Good Religion – The Antithesis of Unawareness
The following is the 22nd chapter in, “AWARENESS: A de Mellow Spirituality Conference in His Own Words” by Fr. Anthony de Mello, S.J. edited by J. Francis Stroud, S.J., Copyright © 1990 by the DeMello Stroud Spirituality Center.
“Somebody came up to me once during a conference and asked, ‘What about Our Lady of Fatima? What do you think of her?’ When I am asked questions like that, I am reminded of the story of the time they were taking the statue of Our Lady of Fatima on an airplane to a pilgrimage for worship, and as they were flying over the South of France the plane began to wobble and to shake and it looked like it was going to come apart. And the miraculous statue cried out, ‘Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!’ And all was well. Wasn’t it wonderful, one ‘Our Lady’ helping another ‘Our Lady’?
“There was also a group of a thousand people who went on a pilgrimage to Mexico City to venerate the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and sat down before the statue in protest because the Bishop of the Diocese had declared Our Lady of Lourdes patroness of the diocese! They were sure that Our Lady of Guadalupe felt this very much, so they were doing the protest in reparation for the offense. That’s the trouble with religion, if you don’t watch out.
“When I speak to Hindus, I tell them, ‘Your priests are not going to be happy to hear this (notice how prudent I am this morning), but God would be much happier, according to Jesus Christ, if you were transformed than if you worshipped [sic]. He would be much more pleased by your loving than by your adoration.’ And when I talk to Moslems [sic], I say, ‘Your Ayatollah and your mullahs are not going to be happy to hear this, but God is going to be much more pleased by your being transformed into a loving person than by saying, ‘Lord, Lord.’ It’s infinitely more important that you be waking up. That’s spirituality, that’s everything. If you have that, you have God. Then you worship ‘in spirit and in truth.’ When you become love, when you are transformed into love. The danger of what religion can do is very nicely brought out in a story told by Cardinal Martini, the Archbishop of Milan. The story has to do with an Italian couple that’s getting married. They have an arrangement with the parish priest to have a little reception in the parish courtyard outside the church. But it rained, and they couldn’t have the reception, so they said to the priest, ‘Would it be all right if we had the celebration in the church?’
“Now Father wasn’t one bit happy about having a reception in the church, but they said, ‘We will eat a little cake, sing a little song, drink a little wine, and then go home.’ So Father was persuaded. But being good life-loving Italians they drank a little wine, sang a little song, then drank a little more wine, and sang some more songs, and within a half hour there was a great celebration going on in the church. And everybody was having a great time, lots of fun and frolic. But Father was all tense, pacing up and downin the sacristy, all upset about the noise they were making. The assistant pastor comes in and says, ‘I see you are quite tense’.
‘Of course, I’m tense. Listen to all the noise they are making, and in the House of God!, for heaven’s sake!’
‘Well, Father, they really had no place to go.’
‘I know that! But do they have to make all that racket?’
‘Well, we mustn’t forget, must we, Father, that Jesus himself was once present at a wedding!’
Father says, ‘I know Jesus Christ was present at a wedding banquet, YOU don’t have to tell me Jesus Christ was present at a wedding banquet! But they didn’t have the Blessed Sacrament there!!!’
“You know there are times like that when the Blessed Sacrament becomes more important than Jesus Christ. When worship becomes more important than love, when the Church becomes more important than life. When God becomes more important than the neighbor. And so it goes on. That’s the danger. To my mind this is what Jesus was evidently calling us to—first things first! The human being is much more important than the Sabbath. Doing what I tell you, namely, becoming what I am indicating to you, is much more important than Lord, Lord. But your mullah is not going to be happy to hear that, I assure you. Your priests are not going to be happy to hear that. Not generally. So that’s what we have been talking about. Spirituality. Waking up. And as I told you, it is extremely important if you want to wake up to go in for what I call ‘self-observation.’ Be aware of what you’re saying, be aware of what you’re doing, be aware of what you’re thinking, be aware of how you’re acting. Be aware of where you’re coming from, what your motives are. The unaware life is not worth living.
