Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tony of Bandra

“Tony has been a refreshing cool drink this summer” – commented a Spanish nun after reading an article on “self-liberation” by Tony De Mello – the avant-garde Jesuit priest from Bandra. Why wouldn’t she – here’s a sample of a Tony gem : A parish priest was seen often talking to a comely woman, to the great scandal of his congregation who decided to report the matter to the Bishop. After a dressing down by his superior the priest said “ Your Excellency – I have always held that it’s better to talk to a pretty woman with one’s thoughts set on God than to pray to God with one’s thoughts fixed on a pretty woman“. The priest could well have been Tony himself !!

But, Joseph Ratzinger, then the Cardinal of Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (later ordained as Pope Benedict XV) was not amused. He wrote “ in certain passages… one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian Faith” and decreed that, the passages “were incompatible with the Catholic faith and could cause great harm”.

Luckily this edict came much after his demise in 1987, otherwise he stood the grave risk of being de-frocked and expelled from the order. So, many of his books are still available today with the “statutory warning” – (these books) “were written in a multi-religious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists”. But Tony himself had always prefaced his books with the cautionary advice, “even if you read the stories in this book for entertainment there is no guarantee that an occasional story will not slip through your defenses and explode when you least expect it”

I am not sure, which of the 3 above-mentioned categories – religious, agnostic or atheist, your tiresome blogger belongs (probably a bit of all three, you might say) but being an inveterate spiritual junkie, he was introduced to Tony’s writings some years back by a Japanese monk of the Ramakrishna order – a long time acolyte of Swami Ranganathanda.

In his later years, perhaps finding Bombay too constraining for his liberal disposition, Tony had moved to Lonavala where he used to hold lectures and workshops at the Stanis Laus compound in Khandala. Here, he built the Sadhana Institute but died within 6 months of its inauguration.

Spending the long weekend of Holi & Easter in quiet retreat with the parents, at Amitabh’s house in Khandala, I decided to visit the Institute – something I had been meaning to do ever since I started coming to Khandala with the Guptas. We were received by an ancient looking Italian Father – dark circles under his eyes, dressed in a shirt and pajama, an old associate of Tony. “There is nothing much to show-around” he lamented, “a personality like Tony happens only once in many years, you cannot recreate his presence”. The place is now used as a training center and hold courses on various psycho-spiritual subjects – including Vipassana, Group Therapy & Counseling Workshops. The brochure states “ our programmes are personally demanding and challenging – yet greatly transforming. They are not meant for those who are seeking rest and relaxation”. That clearly disqualifies yours truly for admission.

Though my primary allegiance lies with the Salesians – being a Don Bosco alumnus – I have always admired the Jesuits for the room they allow to members of the order for pursuing their own academic or spiritual calling – often living outside the physical boundaries of an institution. It is not surprising, therefore, that they have produced many extra-ordinary scholars and educationists who have shaped the minds of some of the best thought leaders of our time. In my limited interactions, I saw Fr Goreaux at St Xavier’s Calcutta, a direct pupil of Einstein, Fr Daitien – a Sanskrit and Bengali scholar who wrote regularly in ‘Desh’ and the Rosario brothers (Horace & Gerry ) – who were pioneers of Mass Comm education in the country. Many of them, like Fr Horace – whom I knew well, occasionally incurred the reprimand of the Congregation but that didn’t curb their free spirit. As Fr Joe Saldanha – uncle of my friend Ajit, another libertine Jesuit – had once told me, this strong mooring may be ascribed to their practice of compulsory annual retreats. So, like Tony, after their little wanderings, they all return to their 'spiritual home' – the church.

Tony believed that – there is a hunger for the spiritual is spreading across the world. But, it is a hunger with very special characteristics – which cannot be satisfied by preaching from the pulpits. It has to come from plumbing the depths of the human spirit – which often came from cultivating an ability to laugh at ourselves. He was like a modern-day Mullah Nasiruddin. No wonder, he draws liberally from the Mullah in all his writings. His phenomenally popular book “The Prayer of the Frog” is essentially exercises in enlightenment through self-mockery.

One of my all time favourite, is the story of an ascetic who after years of sadhana finally obtained his ticket to heaven. On entering through the Pearly Gates, he saw this beautiful bombshell and thought that after a lifetime of abstinence he certainly deserved her as a reward. He went straight to St Peter demanding his prize, who retorted laughing - “ you stupid chap, even assuming that you deserve her as your reward, what makes you think she deserves you as her punishment”.

Tony advised, to ensure proper spiritual digestion one should avoid an overdose of these stories and take them only one or two at a time ( unless you are reading them simply for entertainment). That way some of them may just worm their way into your consciousness.

Being a slow learner myself, I can at best try to follow his teachings half way – by devoting as much time as possible to beautiful women. And, the latter half - re: setting one's thoughts etc - I am sure it will follow in due course - hopefully, not too fast.