I came across this book during a retreat nearly 8 years ago. Some books get read and forgotten. This one not only got read by chance, but stayed with me for many years. At first the cover suggests some nice essays, with clever phrases, and people going away feel all nice and warm.
Not this book.
Anthony De Mello was a Jesuit priest from India, trained as a psychotherapists, and incorporated a Buddhist or Hindu teachings within his work. Where’s the Catholic guilt, some people may wonder after reading this was not a warm and fuzzy book. It’s not about guilt. Feeling guilty is easy, it the waking up that’s hard. All I can do for you, wrote Father De Mello, is challenge your beliefs and the belief system that makes you unhappy. All I can do is for you is help you to unlearn. That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning, unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to unlearn, to listen (17).
The conversation tone of the book comes from the chapters originally starting off as talks given by Father De Mello during various retreats. While De Mello always circles back to Christianity, the Catholic Church in particular has expressed concern his writings deviate from the core tenants of the faith. (Then again the Church was so freaked during the Reformation, they looked at St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila with loads of suspicion, even going so far as imprisoning St. John of the Cross.) Reading the book numerous time, I do not think Father De Mello ever veered away from Catholicism. What makes this book appeal to Catholics, even to some outside the denomination, is the way De Mello tackles this sticky thing called reality. On one level it seems cynical as De Mello demolishes illusion after illusion, taking on what some people considered untouchable. (Like his response to one person wondering about devotions to the Virgin Mary.) It took another reading to realize he simply puts ideas in their proper place so they don’t rule a person’s life, even though we labour under the assumption it’s good for us. De Mello invites his readers to stop, look, listen, and really ask if it’s so good for them why does it make them miserable?
What does waking up look like? I don’t know, but I can tell you what pressing the snooze button in life looks like. It’s not facing reality as the way we wish it, but the way it truly operates. The goal is to not confirm cynicism, but to live openly, fully, and lovingly the way God intended. It’s how I read the book at this present time, and I get the feeling the same thing will translate differently for many readers along the pilgrimage.