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An absurd hope survives the censures of Teilhard, de Mello


I’m used to thinking of churchly silencings, condemnations and excommunications as remote acts; as, to be blunt, medieval examples of power’s reactive fear. Every once in a while, there’s a modern instance -- Matthew Fox, with his gentle, creation-centered insights, or a theology professor somewhere back East. Sometimes I shake my head incredulously; other times I find myself hoping, just for the sake of congruity, that the authorities are right: These ideas do distort our shared beliefs.

But when I opened NCR a few weeks ago and saw that Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello, one of the gentlest, most playfully and thoroughly wise human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting, has been posthumously vilified by the Vatican, I felt the kind of sick shock you’d feel if we started burning witches again.

Tony de Mello’s restored more faith than he ever could have harmed, first working in poor Indian villages, then doing formation work as a rector, then writing books and giving workshops that reached people who’d given up hope in any spiritual truth whatsoever. What on earth -- and it had to be on earth -- could have prompted this sanction?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he was worried about metaphysical and religious relativism; he said this was a Western tendency that could be compounded by Eastern, especially Indian, spirituality. The evil result? “Religious indifferentism.”

If he meant a realization that the divisions of organized religion are superficial ones made by us, not God ... maybe. But de Mello was quite clear about the dangers of Western culture, and of the Hinduism that surrounded his Catholic childhood in Bombay. He’d studied philosophy in Barcelona, Spain, theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.

When he came to St. Louis University in 1985, I asked him to appraise Western society, and he said without hesitation, “It’s precisely your strengths that are in danger of being your weaknesses. The tremendous progress you have made -- it is awesome. If your spirituality doesn’t keep pace ... “ He paused politely before adding, “Your love of comfort and ease sometimes causes you to confuse them with happiness and joy. You also confuse action with activity, and then contemplation ceases to be an activity.”

Those distinctions don’t sound too relativized to me. It’s just that de Mello was capable of getting above the petty politics, the semantic confusions and dogmatic games of competing religions and cultures. When I asked him how we could blend the best of Eastern and Western traditions without destroying the integrity of either, he said calmly, “It’s actually not too difficult, because what is really best is held in common by all of them. Elements which are specifically Eastern or Western are superficial. Which is why so many people in the West seem to be able to plunge so beautifully and easily into Eastern thought. Those who cannot? They are perhaps not deep enough.

“I don’t know any really good Western musician who would not appreciate good Indian music right away,” de Mello continued with a grin, “and I don’t know any really good Indian musician who would not appreciate good jazz!”

Ah, but good musicians so often go unheard and unappreciated. My thoughts turn to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit geologist who broke the ground of thought itself with his scientific-mystical ideas about our evolution toward Christic oneness. On Nov. 13, 1924, Teilhard was urgently summoned to Lyons, France, and silenced, all because two years earlier a Jesuit theology professor had asked him to write a paper indicating three different ways in which the doctrine of original sin might be understood.

Teilhard was asked to promise that he would neither say nor write anything against the traditional position of the church on the matter of original sin. He agreed. But the pressure of that agreement, and the way it was exacted, continued to build. He would eventually write, “I no longer have confidence in the exterior manifestations of the church. I believe that through it the divine influence will continue to reach me, but I no longer have much belief in the immediate and tangible value of official directions and decisions. Some people feel happy in the visible church; but for my own part I think I shall be happy to die in order to be free of it -- and to find our Lord outside of it.”

Both de Mello and Teilhard de Chardin knew they were tiptoeing toward the center of a barely frozen pond. One man’s thought integrated East and West, the two halves of the globe’s mental universe. The other man’s thought unified matter and spirit, insisting (as Blanche Gallagher explains in Meditations with Teilhard de Chardin) that they were not two separate things but rather two aspects of one and the same cosmic stuff. Both men knew that, as Teilhard wrote, “Up there, on high, everything is one.”

He also wrote that, “Because it is not sufficiently moved by a truly human compassion, because it is not exalted by a sufficiently passionate admiration of the universe, our religion is becoming enfeebled.” Yet, he felt the need to stay and work within its boundaries. His thought transcended those boundaries, but his life remained obediently contained by them -- as did de Mello’s.

Thinking glumly about all the theological name-calling, all the blaming and judging and condemning that’s further ripped this fragmented earthly world, I started flipping idly through an old notebook. Probably I was looking for reassurance; the notebook’s filled with theological bits and pieces I’d found inspiring back in grad school. One story caught my eye:

“One of the disconcerting -- and delightful -- teachings of the master was: ‘God is closer to sinners than to saints.’ This is how he explained it: ‘God in heaven holds each person by a string. When you sin, you cut the string. Then God ties it up again, making a knot -- and thereby bringing you a little closer to him. Again and again your sins cut the string -- and with each further knot God keeps drawing you closer and closer.’ ”

I looked down at the attribution. “Sin,” I’d scrawled, “by Anthony de Mello.”

“Hah!” I exclaimed triumphantly, grinning like an idiot all alone at my desk, and feeling absurdly hopeful. Human beings can get past judgment, fear and vengeance; we can learn to see each other’s paths with compassion. To my mind, that’s not relativizing indifference, it’s humility and connection.

I reread the quote and set it carefully next to an observation by Teilhard de Chardin:

A fresh kind of life is starting.

And no censor on earth can stop it.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998