Anthony de Mello
Priest and Spiritual Guide (1932 - 1987)
by Robert Ellsberg

Anthony de Mello, 1985 It only takes about 30 seconds of reading Anthony de Mello's writings -- or a glance at his ebullient smile -- to realize why he's a gift to us. He doesn't just speak about aliveness; he exudes its essence. He wakes us up to the Divine presence in the "ordinary," which becomes extraordinary once we see and taste and feel every moment as God-in-our-midst. His perceptions of a spiritual Master aptly fit his own words: "Take hold of a sentence that he says. Shake it well till all the words drop off. What is left will set your heart on fire."
-- Patricia Carlson

"Total presence in the now. Holiness!"

Anthony de Mello was an Indian Jesuit who achieved international fame for his writings and spiritual retreats. From his reading of the Gospels he discovered that Christ was not so much concerned with imparting doctrines to his listeners as in awakening them to new life and the offer of salvation that was in their midst. Through parables, symbolic actions, and teachings, Jesus constantly startled people out of their preconceived notions of religion. "Wake up!" -- that was his message. It was a challenging message, and one that led him to the cross.

De Mello's own method of spiritual direction followed a similar style. Drawing on an eclectic fund of stories -- borrowed form Hasidic, Zen, and Sufi masters, as well as from Jesus and the mystics of the West -- he tried to awaken his listeners to the presence of God in their midst. The fact that his audience consisted of spiritual seekers did not make his task any easier. Most seekers were like the man who traveled all over the world on the back of a buffalo, seeking the definition of "buffalo"; or the fish who constantly sought to discover the meaning of the ocean. Just so, the person who constantly attended retreats and conferences to discover God.

De Mello's teaching was often expressed in simple definitions. Theology: "The art of telling stories about the Divine." Mysticism: "The art of tasting and feeling in your heart the inner meaning of such stories to the point that they transform you." But someone who preferred to memorize such definitions was like a ravenous person in a restaurant who devoured the menu instead of the meal. Christian doctrines were simply a finger pointing to the moon; they were misunderstood if they became the final object of our attention. The gospel, for de Mello, pointed us to the Truth that lies behind words, concepts, and images -- to what the mystics liked to call "the God beyond god."

Enlightenment could not be received second hand. The most eloquent report of the taste of a peach was no substitute for one's own experience of tasting the fruit. "In the land of the spirit, you cannot walk by the light of someone else's lamp," he said. "You want to borrow mine. I'd rather teach you how to make your own." True knowledge, saving knowledge, was in any case "to be transformed by what one knows."

DISCIPLE: "What's the difference between knowledge and enlightenment?
MASTER: "When you have knowledge you use a torch to show the way. When you are enlightened, you become a torch."

de MelloDe Mello was director of the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling in Poona, India. His books were originally published in India, and for many years he was little known outside Jesuit circles. In the 1980s, however, foreign editions of his books began to appear, and he was in much demand as a retreat leader and spiritual director. Those who experienced his retreats often spoke of his authority, his extraordinary combination of peacefulness and energy, and his ability to make the familiar lessons of the gospel appear like startling revelations.

Among his writings, de Mello left many meditations on the theme of his own death. Such thoughts encouraged, simultaneously, a spirit of detachment and an appreciation of the preciousness of earthly existence. Thus, he was well prepared when he died suddenly of a heart attack on June 2, 1987, while preparing to deliver a series of conferences in New York. He was fifty-six.

To a disciple who was obsessed with the thought of life after death, the Master said, "Why waste a single moment thinking of the hereafter?" "But is it possible not to?" "Yes." "How?" "By living in heaven here and now." "And where is this heaven?" "In the here and now."

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David


Additional Resources
See: Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (New York: Image, 1984); One Minute Wisdom (New York: Doubleday, 1986); Thomas B. Stahel, "An Appreciation of Tony de Mello, S.J.," America (December 12, 1987).

To read a selection of Anthony de Mello's articles, please visit the NIRP website. For further reading, see the de Mello resources at the Spirituality Center site.