Folks familiar with Monty Python’s illustrious cast may only know about their, ummm, theological work from films like “The Life of Brian” and that delightful scene in “The Meaning of Life” in the “public” (that means in British English “private”) school chapel.
Who can forget the chaplain’s prayer, “O God, you are so big, so absolutely huge. We’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you”? And then there’s the Eric Idle hymn the school boys sing, “O Lord please don’t burn us, don’t grill or toast your flock, don’t put us on a barbecue or simmer us in stock….” Python’s usual approach to religion is to choose its most foolish or fanatical aspects and to give these the full satirical treatment. What some overly religious leaders seem never to get is the manner in which this comedy troop lampoons that which our own best theologians have long called into question, beginning with Erasmus (in his excellent Renaissance critique of “utopia,” a term he invented). The tradition of satirical gadflies is a hallowed one, and the Python crew took to it with gusto.
Relatively few, however, are aware that the actor and comedian John Cleese, one of the most renowned Pythons, during his time as “Professor at Large” at Cornell University, actually preached a sermon. Indeed, relatively few are aware that Cleese holds a law degree from Cambridge University and was awarded the honorary LLD by the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in recognition of his long service as rector of the university.
So what does Professor Cleese have to say about faith?*
Quite early in the sermon we have his disarming confession: “I’ll be blunt. Church of England religion, vintage 1950s, turned me away from religion for twenty years because I thought that’s what religion was — great for some people, but not for me, and not for 90 percent of my friends.”
In the wake of the breakup of his first marriage, however, and the therapy in which he became involved after that breakup, he began to explore what Alan Watts meant when he wrote, “Psychotherapy is about analyzing the contents of consciousness, the sacred traditions are about taking an attitude … to the contents of consciousness.”
Cleese says that it was about this time that he came upon a lecture Aldous Huxley delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In this lecture Huxley drew a distinction between religion as a deeply personal immediate experience of the divine and religion as a set of symbols or beliefs to which one must hold.
Cleese explored the ways in which Quakers understand the posture of “openness” to those forces within and among us which transcend conventional understanding. And he began to realize that the religion that demands adherence to a set of beliefs and that regards non-belief of these ideas as tantamount to rebellion against God was not the only show in town. And, as he learned from Huxley’s essay, the immediate experience of the divine is not restricted to a tiny population we call mystics, but is available to all people provided we are willing to engage in disciplined spiritual practices.
Cleese then confesses, “I am still puzzled why, in the West, there’s been so little interest in experiencing the divine and so much emphasis on religion as crowd control.”
Why, Cleese asks, do western religions have such a hard time blessing the individual who seeks divine experience. If the rationale is to prevent psychotic or destructive forms of faith, the strategy of belief-systems enforced by religious institutions hasn’t really worked.
Cleese, like philosopher William James, believes that the proof of the religious pudding is in the quality of life it produces. He finds in Jesus, for example, precisely the kind of life one hopes a human being would live if one has a deep connection to the divine. And he takes his cue from Jesus; in order to cultivate that experience of the divine, one has to enter into practices that will quiet the mind so we can pay attention.
Cleese says, “it’s clear to me that we’re unlikely to have an experience of the divine while we’re dashing around, ticking off lists, caught up in quotidian details and pretty much unaware of our own existence. We’re not going to have the sort of attention we need for a subtler experience while it’s all being wasted on ordinary life. …. So we need to be quiet.”
It has long been recognized, of course, in Christian spiritual practices that there is no substitute for silence and solitude if we want to open ourselves to God. God is always there; we just don’t show up ready to notice God’s presence.
However, sometimes to our surprise, we do not find instant comfort and solace in the quiet practice of solitude. Being quiet and alone put us into a position to confront ourselves. This is hard work. And this has long been known in certain Eastern spiritual practices, as Cleese discovered.
Self-absorption is not only obnoxious, Cleese says, it is antithetical to a practice of the presence of God. If we wish “to open up the more real, more simple, more childlike, more essential part of ourselves to God” we have to “chip away at our egotistical shells.”
Thomas Merton often spoke of “the false self” which we need to identify and send on its way in order to allow our true self (our self in Christ) emerge. This may be a different way to speak of what Saint Paul described as “the old man” who must be crucified so that we may be clothed in Christ. Christian mysticism has always taken seriously the process by which this occurs, the disciplined practices necessary to allow this to happen.
Cleese draws on psychotherapeutic resources, such as the thought of British psychiatrist, Dr. Maurice Nicoll, who writes that one must struggle with one’s “automatic behaviors, with wrong talking, with every kind of self-pitying, with all the different pictures of [oneself],” in other words, with all of those false images of the self that we use to build walls and defensive fortifications around us and that prevent us from being vulnerable and open. I find it impossible to read Cleese’s sermon, at this point, without hearing the teaching of Jesus to stop clinging to what I think of as “my life” and “my self,” but to let go of “my life” and “my self” entirely, because it is my false image of self, graven in stone and worshiped and worried over by me, that keeps me from openness to the divine.
At the end of his sermon, Cleese says something utterly transparent and vulnerable: “I have a real hunch that, if I could ever get quiet and free for a moment from my negativity, that I might get a gift from God.”
He closes by saying, “Thank you.”
I’ll close by saying, “Amen.”