As I work my way through the Obis Books Modern Spiritual Masters Series I continue to be impressed. Recently I finished the volume containing some of the writings of Anthony De Mello, S.J.
I have been a fan of De Mello for as long as I can remember. His pointed stories have a way of challenging deeper reflection and opening up new insights. Unlike “Chicken Soup for the Soul” the stories in this volume are more like “A Double Shot Espresso for the Soul” designed to wake the reader up to new levels of insight.
It is a great mystery that though the human heart longs for Truth, in which it alone finds liberation and delight, the first reaction of human beings to Truth is one of hostility and fear. So the Spiritual Teachers of humanity, like Buddha and Jesus, created a device to circumvent the opposition of their listeners: the story. They knew that the most entrancing words a language holds are “Once upon a time…,” that it is common to oppose a truth but impossible to resist a story.
The stories and meditations in this anthology will make you want to read more by this modern spiritual master. The stories have a way of working themselves deeply into your soul and then coming out at the appropriate time. Consider these stories taken more or less at random:
The disciples were absorbed in a discussion of Lau-tzu’s dictum:
Those who know do not say;
Those who say do not know.
When the master entered, they asked him exactly what the words meant.
Said the master, “Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?”
All of them know.
Then he said, “Put it into words.”
All of them were silent.
A man of spiritual repute came to the master and said, “I cannot pray, I cannot understand the scriptures, I cannot do the exercises that I prescribe to others….”
Then give it all up,” said the master cheerfully.
“But how can I? I am supposed to be a holy man and have a following in these parts.”
Later the master said with a sigh: “Holiness today is a name without a reality. It is only genuine when it is a reality without a name.”
Besides the stories there are spiritual exercises and reflections which invite deeper insight. These are obviously informed by modern psychology, but not bound by any particular set of psychological theories. Their purpose is always a spiritual one… deepening the relationship with the Spirit that has been “poured into our hearts.”
There is a fine introduction by William Dych, S.J. that lays out the key themes in De Mello’s thought. It is clear that de Mello is not writing theology but is inviting the reader into a new experience; the experience of the immanence and transcendence of God.
[de Mello] places great emphasis on the “beyondness” of God, God’s transcendence of this world and everything in it…. We know God as the mystery in whom “we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), that is the “known unknown.” This does not render us totally silent, but it is a constant warning against absolutizing human concepts, human images, human formulas, or any of the human constructs and making them idols…. But equally important… is the immanence of God, that is, God’s presence within and throughout God’s creation.
As someone who preaches, it is tempting to look at this collection as a source for sermons. That would be using them contrary to their spirit.
Beware of applying the story to anyone (priest, mullah, church, neighbor) other than yourself. If you do so the story will do you damage. Every one of these stories is about you, no one else…. Read it the way one would read a medical book — wondering if one has any of the symptoms; and not a psychology book — thinking what typical specimens one’s friends are. If you succomb to the temptation of seeking insight into others, the stories will do you damage.
This anthology is a fine introduction to de Mello’s work. Read it at your own risk, you may open yourself to change.