There seems a depressing inevitability about the fate of those who would challenge the established order, and engage popular support. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X come readily to mind, and of course President Kennedy. Undoubtedly people who had made powerful enemies but had also polarised various social, religious and political groups enough to conjure a host of scapegoats and confusion. Where the heavy finger of blame points in only one direction, subtler methods are required.
Tony was a rising star in the Catholic Church. OK, at 55 he was no spring chicken, but nevertheless by comparison to the higher orders, he was youthful indeed. Tony founded the Sadhana institute in 1973, which over the years gained an international reputation, along with its founder. Tony found himself frequently jetting around the world giving conferences and talks and gaining ever more popularity with an increasing audience.
Tony captivated audiences with simple stories, parables and sayings from across culture and religion: Chinese, Indian, American, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist… using them as gateways to understanding, windows upon awareness. Moreover, Tony held a deep appreciation for scripture, the messages, signposts held within, and the early Christian mystics whose writings he blended seamlessly with spiritual wisdom, from wherever it came.
Come the mid ’80s, although resistant at first, Tony allowed occasional recordings of his talks. In 1986 he gave his first videoed conference, ‘Wake up to Life!’, held over four days in New York. It was an enormous success, Tony appeared to be going places.
I knew nothing of Tony at this time, I’d been C of E and lapsed somewhat. In fact I’d found more sense in Daoism and Buddhism so had focused my spiritual journey there. When it came to Catholicism, my connection, hence understanding, had consisted of little more than, ‘In God’s Name’ by David Yallop (arguing Pope John Paul I was assassinated because he was about to curtail the Vatican Bank’s money laundering for the Mafia and return the Church to the poor), ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ by Michael Baigent et al. (which, amongst other things, examines the construction and editing of the Bible and Rome’s attempts at exterminating dissidence), and ‘Father Ted’, so ‘followers of the faith’ were unlikely to be top of my reading list.
Not long after the Internet came into being, a friend who is prone to such things, sent me a quote from Anthony de Mello:
“You are so proud of your intelligence”, said the master. “You are like a condemned man proud of the vastness of his prison cell”.
I liked it very much. It sat comfortably with someone who, at least academically, was intellectually challenged. In fact, it was a great source of comfort as I fought my way through three years of International Relations Theory at university.
Never really thought any more about it after uni, until browsing in a London book store, wanting something for my return journey to Aberystwyth, when I came across ‘Sadhana: a way to God – Christian exercises in Eastern form’. When I read Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest I almost retuned the book to the shelf, almost, but… something stayed me. It is important, as I would hear Tony tell me, just a day or so hence, not to let prejudice stain my window.
Sadhana was a joy. To be honest it transformed my picture of what Christianity could be. Tony made such simple, wholesome sense, seamlessly tying east and west. In fact, what Tony was saying, seemed to me the antithesis of Catholicism as I had understood it.
And indeed, although willing to reappraise my opinion, given the shining beacon of Tony, and as I was to discover, some remarkably brave nuns and priests in Latin America, I could find little, or nothing, to substantially challenge my original position. For as I examined recent Papal decisions and actions in relation to censuring and silencing campaigning priests, organised crime, child abuse, financial dealings, power… the actions appeared as autocratic, unanswerable, arbitrary as ever. With the fearsome Herr Ratzinger appearing as Pope John Paul II’s henchman for throttling dissidence.
Tony must have been a big, big problem. Tony would not be silenced, he was here to dance his dance. He spoke his truth in a simple, logical, understandable way, engaging with increasing numbers as word spread. His 1986 tour of the US, as mentioned above, was a huge success. Unfortunately, all the video footage of the four day conference was destroyed, leaving just eight hours of audio (of which most would be published as ‘Awareness’ some three years later).
1987, a year on, Tony is back in the States, ready for his summer tour. Surely this year there would be no such accident, backups would be made, safeguards put in place. ‘Tony, the video’ was about to go public through every Catholic bookshop worldwide! A most unpalatable prospect for the powers that be.
It would be a futile exercise to attempt to uncover any validity behind the possible assassination of Tony. As a priest within the Jesuit order, he would be effectively encased within their system. Their meals, their autopsy, their press release, no need for external examination. So we see motivation, means and method, but that is all, and as Tony would advise us, one must keep an open mind, open to, and awareness of, each and every possibility and eventuality.
Assassination or not, for Herr Ratzinger, Tony’s death was a timely ‘Godsend’. Unfortunately for Ratzinger, Tony’s work did not dry up. Posthumously published works appeared and interpretations also began to surface. He was not best pleased. On Ratzinger’s request the Vatican banned Tony’s books, however, finding the ban unworkable, this was transmuted to a ‘Notification’, penned by Ratzinger and authorised by Pope John Paul II, placed in all Tony’s books warning Catholics away from such dangerous and subversive teaching.
