ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Storyteller as Spiritual Guide

The late Anthony de Mello, S.J., broke down the distinctions of East and West to speak to the human heart.

To a preacher who kept saying, “We must put God in our lives,” the Master said, “He is already there. Our business is to recognize this.”
– from One Minute Wisdom

Life is filled with the unexpected, the unusual, surprise, possibility, and an endless coming together. As people of faith, we must be prepared to live such a life and to discover such possibility.

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, lived to point out this possibility in every life. As a man and a priest he awakened in countless listeners a sense of what is essential to being fully human. He did so as a storyteller.

Father de Mello had a gift for speaking to the world in such a way to help people recognize the still point within each of us. From the heart, this essence of our being, he led us to discover our shared basic truths beyond the barriers of distance and cultural limitations.

As a lecturer and writer, as priest and retreat master, Father de Mello used stories to illuminate the essential meanings of person, place, prophecy, and God’s promise to His people – always with striking clarity. Underlying his methods was the highest regard for the dignity of each individual. His stories are not about some other people, in other times and places. He repeatedly told people that “every one of these stories is about you!”

Father de Mello had a knack for making connections, not only within individuals but also between separated groups. He linked people in meaningful ways to one another. He was able to invite people into deeper and broader understandings of their brothers and sisters who are sometimes referred to as strangers, foreigners, or even outsiders.

He told stories from many traditions: Buddhist, Christian, Zen, Hasidic, Russian, Sufi, Hindu, and Chinese. Some are very old and some quite recent. Yet each of these stories addressed elemental and universal aspects of being human. For him the divisions which separate members of the human family are unnecessary and tragic illusions.

Father de Mello died suddenly in the summer of 1987. He was praying and working, alive in the midst of God’s people. He was out and about – telling stories, encouraging believers to get beyond the seeming obstacles in their lives. He was urging people to know each moment as their own.

He was seeking to end the separations and alienations of people and communities. He was at home in the sense that he was not separated from himself or from God’s world and His people. “You cease to be an exile when you discover that creation is your home,” he would say.

Through his simple yet profound storytelling, Father de Mello opened new ways of communicating among different cultures about experiences of living in this world and of feeling drawn to an eternal union with God. He awakened people around the world to the sense and the experience of enlightenment. He fostered a necessary union and reunion between things East and West, between brothers and sisters East and West. He showed people the unity within God, obscured by the disunity of our “socialized;” secularized ways. He pointed to The Way.

“Jesus Christ calls us to life. If you get into life, you’ll be answering the call of Jesus Christ.” Father de Mello’s words offer us an essential challenge, one that will lead each of us toward unique discoveries and fulfillments. We must journey in faith, not as gamblers and entrepreneurs, but as believers and followers. We must go where God leads us – if we have the courage to truly listen.

Father de Mello spoke of our need to meditate. For Easterners meditation is a deliberate intention to go beyond words and thoughts, to get beyond mere thinking and to develop the spiritual and very human arts of tasting and feeling. Father de Mello moves us toward the heart.

In the introduction to his book The Song of the Bird, Father de Mello says there are many ways to read a story, to experience its meaning and possibly be led toward spiritual growth. He believed stories are the shortest distance between the heart and truth. He wrote, “Create a silence in you and let the story reveal to you its inner depth and meaning: something beyond words and reflections. This will give you a feel for the mystical…or carry the story around all day and allow its fragrance, its melody, to haunt you. Let it speak to your heart, not to your brain.”

With storytelling as his touchstone – a tradition shared by Jesus – Father de Mello was very much a man of God. He spoke about compassion, of the good things God has planted in each of us from the beginning. He followed a way which leads to life. As a believer, he confronted the opposites within himself and in the worlds in which we live. As a storyteller, he beckoned us to focus our attention on what is essential, human, alive, and holy.

Storytelling can be a touchstone for each of us. Life’s experience of journeying, of encountering, of listening to God’s people offers many opportunities for storytelling – both to listen and to speak. They are times of compelling confrontations: of heart and brain, of faith and history, of the East where our faith began and the West where we live it. Each of us can travel into other essential truths through encounters, personal or via electronic and print media, to hear stories speaking clearly to our shared human spirituality.

Father de Mello tried to rouse us from our spiritual slumber. Books and lectures give us learning, he pointed out. Wisdom comes from “reading the book that is you…. Not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!”

Each of us can tell stories which are sources of enlightenment. We use the words we have to shape the stories which yet need to be told. We also can hear ourselves if we choose to dialogue with the wise, such as Anthony de Mello and other storytellers of the human spirit. In this way we renew our sense of the essential stories of our lives, our times, our faith, our humanity, our world – East and West as one – and our God.

Books by Anthony de Mello: Sadhana, Song of the Bird, Wellsprings, and One Minute Wisdom.

Joseph Cornelius Donnelly is a child advocate by profession and a spiritual director and writer by avocation.

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