“Tony’s been a refreshing cool drink this summer,” commented a Sister referring to the special issue we brought out which included a supplement on the course of inner self-liberation by Tony de Mello. To judge from the success of the course, we have to admit she’s right. We’ve had to bring out four editions of the reprint after his death the message of this special incarnation of a ‘guru’ is evoking a real inner discovery in many people.
What’s behind this phenomenal success’? Very simply, it is a manifestation of the hunger for the spiritual spreading around the world. It’s a hunger with very special characteristics. People aren’t buying set formulas anymore, or pious platitudes redolent of an cry gone by; beaten tracks that did not succeed in bringing people to a spiritual awakening. There is an anguished search, sometimes confused in its direction, for a more liberal outlook. Modem man mired in profound cultural change first wants to know who he is, what imprisons his soul, what stands in the way of spiritual progress. He wants to rediscover the God beyond all that has been identified through the years with the name of God: laws, norms, doctrines not made flesh, words stranded from life.
That is why Tony de Mello said that “our violent spirituality has created problems for us’’, that “Jesus Christ has got a bad name because of what is said of him from pulpits” and that “it is very difficult to recognize a saint because he looks like the rest of us”. In short, what Tony de Mello is telling us is that if we want to make Christianity credible we need to plumb die depths of (lie human spirit, to reach beyond our present frontiers,
(From “VidaNueva’ Madrid, Sept. 12th, 1987)
The first image of Tony de Mello that I cherish goes back thirty years—and precisely to Lonavla, to the very house that much later became the home of the Sadhana Institute.
Tony was then a Jesuit student, but engaged in teaching the young men who had just finished their noviciate. The whole group had come up to St Stanislaus’ Villa for a brief holiday. I remember Tony with a batch of juniors, as we called them, sitting under the trees outside the kitchen and cleaning vegetables for the day’s meals, whilst he regaled a very receptive audience with his inexhaustible fund of stories.
Much has happened to all of us since then; and Tony himself went through innumerable stages of growth and change, of fresh competence and new interests, and of effective service. But he was always an incomparable story-teller. Hardly any of his anecdotes were original, and some were not even exceptionally smart; but on his lips they came alive with meaning and relevance, or just plain fun. For that matter, any theme he touched came alive and captured attention.
And now his parting gift to us, which will surely join the ranks of his other best-sellers, is The Prayer of the Frog. Though he spoke rather casually of his literary output, he was meticulous in editing his compositions. The last thing he did in India before taking the plane for the United States was to spend more than three hours with the publisher, going over the details of his manuscript. I have not seen the text, but I know of his final concern.
That was in the evening of May 30th, 1987. On June 2nd he was found dead on the floor of his room in New York, having succumbed to a massive heart attack. In between he had made time to write a long letter to a close friend, in which he said, speaking of earlier experiences: “All of that seems to belong to another era and to another world. I find the whole of my interest is now focused on something else, on the ‘world of the spirit’, and I see everything else as so trifling and so irrelevant. The things that mattered so much in the past do not seem to matter any more. Things like those of Achaan Chah the Buddhist teacher, seem to absorb my whole interest and I am losing my taste for other things. Is this an illusion? I do not know. But never before in my life have I felt so happy, so free. “
That just about sums up Tony as he was—and indeed as others perceived him —in his last phase, before he left us so suddenly, three months before his fifty-sixth birthday. And now there is already a body of literature that is growing around him. a veritable golden legend, with testimonies from a variety of people, scattered the world over. Quite a few have said they never met him but were profoundly affected by his books. Others had enjoyed the privilege of a deep relationship. Yet others only briefly experienced the magic of his spoken word.
Not many would go along with everything that he said or did, especially after he crossed the established boundaries of spiritual venture—nor did Tony expect a docile following, but rather the contrary. What attracted so many to his person and ideas was precisely that he challenged everyone to question, to explore, to get out of prefabricated patterns of thought and behaviour, away from stereotypes, and to dare be one’s true self—in fine, to seek an ever greater authenticity.
A relentless quest for authenticity—that is how Tony’s vision came across from any angle, at any range. And this gave to his multifaceted personality an integrity, a wholeness, that had a charm and a power all its own: it reconciled opposites, not in tension but as a harmonious blend. He was most ready to make friends, to share; yet one felt there was a dimension in him that was out of reach. He could be boisterous in company, trotting out outrageous jokes, but no one could doubt his steadfast seriousness of purpose. He changed so much and in so many ways along the years, and nevertheless there were constants in his character that stayed firmly in place.
