's early books does he appear as the Son of God, an affirmation which
   would have little meaning in the context of such an understanding of God.
   As a consequence one cannot attribute value to the Church's teaching. Our
   personal survival after death is problematic if God is not personal. Thus
   it becomes clear that such conceptions of God, Christ and man are not
   compatible with the Christian faith.

The church has a case, and so, perhaps, has Fr de Mello

Reading the Notification, I was repeatedly reminded of the testimonies in We Heard the Bird Sing. One of them in particular illustrates de Mello's "uncanny ability to help people to drop illusions". A friend tells him of his personal experience of God as a loving Father. After a time de Mello asks him when he is going "to let go of God", his God. "You are using him as a crutch, and you won't grow. Your life and your world will be of the crutches. Throw him out and see what happens." The friend, in shocked silence, reflects on what it will mean for him.

   Throw him out. Fall back on my inner resources. Fall back on the God who is
   in me? Do away with the religious practices which I do out of habit? Stop
   turning to the Bible and the catechism books for norms of conduct? Listen
   to the Spirit speaking within me? Test the memorized doctrines on the anvil
   of reason and experience? Trust myself into the hands of the Mystery which
   works mightily in the universe?(30)

Explaining what he means, de Mello tells him:

   One day you may say, "I found God, I know him, he is so and so, he is there
   and there, he is in me, in creation, in the eucharist ..." That is a day of
   disaster for you because you will have found your God, your own projection,
   so pitiful and small. These gods - these idols - in turn keep us pitiful
   and small. We would fight for them ... They can be terrible ... Mystery
   does not require defenders. Idols do. Mystery makes us humble.(31)

The friend concludes his testimony with the confession: "I have experienced the anxiety and the dangers and the rewards of throwing away crutches."

What then, can the church offer? Having discarded doctrines and dogmas, creeds and catechisms, scriptures and sacraments, where does one go for a glimpse of God? Without the discipline and the practice of faith - the service of God which is "perfect freedom" - the compliance these demand and the consolation they provide, how does one know of God? "Pity the poor atheist" de Mello once said, "who feels grateful but has no one to thank." Do the liberated mystics feel grateful and, if they do, whom do they thank?

In one of the stories in The Song of the Bird the writer goes to the Truth Shop to buy not partial but the whole truth, without deceptions, defences and rationalizations. The salesman warns him that the price is very high, but he is determined to get it whatever the cost. The price is nothing less than his whole security, which is far more than he can afford to part with. "I came away with a heavy heart. I still needed the safety of my unquestioned beliefs."(32)

Not that de Mello's beliefs were at any time "unquestioned". Faith, for him, was "not the accumulation of certainties but the capacity to doubt".(33) The doubts and questionings were a help and not a hindrance in his sustained search for a truly ecumenical spirituality that affirmed the world and was not a means of escaping from it.

The testimony of one who was not moved by "the magic of Tony" is far more revealing than the enthusiastic approbation of de Mello's friends and disciples. This friend says:

   What I have received from him is the challenging example of a Jesuit who
   daringly looked into the phony mythologies of religion as it is lived, and
   had the courage to say aloud that "the emperor has no clothes" ... I cannot
   honestly say that I have been very deeply "influenced" by Tony in my
   personal spiritual search and formation. But in the earlier stages of my
   quest for a meaningful spirituality and humanity for myself, Tony was an
   inspiring example to me to do my own search without fear and without
   relying too much on other people to guide me.(34)

No wonder the compilers of the testimonies conclude:

   Tony did not, especially in his later years, represent the mainline
   Christian thought or piety; but he offered a witness and a programme, and
   raised some questions, which even mainline Christians found immensely
   challenging and enriching; that was, is, his relevance.(35)

The church, one must admit, however unwillingly, has a case. But one must also add that perhaps the church continues to be recognizably Christian because of the witness of people like Fr Anthony de Mello who are willing to risk not being readily identified as Christians. De Mello once wrote: "The Bible tells us to love our neighbour and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people."(36) So are, quite often, martyrs and heretics.

Let me close with yet another of Fr de Mello's stories, more to celebrate a legacy than to make a concluding comment.

   A tramp knocked at a farmer's door and asked for some food.

   "Are you a Christian?" asked the farmer.

   "Of course, "said the tramp. "Can't you tell? Just look at the knees of my
   pants. Don't they prove it?"

   The farmer and his wife noticed the holes in the knees and promptly gave
   the man some food.

   As the tramp turned to go, the farmer asked: "By the way, what made those
   holes in the seat of your pants?"

   "Backsliding", said the tramp.(37)


(1) Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog: A Book of Study Meditations, vol. 1, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988, p.xii.

(2) Quoted in Carlos G. Valles, Unencumbered by Baggage: Tony de Mello, a Prophet for Our Time, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987, p.8.

(3) According to We Heard the Bird Sing: Interacting with Anthony de Mello, S.J., compiled by Aurel Brys, S.J., and Joseph Pulickal, S.J., Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1995, pp. 110f.

(4) Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1982, p.x.

(5) Ibid., p.xii.

(6) Ibid., p.73.

(7) Ibid., p.170.

(8) Anthony de Mello, Wellsprings: A Book of Spiritual Exercises, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1984, pp.xv-xvi.

(9) Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1985, p.viii.

(10) Ibid., p.27.

(11) Ibid., p.85.

(12) Ibid., p. 120.

(13) Anthony de Mello, One Minute Nonsense, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1992, p.33.

(14) Ibid., p.21.

(15) The Prayer of the Frog, vol. 1, p.xxiii.

(16) Ibid., p.3.

(17) Ibid., p.174.

(18) Anthony de Mello, Contact with God: Retreat Conferences, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1990, quoted on the presentation page.

(19) Anthony de Mello, Call to Love: Meditations, Anand, India, Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1991, p.61.

(20) Ibid., p.90.

(21) Cf. Valles, op. cit., p.133.

(22) We Heard the Bird Sing, pp.1,15,67,75.

(23) Op. cit., p.1.

(24) Ibid., p.39

(25) Ibid., p.94.

(26) Ibid., pp.89f.

(27) The brief "Notification" and the longer "Explanatory Note", 8 pages in all, come with the books; I now have six copies of them.

(28) Valles, op. cit., p.90.

(29) "Notification" p.1. "Apophaticism" - from "apophatic", without images - denotes a single-hearted approach to a life of prayer and relating to God without any extraneous help, not even words and mental images, Among the advocates of apophatic mysticism were the 5th-century Greek theologian Pseudo-Dionysius and the author of the 14th-century manual on contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing.

(30) We Heard the Bird Sing, pp.77f.

(31) Ibid.

(32) The Song of the Bird, p. 100.

(33) Quoted in Valles, op. cit., p.107.

(34) Ibid.

(35) Introductory note by the compilers to We Heard the Bird Sing.

(36) Quoted in ibid., p.63.

(37) Ibid., p. 106.

T.K. Thomas was formerly Publications editor of the World Council of Churches, and managing editor of The Ecumenical Review.3

COPYRIGHT 1999 World Council of Churches
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group