Tony represented a potential schism in the Church, encouraging people to become aware, to think for themselves, rather than let the Church, or any ideology do it for them.
“To doubt”, Tony argues, “is infinitely more important than adoration… to question is so much more important than to believe”.
Everywhere people are searching for objects to adore, but I don’t find people awake enough in their attitudes and convictions. How happy we would be if terrorists would adore their ideology less and question more. However, we don’t like to apply that to ourselves; we think we’re all right and the terrorists are wrong. But a terrorist to you is a martyr to the other side.
The process that we use for making a St. Francis Xavier could be exactly the same process used for producing terrorists.
What is scripture, then? It’s a hint, a clue, not a description. The fanaticism of one sincere believer who thinks he knows causes more evil than the united efforts of two hundred rogues. It’s terrifying to see what sincere believers will do because they think they know. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a world where everybody said, “We don’t know”?
Unfortunately Tony’s observations on the scriptures did not survive the accident, but having gone over the eight remaining hours of the ‘Wake up to Life!’ conference tapes times past counting (cutting, splicing, reordering, editing… (it appears as if no one cared for these recordings) a long and would be tedious process, if not for the joy of listening to Tony and his insights) the few biblical observations which did survive paint a remarkably different picture to the one presented as Truth by religious hierarchy.
“Sleeping people read the scriptures and crucify the Messiah on the basis of them.” Tony is not limiting his observation to lay people, but challenging all, citing examples of priests and religious scholars who, through the Bible and enculturation, lose sight of deeper meaning, preferring attachment to understanding.
Awareness, awareness, awareness – the message is so simple, yet complex as life itself. To find awareness one must first shatter illusions, get deprogrammed, remove the control that society has imposed. So what about Tony’s awareness? Tony’s deprogramming? Tony’s society?
One can of course only speculate, and it is most difficult to see that which surrounds us, pervades us (like, to use one of Tony’s analogies, the little fish in the ocean: “Excuse me, I’m looking for the ocean. Can you tell me where I can find it?”), however, from examining Tony’s words, I believe he was under few illusions about Catholicism, and the ruthlessness of its hierarchy.
One might even suggest he was poking fun or taunting them, with all his talk of awareness, understanding, discovery, and not taking the Bible literally, which flies in the face of those with an interest in power and control, who prefer blind obedience and subservience. Further, in his condemnation of religion Tony suggests the Church falls prey to idolatry: a mental idol, producing “the more dangerous idol worshippers”.
“All revelations, however divine, are never any more than a finger pointing to the moon… When the sage points at the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.” Tony is not of course limiting his observation to Catholicism or Christianity but religion in general and the idols: texts, symbols, rituals, which too often become a “barrier to getting in touch with reality, because sooner or later we forget that the words are not the thing. The concept is not the same as the reality. They’re different… The final barrier to finding God is the word “God” itself and the concept of God.” “You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion.”
Tony is universally scathing of nations and governments of all kinds, “I don’t know of one government, not one, that is selfless, individuals perhaps, but governments, oh, oh, oh”. Can Tony, in his awareness, be overlooking the government in Rome?
I wondered at his tenacity, fearlessness, abandon, and I am tempted to say foolhardiness, as he jokes, perhaps?, of becoming Pope (edited out of the book), questioning the honesty and capacity of priests and pouring scorn on weeping for one’s sins – “a great religious distraction”, says Tony. “That’s not what repent means: wake up! Become aware! What’s the use of weeping for your sins, which you committed while you were asleep anyway?” But, Tony also informs us, you cannot truly live until you have abandoned fear, and fear of death.
And Tony shows no fear, as he enters into the heat of battle, with his heart at the lotus feet of the Lord (“should I battle my relatives? Go right ahead, do your duty”).
He is not threatened by criticism, he does not care what you think of him or what you say about him. He’s cut all those strings: he’s not a puppet any longer.
“He’s terrifying. So we’ve got to get rid of him. He tells the truth: he has become fearless: he has stopped being human.”
Human! Behold! A human being at last! He broke out of his slavery, broke out of their prison.
This is Tony from ‘wake up to life, 86′. Jesus appeared as the immediate example in my mind, but the more I examined Tony’s words the more I found challenges to Rome, its orthodoxy and references to their potential response. Is it in any way possible that Tony could be blind to the anger his perspective generated amongst Church hierarchy? Or is he predicting his fate?
Tony finishes the conference with his wonderful story of ‘the man who invented fire’, who shared his invention with the cold and hungry and so enraged and terrified the priests that they got rid of him. Again, this could be reference to Jesus, yet it might just as readily apply to the man who rediscovered it.
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