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.

 

Comments

Kay Satterfield | 2/26/2010 - 7:11pm
I am also going through the 19th Annotation Spiritual Exercises Retreat this year.  Anthony DeMello's book "Sanhana, A Way to God" has been good guide for me for prayer over the years.  It is one I try to put into practice. I was introduced to the book in a  retreat I attended given by Jesuits in Munich where we lived in 2002.  One of his later writings published in A Way to Love did seem to focus mostly on detachment.  Maybe that's where he was in his spiritual journey.  Thomas Merton actively searched and found common ground between Christian prayer and Buddhist prayer.  It was part of his journey of faith.    
I think like anything we (the laity) should be given the benefit of the doubt that we can think and discern for ourselves if his writings are producing real fruit in our lives or not.  Maybe some of Fr. DeMello's work needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I don't think that means the body of his work was/is without merit.   
JESUITTAMPA | 2/26/2010 - 9:16am
RE: The evils of "materialism."  The Catholic Church ought also to be accused of materialism, as described above.  There is a central aspect of our faith that is precisely "Preoccupied with things that you can touch, taste, feel, see, experience with your body."  Not heresy, or new ageism, but the Sacraments.  The real world we cannot touch does touch us, materially, in the Sacraments.  We ought not to be too quick to reject the material, because in doing so we distort our own tradition and faith.  
Father De Mello is not my favorite writer.  But, as with many other spiritual writings, I have found things in Father De Mello's work that I question, but I also have found spiritual fruit.
Vince Killoran | 2/25/2010 - 9:59pm
Thanks to Jim Keane and Rick Malloy for the important clarification.  There's a real richness to this work and I'm pleased that readers aren't being frightened away the inaccurate labeling of it as heresy.
Rick Malloy | 2/25/2010 - 9:46pm
The Loyola Press blurb at ignatianspiritualiy.com says it all.  "This Vatican scolding only seems to have encouraged De Mello’s popularity, and his books continue to sell steadily."
The 1998 Vatican "notification" on Tony DeMello's writings did little to quiet De Mello's voice and wisdom.  Like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Ignatius of Loyola, DeMello's thought and teachings have come under scrutiny and censure by Church authorities.  All who want to decry DeMello's work may want to re-read Gamaliel's words (Acts 5:38-39).
The imprimatur on DeMello's books has not been rescinded.  Interestingly, I heard that much of what the Vatican found to fault was really based on writings sent to them by some of DeMello's enemies, works DeMello had never written.  Does anyone know the status of the 1998 "notification"?  I had heard the Vatican realized the notification had been based on writings falsely attributed to DeMello.
Bottom line: Read DeMello for yourself (a lot easier going than Rahner or Lonergan).  If anyone finds DeMello an enemy of Christianity, I would suggest they question their own ideology, not his wisdom and interpretation of the Good News given to all the human family in Jesus Christ.  All Tony preaches is that God loves us and that we can seek and find God in all true human experience, essentially the teaching at the heart of Ignatian Spirituality and the doctrine of the incarnation.
The links below also provide Indian views on Western cultural imperialism being used to try and discredit Asian views of God and the Gospel.
http://ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/20th-century-ignatian-voices/anthony-de-mello-sj/
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19980624_demello_en.html
http://www.demello.org/
http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?206551
http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/19981003/27651204.html
Anonymous | 2/25/2010 - 9:12pm
Padre: The problem appears to lie, not with my stupidity, nor my inability to read, nor with my self-rightoues character assasinations, but with the Magisterium. Perhaps it would be better to apprise the CDF of their error.
Anonymous | 2/25/2010 - 7:49pm
See CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH NOTIFICATION
CONCERNING THE WRITINGS OF FATHER ANTHONY DE MELLO, SJ @

www.vatican.va/.../congregations/cfaith/.../rc_con_cfaith_doc_19980624_demello_en.html -

I know, it so silly-looking to the Magisterium in these matters.


James Dominic James | 2/25/2010 - 5:30pm
To whom is addressed the quip ''why let a little Heresy get in the way of your Lenten meditations''? Is it the case that heretical interpretations of statements in ''Seek God Everywhere'' are actually happening for this unnamed person? Before these interpretations can get in the way, they must first exist.
 
What if, thanks to ''Seek God Everywhere,'' some people are thriving during this year's Lent? Wouldn't that be great? What if instead of being a sign of some ongoing degeneration of humanity, this post instead points to something to celebrate: that thanks to encountering the reflections of one member of the Mystical Body, another member is plunging deeper into the joy of finding God in all things?
Anonymous | 2/25/2010 - 3:23pm
There are other Jesuits who are of a differing opinion on De Mello, and others of De Mello's ilk, who comprise New Agesism. One of the Society feels that New Age Movement is Oriental Meditation, Oriental Prayer, or Mysticism that has penetrated many Christian circles. At the root of the New Age Movement, is the denial of an infinite, personal God, who created the world. And consequently, once you say that, then no how much you use the name God, no matter how much you talk about prayer and meditation, that prayer and mediation is no longer to God, but either to the unknown forces in the world or to one's self. And, you know, all I can say is, that one reason the New Age Movement has so deeply infected the Western world is because the Western world, unlike the Oriental world, has become very materialistic. Preoccupied with things that you can touch, taste, feel, see, experience with your body. The Western world needs a reformation. It needs to discover that there is a real world that you cannot touch, taste, see with your bodily eyes, or hear with the bodily ears. At the heart of this is the idea that there is no infinite God who created the world out of nothing. But, hey, why let a little Heresy get in the way of your Lenten meditations.
Matt Emerson | 2/25/2010 - 11:31am
Father Martin:

Doesn't that seem a bit too New Agey? That repentance is more about saying "I love God" than "God, I am sorry"-what support exists for that interpretation in the word itself (from the Latin, if I am not mistaken, for "to make sorry") or from the Tradition? By downplaying the element of sorrow for one's sins from the notion of repentance, aren't we ignoring the very thing that makes repentance repentance?

Moreover, insofar as we do want the believer to recognize God's love and return that love to Him, doesn't today's Act of Contrition nicely lay that out out already? "Oh my God, I am sorry for my sins . . ."-there is the proper sorrow, the actual element of repentance; and then, later, "I know you love me always, help me . . . to grow in your love, Amen."



John Marquez | 2/25/2010 - 10:36am
This is very helpful. I'm currently making the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life (SEEL), yet I've never been able to get too terribly excited about Anthony De Mello. Your comments make me want to go back to him, or at least to read Kendall's book. I especially like what De Mello says about the nature of repentance, that its ultimate focus is less on our sins and more on God's love. Thank you!
John