Satirist of religion in Monty Python now a spiritual man
John Cleese and his co-conspirators in the Monty Python comedy troupe always loved to the skewer the sacred.
Their satires on the search for the Holy Grail, the life of Jesus (a.k.a. “Brian”) and the pomposity of Sunday morning worship are among the cult classics of cinematic heresy.
And now for something completely different …
Cleese, who turned from Anglicanism to atheism at his British boarding school, has discovered the Meaning of Life. And he found it in the mineral baths at the Esalen Institute — the famous spiritual retreat on the Big Sur coast.
The writer, actor and comic will discuss these and other discoveries at a series of Bay Area appearances this week. The proceeds will support Esalen, the California institute that has been cultivating social and personal transformation — and giving some great massages — since the early ’60s.
Cleese, 64, offered up a preview in an interview with The Chronicle in which he recalled his long, strange, spiritual journey from the High Church of England to the California New Age.
At his English boarding school, religion was as much a part of the curriculum as reading and writing.
“For me, the great problem growing up in England was that I had a very narrow concept of what God can be, and it was damn close to an old man with a beard,” Cleese said. “God was treated like this powerful, erratic, rather punitive father who has to be pacified and praised. You know, flattered.” For a while, in his early teens, Cleese waited to be touched by the power of the Holy Spirit. “I really did expect a golden haze to descend gently on my shoulders. Eventually, I switched out of disappointment to atheism”
After college, Cleese got a job writing for the BBC, eventually teaming up with Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Their television show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” premiered in 1969.
In addition to three Monty Python movies, Cleese is best known for his performance as Basil Fawlty in the 1970s TV show “Fawlty Towers” and his role opposite Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1988 movie, “A Fish Called Wanda.”
Meanwhile, back in his real life, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Cleese began to take another look at religion — or at least spirituality.’
He was “strangely enticed” by a book on Chinese philosophy titled “Tao – - The Watercourse Way,” by Alan Watts and Al Chung-liang Huang.
Then, in 1980, Cleese was in Los Angeles for a Monty Python show at the Hollywood Bowl. He drove up the Pacific Coast Highway. Someone suggested he stop at Esalen. He had a massage, sat in the baths and stared at the Pacific.
Cleese had discovered religion, California-style. He returned for some seminars, did some meditation and got to know the institute’s co-founder, Michael Murphy. He even moved to Santa Barbara, where he still lives.
Today, Cleese is one of the few non-academics on an Esalen think tank called the Center for Theory and Research. It holds conferences on such topics as “the survival of bodily death” and “the varieties of esoteric experience.”
Atheist no more, Cleese now believes “without the slightest doubt” in reincarnation, poltergeists and other paranormal phenomena. At the same time, he also believes that “a lot of the California New Age is nonsense.”