Since I first read it, way back when, I’ve given many friends and acquaintances copies of Anthony de Mello’s book Awareness. On the rare occasion when I come across it in a bookshop, I buy three copies, just to have some on hand. It’s the one book I’d take with me to a deserted island if I had to choose from all the books I’ve read. Published posthumously in 1990, it’s a collection of a series of talks he gave at one of the last conferences he attended.
De Mello was born into a Catholic family in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1931. The first of five children, his father, Frank was a businessman, and his mother Louisa had her work cut out for her with five kids. Part of the city’s Portuguese-speaking community, de Mello grew up also speaking English and Konkani, the language of his state, Maharashtra. Later he’d learn Hindi, Marathi, Spanish, and Italian.
The Portuguese-speaking community has its roots in the early sixteenth century when Portugal established a trading post in the city. During their two-and-a-half-century sojourn, they established settlements and Christian communities that blended Portuguese and South Asian cultures. When India gained its independence in 1947, many of them stayed. I tend to forget that the British weren’t the only colonial powers in India.
A Catholic school student, de Mello went on to study economics at St Xavier’s College (SXC), a Jesuit college in the city (it’s Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged is worth reading about). As an Xavierite, de Mello was particularly moved by a Jesuit priest he heard speaking. This would mark the beginning of a hugely influential life (albeit a short one – he died at 56) as a Jesuit. He joined the Society of Jesus (if you’ve ever wondered what the SJ was after a name, now you know) in 1950 aged 19 and was ordained a priest in 1961. I’ve only now learned that not all Jesuits are priests. They all take the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but not all go on to be ordained in the Catholic Church.
I’m a fan of the teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola – a spirituality that emphasises prayer, discernment, and finding God in all things and I have a huge soft spot for de Mello and his teachings. I had the privilege of studying under a good friend of his (another Jesuit who referred to himself as a Catholic Buddhist) in both India and Ireland and still do voluntary work for them on Sacred Space.
I fear though, that this mention of God and prayer might stop many of you from reading. Persevere. It’ll be worth it.
De Mello was quite controversial in the Catholic Church. His 11 books were declared incompatible with the teachings of the church in 1998 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (founded to defend the Church from heresy). One of my aunts was horrified to hear that I was a de Mello fan. I can see where they might have had a problem, but banning anything only makes it more interesting. de Mello drew heavily on Buddhist teachings and was very interested in the ways different spiritual traditions dealt with human suffering, compassion, and enlightenment. His ideas of awareness, mindfulness, and non-attachment were seen by many as encouraging Catholics to step outside their rigorous doctrine. If de Mello was guilty of anything, it was of encouraging people to explore other spiritual traditions to deepen their understanding of their own faith. His books remained a no-go area for card-carrying Catholics until 2005, when the CDF revised its opinion, allowing them to be read as long as they were ‘properly’ understood and contextualised with the RC doctrine.
[I discovered in my reading that there once was an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books). Created in 1559, it featured books that Catholics were not allowed to read, for their own sake, to protect them from being misled or corrupted. Some of the notables who featured on the Index include Galileo Galilei, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo. Pope Paul VI got rid of it in 1966 but had he not, de Mello might have found his name on it, too. ]
I’ve been rereading Awareness for the umpteenth time, not in one sitting or even as a book but through Mark Hofreiter’s blog where he regularly publishes excerpts from AWARENESS: A de Mello Spirituality Conference in His Own Words by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center.
Our great tragedy is that we know too much. We think we know, that is our tragedy; so we never discover.
Give yourself a gift today. Subscribe to his blog. Read the extracts from Awareness that come into your inbox. And then get back to me in a year or so and tell me what’s changed in your life.