A striking example of this was his commitment as a Jesuit. He had moved far beyond the enthusiastic promotion of the Spiritual Exercises according to the original design of Saint Ignatius—which was the thrust for which he first came to be internationally appreciated; in fact, at the end he was way out of what might be recognized as Ignatian spirituality. But he never surrendered his Jesuit identity. There was obviously no
compulsion in this; probably not much reasoning either. It was just that he felt so much in tune with the mind and heart of Ignatius, as he knew and understood the Saint.
In a homily that he addressed to the Jesuit Provincials of India in 1983, before they and he himself participated in the last General Congregation, or Chapter of the Order, he shared , with them an insight into Ignatius which was even more a self-revelation of Tony;
“There is a tradition among our early Fathers that God gave to Ignatius the graces and charismas that He intended for the Society as a whole and for each individual Jesuit. If I were asked to choose for myself and for our Society today from among the many charismas that Ignatius had. I would quite unhesitatingly choose three; his contemplation, his creativity and his courage,”
Parmananda R. Divarkar S.J. 4th September. 1987 WARNING
It is s a great mystery that though the human heart longs for Truth in which alone it finds liberation and delight, the first reaction o/ 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. Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. says that if you listen carefully to a story you wilt never be the same again That is because the story will worm its way into your heart and break down barriers to the divine Even if you read the stories in this book only for the entertainment there is no guarantee that an occasional story will not slip through your defences and explode when you least expect it to. So you have been warned1
If you are foolhardy enough to court enlightenment, this is what I suggest you do:
(A) Carry a story around in your mind so you can dwell on it in leisure moments. That will give it a chance to work on your subconscious and reveal its hidden meaning. You will then be surprised to see how it comes to you quite unexpectedly just when you need it to light up an event or situation and faring you insight and inner healing. That is when you will realize that, in exposing yourself to these stories, you were auditing a Course in Enlightenment for which no guru is needed other than yourself!
(B) Since each of these stories is a revelation of Truth arid since Truth, when spelt with o capital T. means the truth about you make sure that each time you read a story you single-mindedly search for a deeper understanding of yourself. The way one would read a Medico! Book — wondering if one has any of the symptoms; and not a Psychology Book —thinking what typical specimens one’s friends are. If you succumb to the temptation of seeking insight into others, the stories will do you damage. So passionate was Mulla Nasruddin’s love for truth that he travelled to distant places in search of Koranic scholars and he felt no inhibitions about drawing infidels at the bazaar into discussions about the truths of his faith.
One day his wife told him how unfairly he was treating her—and discovered that her husband had no interest whatsoever in that kind of Truth!
It’s the only kind that matters, of course. Ours would be a different world, indeed, if those of us, who are scholars and ideologues, whether religious or secular, had the same passion for self-knowledge that we display for our theories and dogmas.
“Excellent sermon,” said the parishioner, as she pumped the hand of the preacher. “Everything you said applies to someone or other I know.”
The stories are best read in the order in which they are set out here Read no more than one or two at a time—that is, if you wish to get anything more than entertainment from them
The stories in this book come from a variety of countries, cultures and religions. They belong to the spiritual heritage—and popular humour—of the human race
All that the author has done is string them together with a specific aim in mind. His task has been that of the weaver and the dyer He takes no credit at ail for the cotton and the thread.
When Brother Bruno was at prayer one night he was disturbed by the croaking of a bullfrog. All his attempts to disregard the sound were unsuccessful so he shouted from his window, “Quiet! I’m at my prayers.”
Now Brother Bruno was a saint so his command was instantly obeyed. Every living creature held its voice so as to create a silence that would be favourable to prayer.
But now another sound intruded on Bruno’s worship— an inner voice that said, “Maybe God is as pleased with the croaking of that frog as with the chanting of your psalms.” “What can please the ears of God in the croak of a frog?” was Bruno’s scornful rejoinder. But the voice refused to give up: “Why would you think God invented the sound?”
Bruno decided to find out why. He leaned out of his window and gave the order, “Sing!” The bullfrog’s measured croaking filled the air to the ludicrous accompaniment of all the frogs in the vicinity. And as Bruno attended to the sound, their voices ceased to jar for he discovered that, if he stopped resisting them, they actually enriched the silence of the night.