“The unaware life is a mechanical life. It’s not human, it’s programmed, conditioned. We might as well be a stone, a block of wood. In the country where I come from, you have hundreds of thousands of people living in little hovels, in extreme poverty, who just manage to survive, working all day long, hard manual work, sleep and then wake up in the morning, eat something, and start all over again. And you sit back and think, ‘What a life.’ ‘Is that all that life holds in store for them?’ And then you’re suddenly jolted into the realization that 99.999% of people here are not much better. You can go to the movies, drive around in a car, you can go for a cruise. Do you think you are much better off than they are? You are just as dead as they are. Just as much a machine as they are—a slightly bigger one, but a machine nevertheless. That’s sad. It’s sad to think that people go through life like this.
“People go through life with fixed ideas; they never change. They’re just not aware of what’s going on. They might as well be a block of wood, or a rock, a talking, walking, thinking machine. That’s not human. They are puppets, jerked around by all kinds of things. Press a button and you get a reaction. You can almost predict how this person is going to react. If I study a person, I can tell you just how he or she is going to react. With my therapy group, sometimes I write on a piece of paper that so-and-so is going to start the session and so-and-so will reply. Do you think that’s bad? Well, don’t listen to people who say to you, ‘Forget yourself! Go out in love to others.’ Don’t listen to them! They’re all wrong. The worst thing you can do is forget yourself when you go out to others in the so-called helping attitude.
“This was brought home to me very forcibly many years ago when I did my studies in psychology in Chicago. We had a course in counseling for priests. It was open only to priests who were actually engaged in counseling and who agreed to bring a taped session to class. There must have been about twenty of us. When it was my turn, I brought a cassette with an interview I had had with a young woman. The instructor put it in a recorder and we all began to listen to it. After five minutes, as was his custom, the instructor stopped the tape and asked, ‘Any comments?’ Someone said to me, ‘Why did you ask her that question?’ I said, ‘I’m not aware that I asked her a question. As a matter of fact, I’m quite sure I did not ask any questions.’ He said, ‘You did.’ I was quite sure because at that time I was consciously following the method of Carl Rogers, which is person-oriented and nondirective. You don’t ask questions. and you don’t interrupt or give advice. So I was very aware that I mustn’t ask questions. Anyway, there was a dispute between us, so the instructor said, ‘Why don’t we play the tape again?’ So we played it again and there, to my horror, was a whopping big question, as tall as the Empire State Building, a huge question. The interesting thing to me was that I had heard that question three times, the first time, presumably, when I asked it, the second time when I listened to the tape in my room (because I wanted to take a good tape to class), and the third time when I heard it in the classroom. But it hadn’t registered! I wasn’t aware.
“That happens frequently in my therapy sessions or in my spiritual direction. We tape-record the interview, and when the client listens to it, he or she says, ‘You know, I didn’t really hear what you said during the interview. I only heard what you said when I listened to the tape.’ More interestingly, I didn’t hear what I said during the interview. It’s shocking to discover that I’m saying things in a therapy session that I’m not aware of. The full import of them only dawns on me later. Do you call that human? ‘Forget yourself and go out to others,’ you say! Anyhow, after we listened to the whole tape there in Chicago, the instructor said, ‘Are there any comments?’ One of the priests, a fifty-year-old man to whom I had taken a liking, said to me, ‘Tony, I’d like to ask you a personal question. Would that be all right?’ I said, ‘Yes, go ahead. If I don’t want to answer it, I won’t.’ He said, ‘Is this woman in the interview pretty?’
