In Anthony De Mello’s book, The Way to Love, the word ‘love’ is used to describe a state of being, a natural state, free from attachments, burdens or judgment. The word ‘happiness’ is often substituted for the word ‘love,’ which, for De Mello, is meant to signify ‘happiness’ in the sense of ‘The Good,’ or virtue, as an active state, as opposed to a passive experience.
This book was recommended to me by one of my favorite musicians, Anne Heaton. It is a tiny book, small enough to fit in a front pocket, and I read it mostly on cold early mornings waiting for the bus or on cold nights waiting outside a bar or restaurant for friends to arrive. It is a wonderful book that I hesitated at initially, but as I continued to read and to re-read, I was slowly persuaded.At first I thought that I was reading it only because I was stuck inside by the cold weather or on a bench waiting for the bus, but I found, in the end, that The Way to Love is a discussion on Virtue and The Good worth reading again and again and its discussion was calming my mind, delivering perspective, fighting through the paradox and, overall, it has made my life and actions a little bit better. Despite finishing it several months ago, I continue to carry it in my coat pocket.
The first movement of the book is based around a quote from Jesus: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The point is not hatred in-itself of one’s surrounding world, but an understanding that the unhappiness that overwhelms is an unhappiness based upon attachment and need and reliance on others.
This leads to the second point: “True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all (pg. 60)” Happiness is our natural state, for De Mello. Only our attachments and burdens draw us away from our most desired state of being, and, for De Mello, our only true state of being.
The Way to Love may seem from the start of this review to espouse trite self-help prescriptions, except with a Catholic spin, but I hope not to leave you with this impression. This book is in no way connected with ‘self-help.’ This is a book of philosophy and Anthony de Mello is a philosopher within the Christian school of thought. Mr. De Mello’s goal is to articulate a position on virtue in its richest sense. He argues that to find the true state of virtue or holiness one must live ‘unself-consciously,’ effortlessly, and without desire. If you desire virtue or a state of Love then “you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will constantly be in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety will kill the very happiness that they set out to gain (72).” De Mello doesn’t offer solutions, like most self-help books. He offers the paradox of the human state; one we are constantly struggling with. The beauty of this book doesn’t lie in its solutions but in its understanding of the problems.
And the idea that happiness is your natural state is, coming from a Jesuit, a very controversial statement. If one can find Love naturally, within herself, then there is no need for a redemptive deity. Indeed, the current Pope, Josef Ratzinger, while serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote of De Mello’s teachings: “in certain passages in [his:] early works and to a greater degree in his later publications [The Way to Love was his last book], one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith.” Ratzinger continued, “With the present Notification, in order to protect the good of the Christian faithful, this Congregation declares that the above-mentioned positions are incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.”
It’s surprising that De Mello is a Catholic (though perhaps not surprising he’s a Jesuit), and Mr. Ratzinger, whose job is to protect and keep unified the Catholic Doctrine was in no way wrong in light of his job description, but as my friend Loren always says, “if you are pissing off people like that, you’re doing something right.” And indeed, angering the Congregation for the Doctrine puts De Mello in the good company of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo, thinkers like Bruno and Simone de Beauvoir, writers such as Hugo and Flaubert and of course anyone who has ever asked for civil rights in general.
But De Mello’s achievements are greater than just pissing off recent history’s most disgruntled and dogmatic Pope, more reminiscent of the Walter Matthau of the Odd Couple than a gentle and forgiving disciple of Christ. De Mello’s book is a clear-sighted discussion of the issues that distract humankind from a natural state of Grace and Love and Virtue (As my anger towards the effects of a millennium of Catholic Dogma is currently distracting me.) He does not ramble or sidestep, but makes momentous and dangerous claims that aim directly at the point: that happiness is within you. He does not, however, settle for the abstract, reminding us that because we live full of seemingly necessary attachments and overwhelming desires, achieving grace and true virtue is revolutionary. As Jesus says, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off (Mark (9:33)” or Luke’s statement: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26)”
In the end, and maybe more practically than sawing off your hand, De Mello advises: “Each time you are in the presence of a person, any person, or with Nature or with any particular situation, you have all sorts of reactions, positive and negative. Study those reactions, observe what exactly they are and where they come from, without any sermonizing or guilt or even any desire, much less effort to change them (p194).” This, he says, is where holiness lies and where true Love lies. We might reply, but isn’t this striving for awareness itself yet one more desire? “Not if you have tasted just once,” he says, “for then you will understand that awareness is a delight . . . and you will know that the unaware life is not worth living (p. 195).
But beyond the self-awareness that is caused by reading The Way to Love, Anthony De Mello demonstrates the great heights Christian thought can achieve when it retreats from redemption and involves itself with the ancient questions regarding The Self, Virtue and The Good and proves, as a wise man once told me, that for some, Christianity “originally was and still should be a philosophy in the ancient understanding, a way of life based on a theory of the cosmos.”