With that discovery Bruno’s heart became harmonious with the universe and, for the first time in his life he understood what it means to pray.
A Hasidic tale:
The Jews of a small town in Russia were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a Rabbi. This was going to be a rare event so they spent a lot of time preparing the questions they were going to put to the holy man.
When he finally arrived and they met with him in the town hall, he could sense the tension in the atmosphere as all prepared to listen to the answers he had for them.
He said nothing at first; he just gazed into their eyes, and hummed a haunting melody. Soon everyone began to hum. He started to sing and they sang along with him. He swayed and danced in solemn, measured steps. The congregation followed suit. Soon they became so involved in the dance, so absorbed in its movements that they were lost to everything else on earth; so every person in that crowd was made whole, was healed from the inner fragmentation that keeps us from the Truth.
It was nearly an hour before the dance slowed down to a halt. With the tension drained out of their inner being everyone sat in the silent peace that pervaded the room. Then the Rabbi spoke the only words he pronounced that evening: “I trust that I have answered your questions.”
A dervish was asked why he worshipped God through dance. “Because.” he replied, “to worship God means to die to self; dancing kills the self. When the self dies all problems die with it. Where the self is not. Love is. God is. “
The Master sat with his disciples in the audience. He said, “You have heard many a prayer and said many a prayer. Tonight I should like you to see one.”
At that moment the curtain rose and the ballet began.
A Sufi saint set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca. At the outskirts of the city he lay down by the road, exhausted from his journey. He had barely fallen asleep when he brusquely awakened by an irate pilgrim. “This is the time when all believers bow their heads towards Mecca and you have your feet pointing towards the holy shrine. What sort of Muslim are you?”
The Sufi did not move; he merely opened his eyes and said, “Brother, would you do me the favour of placing my feet where they won’t be pointing to the Lord?”
The prayer of a devotee to the Lord Vishnu:
“Lord, I ask you to pardon me for three major sins: first, I went on pilgrimage to your many shrines, oblivious of your presence everywhere; second, I so often cried to you for help, forgetting that you are more concerned than I am about my welfare; and finally, here I am asking for forgiveness when I know that our sins are forgiven before we commit them.”
After many years of labour an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tools to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art—and the advantages—of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefited from his discovery.
The next tribe he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great Inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making (ire were enshrined within a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith.
The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a Life of the Inventor. This became the Holy book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate, his glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in these religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.
From the Lives of the Desert Fathers:
Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said, “Father, according to my capacity I keep my little rule and my little fast, my prayer, my meditation, my contemplative silence; and according as I am able I cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. Now what more should I do?’
The elder stood up in reply. He stretched out his hand to heaven and his fingers became fire ten lamps of fire. He said: “This: become totally changed into fire.”
A cobbler came to Rabbi Isaac of Ger and said. “Tell me what to do about my morning prayer. My customers are poor men who have only one pair of shoes. I pick up their shoes late in the evening and work on them most of the night; at dawn there is still work to be done if the men are to have their shoes ready before they go to work. Now my question is: What should I do about my morning prayer?”
“What have you been doing till now?” the Rabbi asked.
“Sometimes I rush through the prayer quickly and get back to my work—but then I feet bad about it At other times I let the hour of prayer go by Then too I feel a sense of loss and every now and then, as f raise my hammer from the shoes, I can almost hear my heart sigh. “What an unlucky man I am that I am not able to make my morning prayer.”
Said the Rabbi. “If I were God I would value that more than the prayer.”
A Hasidic tale:
Late one evening a poor farmer on his way back from the market found himself without his prayer book. The wheel of his cart had come off right in the middle of the woods and it distressed him that this day should pass without his having said his prayers.
So this is the prayer he made: “I have done something very foolish, Lord. I came away from home this morning without my prayer book and my memory is such that I cannot recite a single prayer without it. So this is what I am going to do: I shall recite the alphabet five times very slowly and you, to whom all prayers are known, can put the letters together to form the prayers I can’t remember,”
And the Lord said to his angels, “Of all the prayers I have heard today, this one was undoubtedly the best because it came from a heart that was simple and sincere.”
It is the custom among Catholics to confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution from him as a sign of God’s forgiveness. Now all too often there is the danger that penitents will use this as a sort of guarantee, a certificate that will protect them from divine retribution, thereby placing more trust in the absolution of the priest than in the mercy of God.
