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Anthony de Mello's Challenging Spirituality (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 16, 2012: For me, reading Anthony de Mello's new book REDISCOVERING LIFE: AWAKEN TO REALITY (2012) was like listening to an old friend once again.

When I was in the Jesuits, I had the opportunity to listen to Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1931-1987), from India preach a retreat to a group of Jesuits in Denver from June 19 to July 10, 1980. Drawing on my notes from Tony's 1980 retreat in Denver, I discuss his thought frequently in my book WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (2000), the revised edition of which is scheduled to be published in 2012.

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Tony's new book is the transcript of the 1984 preached retreat that he gave via satellite. For the 1984 preached retreat, Tony was in India speaking via satellite to people at Fordham University in New York City. The new book also includes the question-and-answer periods, which enabled Tony to clarify his thought for his audience.

Certain themes in this new book by Tony are familiar to me from his 1980 retreat in Denver. As a result, I'd like to offer my reflections here by way of adding nuance to a certain point he discusses.

It strikes me that Tony is basically discussing the kingdom of God (also known as the reign of God that the historical Jesus proclaimed, except that Tony does not refer explicitly to the kingdom of God or the reign of God. Instead, he speaks of being happy. The good news is that we can be happy.

However, he thinks that we excel at making ourselves unhappy. He writes, for example, about our having "desires so intense that we would refuse to be happy unless they were fulfilled" (page 44). Sound familiar?

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Our desires lead us to form attachments. But our desires also lead us to false beliefs -- the beliefs that without the desired attachment, we cannot be happy. In this way, we make ourselves unhappy. As a result of being unhappy, we are filled with sorrow. "Where there is sorrow, there is no love," he says (page 43). The root of sorrow is desire/attachment. In addition, attachment brings anxiety.

So he recommends nonattachment as the corrective antidote. In this way, our being happy does not depend on our attachment. He suggests that nonattachment enables us to be happy and to be open to love. The happy person "know[s] no anxiety at all" and has "no inner conflict at all" (page 33).

No inner conflict at all? That is a tall order. Our inner conflicts usually come from childhood traumatizations, although those early psychological wounds can also be compounded by further psychological wounds later on. Thus to have no inner conflicts at all, we would have to be healed of our psychological wounds. This is obviously easier said than done. But it can happen.

On page 43, Tony says, "Tell me, when you grieve, whom are you grieving for? Who's loss? That's self-pity."

In short, when I grieve certain losses in my life, I am grieving for me because I am the one who has experienced the loss. No doubt about that much.

Incidentally, the Victorian Jesuit poet says as much in his poem titled "Spring and Fall." The poem opens with the following lines: "Margaret, why are you grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?" The last two lines of the poem say, "It is the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for."

Now, Tony in this new book wants to persuade us that we can be happy regardless of what happens to us. So we can be happy when we experience certain losses in our lives. I understand his basic point.

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However, I want to examine Tony's statement that mourning our losses is self-pity, because we are mourning for ourselves. I want to raise this question: What in us is prompting us to mourn our losses?

Alice Miller and John Bradshaw and others have taught us to think about and reflect on the Child Within (also known as the Inner Child). Moreover, John Bradshaw likes to say that grief is the healing feeling.

I would suggest that when we mourn our losses, our Child Within is activated and is undertaking the mourning. In short, the Child Within surfaces as a result of our loss and is leading us to mourn our loss.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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