“You know, honest to goodness, I was at a stage of my development (or undevelopment) (sic) where I didn’t notice if someone was good-looking or not. It didn’t matter to me. She was a sheep of Christ’s flock; I was a pastor. I dispensed help. Isn’t that great! It was the way we were trained. So I said to him, ‘What’s that got to do with it?’ He said, ‘Because you don’t like her, do you?’ I said, ‘What?!’ It hadn’t ever struck me that I liked or disliked individuals. Like most people, I had an occasional dislike that would register in consciousness, but my attitude was mostly neutral. I asked, ‘What makes you say that?’ He said, ‘The tape.’ We went through the tape again, and he said, ‘Listen to your voice. Notice how sweet it has become. You’re irritated, aren’t you?’ I was, and I was only becoming aware of it right there. And what was I saying to her nondirectively? I was saying, ‘Don’t come back.’ But I wasn’t aware of that. My priest friend said, ‘She’s a woman. She will have picked this up. When are you supposed to meet her next?’ I said, ‘Next Wednesday.’ He said, ‘My guess is she won’t come back.’ She didn’t. I waited one week but she didn’t come. I waited another week and she didn’t come. Then I called her. I broke one of my rules: Don’t be the rescuer.
“I called her and said to her, ‘Remember that tape you allowed me to make for the class? It was a great help because the class pointed out all kinds of things to me’ (I didn’t tell her what!) ‘that would make the session somewhat more effective. So if you care to come back, that would make it more effective.’ She said, ‘All right, I’ll come back.’ She did. The dislike was still there. It hadn’t gone away, but it wasn’t getting in the way. What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you’re not aware of. When you’re aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you’re not affected by it. You’re not controlled by it; you’re not enslaved by it. That’s the difference.
“Awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness. What they trained us to do in that course was to become participant observers. To put it somewhat graphically, I’d be talking to you and at the same time I’d be out there watching you and watching me. When I’m listening to you, it’s infinitely more important for me to listen to me than to listen to you. Of course, it’s important to listen to you, but it’s more important that I listen to me. Otherwise I won’t be hearing you. Or I’ll be distorting everything you say. I’ll be coming at you from my own conditioning. I’ll be reacting to you in all kinds of ways from my insecurities, from my need to manipulate you, from my desire to succeed, from irritations and feelings that I might not be aware of. So it’s frightfully important that I listen to me when I’m listening to you. That’s what they were training us to do, obtaining awareness.
“You don’t always have to imagine yourself hovering somewhere in the air. Just to get a rough idea of what I’m talking about, imagine a good driver, driving a car, who’s concentrating on what you’re saying. In fact, he may even be having an argument with you, but he’s perfectly aware of the road signals. The moment anything untoward happens, the moment there’s any sound, or noise, or bump, he’ll hear it at once. He’ll say, ‘Are you sure you closed that door back there?’ How did he do that? He was aware, he was alert. The focus of his attention was on the conversation, or argument, but his awareness was more diffused. He was taking in all kinds of things.
“What I’m advocating here is not concentration. That’s not important. Many meditative techniques inculcate concentration, but I’m leery of that. They involve violence and frequently they involve further programming and conditioning. What I would advocate is awareness, which is not the same as concentration at all. Concentration is a spotlight, a floodlight. You’re open to anything that comes within the scope of your consciousness. You can be distracted from that, but when you’re practicing awareness, you’re never distracted. When awareness is turned on, there’s never any distraction, because you’re always aware of whatever happens to be.
“Say I’m looking at those trees and I’m worrying. Am I distracted? I am distracted only if I mean to concentrate on the trees. But if I’m aware that I’m worried, too, that isn’t a distraction at all. Just be aware of where your attention goes. When anything goes awry or anything untoward happens, you’ll be alerted at once. Something’s going wrong! The moment any negative feeling comes into consciousness, you’ll be alerted. You’re like the driver of the car.
“I told you that St. Teresa of Avila said God gave her the grace of disidentifying herself with herself. You hear children talk that way. A two-year-old says, ‘Tommy had his breakfast this morning.’ He doesn’t say ‘I,’ although he is Tommy. He says ‘Tommy’—in the third person. Mystics feel that way. They have disidentified from themselves and they are at peace.
“This was the grace St. Teresa was talking about. This is the ‘I’ that the mystic masters of the East are constantly urging people to discover. And those of the West, too! And you can count Meister Eckhart among them. They are urging people to discover the ‘I’.”