This is what Perugini, an Italian painter of the Middle Ages, was tempted to do when he was dying. He decided that he would not go to confession if, in his fear, he was seeking to save his skin. That would be a sacrilege and an insult to God.
His wife, who knew nothing of the man’s inner disposition, once asked him if he did not fear to die unconfessed. Perugini replied: “Look at it this way, my dear: My profession is to paint and I have excelled as a painter. God’s profession is to forgive and if he is good at his profession as I have been at mine, I see no reason to be afraid.”
The Indian sage, Narada, was a devotee of the Lord Hari. So great was his devotion that he was one day tempted to think that in all the world there was no one who loved God more than he.
The Lord read his heart and said, “Narada, go to this town on the banks of the Ganges for a devotee of mine dwells there- Living in his company will do you good “
Narada went and found a farmer who rose early in the morning, pronounced the name of Hari only once, (hen lifted his plough and went out to his fields where he worked all day. Just before he fell asleep at night he pronounced the name of Hari once again. Narada thought, “How can this rustic be a devotee of God? I see him immersed all day in his worldly occupations.”
Then the Lord said to Narada, “Fill a bowl to the brim with milk and walk all round the city. Then come back “without spilling a single drop.” Narada did as he was told.
“How many times did you remember me in the course of your walk around the city?” asked the Lord.
“‘Not once. Lord.” said Narada. “How could I when you commanded me to watch that bowl of milk.”
The Lord said, “That bowl so absorbed your attention that you forgot me altogether. But look at that peasant who though burdened with the cares of supporting a family, remembers me twice every day?”
The village priest was a holy man so each time the people were in trouble they had recourse to him. He would then withdraw to a special place in the forest and say a special prayer. God would always hear his prayer and the village would be helped.
When he died and the people were in trouble they had recourse lo his successor who was not a holy man but knew the secret of the special place in the forest and the special prayer. So he said. “Lord, you know I am not a holy man. But surely you are not going to hold that against my people? So listen to my prayer and come to our assistance.” And God would hear his prayer and the village would be helped.
When he too died and the people were in trouble they had recourse to his successor who knew the special prayer but not the place in the forest. So he said. “What do you care for places, Lord? Is not every place made holy by your presence? So listen to my prayer and come to our assistance.” And once again God would hear his prayer and the village would be helped.
Now he too died and when the people were in trouble they had recourse to his successor who did not know the special prayer or the special place in the forest. So he said. “It isn’t the formula that you value. Lord, but the cry of the heart in distress. So listen to my prayer and come to our assistance.” And once again God would hear his prayer and the village would be helped.
After this man died when the people were in trouble they had recourse to his successor. Now this priest had more use for money than for prayer. So he would say to God, “What sort of a God are you that while you are perfectly capable of solving problems that you yourself have caused, you still refuse to lift a finger until you have us cringe and beg and plead? Well, you can do as you please with the people.” Then he would go right back to whatever business he had in hand. And, once again, God would hear his prayer and the village would be helped.
An elderly woman who was an enthusiastic gardener declared that she had no faith whatsoever in predictions that some day scientists would learn to control the weather. According to her all that was needed to control the weather was prayer.
Then one summer, while she was away on a foreign trip, a drought hit the land and wiped out her entire garden. She was so upset when she got back that she changed her religion.
In ancient India much store was set by the Vedic rites which were said to be so scientific in their application that when the sages prayed for rain there was never any drought. It is thus that a man set himself to pray, according to these rites, to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, begging her to make him rich.
He prayed to no effect for ten long years, after which period of time, he suddenly saw the illusory nature of wealth and adopted the life of a renunciate in the Himalayas.
He was sitting in meditation one day when he opened his eyes and saw before him an extraordinarily beautiful woman, all bright and shining as if she were made of gold.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I am the goddess Lakshmi to whom you recited hymns for twelve years,” said the woman. “I have appeared to grant you your desire.”
“Ah, my dear goddess,” exclaimed the man, “I have since attained the bliss of meditation and lost my desire for wealth. You come too late. Tell me, why did you delay so long in coming?”
“To tell you the truth,” said the goddess, “Given the nature of those rites you so faithfully performed you had fully earned the wealth. But, in my love for you and my desire for your welfare, I held it back.”
If you had the choice, which would you choose: the granting of your petition or the grace to be peaceful whether it is granted or not?