By Marita Nazareth
Marita Nazareth pays tribute to Father Anthony deMello, spiritual adept and world famous author of Sadhana, and Song of the Bird, and interviews his brother Bill deMello, whose recent book on the priest sheds light on this iconoclastic teacher
It seems like such a long time ago. I was invited to attend a seminar by someone whom millions around the globe knew as Anthony (Tony) deMello. I had only heard about the tall stately Jesuit priest, well known for conducting retreats and seminars on spirituality. I wondered what he could teach me, other than what was drummed into me from childhood about my Catholic faith. What a surprising and redeeming experience it was.
What I heard during that five-day seminar from the enthralling speaker, completely changed my views about many things. His words and wisdom continue to inspire me to this day.
Everyone at the seminar was spellbound. He knocked down ridiculous religious beliefs that we had clung to for years, with the skill and agility of a tree-cutter. Before our eyes, huge branches of tradition would be felled. Fearlessly he questioned the ‘black cats’ that we had created in our over-ritualistic religion. Blending humour and common sense, he wove his spell around us. Years later when I found myself at ease while questioning beliefs that do not work for me, I realised I owe a debt of gratitude to this great teacher – a man ahead of his times, who had the courage and clarity to expose the muck that sets into religion. I can even now hear him clearly appealing, “Beware of religious people. They are the most dangerous. Once they bring God into something, they find it hard to think rationally.”
To this day, while conducting my own training programmes, I implement the wisdom imparted to me by Tony deMello. One of my favourites is to send the participants of my programmes home with unanswered questions, so they can work on the solution for themselves. That is something I learnt from Tony – to think for myself. Tony himself encouraged his audiences not to swallow everything he was saying, but to analyse it and think with open minds, to listen, with a view to discovering something new. Not to base their judgement on their already established views.
My knowledge of Tony the person was, however, limited. Therefore, I was delighted to discover a recently published biography of Tony deMello entitled, The Happy Wanderer, written by his brother, Bill. It is a must-read book, for anyone who knew Tony or would like to know him better. Tony’s contribution to the Catholic Church has been radical. Somewhat like Jesus Christ, founder of the faith, he too was able to consistently put the agenda of spirituality and inner growth which would often get submerged under the weight of rules and regulations, back on the table. His One-Minute Stories, Zen-like parables making a telling point, have delighted and enlightened millions of readers across the world. For one who did not live very long (he died at age 56) his contribution to awareness and inner growth has gone well beyond the confines of the Catholic Church. Today, Tony deMello and his teachings belong to the world at large.
It is in this context that a book on Tony, the very first to be written, is big news. Once I started reading the book, I could not put it down. Reading the book was an experience. There are so many unknown facts in this book, about Tony. I cried (tears of healing and relief); I laughed loudly – thinking of the time I had spent with Tony or hearing stories about him. I seemed to understand much more about what Tony taught – awareness.
Anthony deMello was born in Mumbai, India, on September 4, 1931. From a very early age, he expressed a deep desire to become a Jesuit priest. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1947 and remained a faithful son of the Society and the Catholic Church until his untimely death in New York, on June 1, 1987.
During the course of his short life, he developed a new approach to Christian spirituality, drawing from Western and Eastern sources. The result was a unique blend that has brought enlightenment to millions of people globally from varied persuasions.
Tony was a master Biblical scholar, who effortlessly mixed canonical texts with wisdom and insights from religious denominations from around the world: Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Islamic as well as Judaic. He is still, 25 years after his death, as popular with people of all religious persuasions, as well as agnostics and atheists, as he was when alive.
Many of his books, translated into different languages, continue to be popular. Two of his books are still on the bestseller list.
Tony had once described himself as not so much a writer/author as a storyteller. He skilfully used and narrated stories,
|He knocked down ridiculous religious beliefs with the skill and agility of a tree cutter. Before our eyes, huge branches of tradition would be felled.|
delivering spirituality and self-awareness to all those who took time to listen to or read his works. Tony’s emphasis was not on religion per se, rather on finding the truth within ourselves and following the path that we are all destined to follow with joy and a sense of living in the here and now, in present moment freshness.
Many who knew Tony and admired him, appreciated his wisdom and spiritual acumen; but they also remember his tremendous sense of humour. Tony was not wont to lecture and pontificate. Rather, he blended his spirituality with humour, to get his point across. He teased people to a point but never went far enough to hurt their feelings. An example of this is the following story:
Tony was very fond of my late aunt who was a Loreto sister. She once recalled how a nun who had not met Tony asked him what his name was. Tony replied, “I am Father Margaret Mary.” When the nun looked disbelieving, Tony retorted, “Why can’t I be Father Margaret Mary, when you women take names like Sr. Francis Michael?”
In order to find out a little more about the book and its author, I conducted an email interview with Bill deMello, author of The Happy Wanderer.
Why would people want to read your book?
I have received correspondence from Tony admirers for a number of years, asking questions about my remarkable brother. Twenty-four years after his death, there had not been a single comprehensive biography on Tony. I decided it was time to write his biography, to coincide with the 25th jubilee of his passing. Anyone who wants to discover who Tony was, where he came from, his family background, the content of his spiritual lectures, and retreats, how he became such a phenomenon, will want to and should, make it a point to read the book.
How would you like to describe your relationship with Tony? Besides what you have narrated in the book, is there anything else you would like to add?
My relationship with Tony was always one of trust and love. Unfortunately, we did not get as many opportunities to physically meet, and discuss matters, but I knew that if ever I needed him, he would always be there for me. I looked up to him. In my eyes, he was a hero of sorts – a giant. He showed such a deep understanding when solving my problems, when the opportunity presented itself. Our every meeting demonstrated his love for me, and his unconditional support for any decision I made.
What was Tony like as a young boy?
|Marita Nazareth is a soft skills |
facilitator specialising in Emotional
Intelligence. She will be holding
a workshop on Emotional Intelligence
with Life Positive Foundation
in Mumbai on May 19 and 20.
This is a somewhat difficult question for me to answer. You see, I was not around when he was a young lad. (Bill was only three when Tony joined the preisthood) There are quite a few answers to this question in my book. From what I have heard from our mother, my sisters and maternal aunts, I can sum up the young Tony as follows: Tony was a sincere, caring, loving son and brother. He was also very thoughtful of others. He never failed to remember someone’s birthday, and with his limited pocket money, he would ensure that he got the person a gift. He was a pious, studious individual. However, he also had a great sense of humour, and could be quite mischievous, getting up to pranks, without ever being malicious.
Why do you think Tony was able to reach out to and touch so many people?
Prior to writing The Happy Wanderer, I would have been unable to answer the question. Interviewing, corresponding, and interacting with so many people in the course of writing this book, I concluded that everyone who met Tony recognised the mystic in him, not so much a guru but a very spiritual and enlightened soul. He had a way of ‘listening, observing and learning,’ everything. He was gentle as well as firm, and broadminded in his views, but to a point where they conformed to the rules of his beloved Society of Jesus, as well as to his spiritual mother, the Catholic Church. He was inclusive of everyone, and that is why he touched so many people of all persuasions, including agnostics and atheists.
How did you manage to collect and transcribe so much information into the narrative you have recently published?
This was a difficult but extremely delightful experience. Once I decided to write Tony’s biography, information just poured in from numerous sources. It helped that I had an astute editor, Clifford W. DeSilva, an ex-Jesuit. His religious and literary acumen helped weave all that information into a smooth narrative.
The books are available in all Pauline bookstores in India. It is also available by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, is the publisher.
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