West meets East in John Cleese

Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle must be the envy of every religion writer who loves the comedy of John Cleese. Lattin nabbed an interview with the Monty Python veteran before Cleese made a series of Bay Area fundraising appearances for Esalen, the Big Sur-based institute known for spreading Eastern thought in the West. Lattin traces Cleese's disenchantment with the Church of England, including this moment:

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."

Cleese found his life transformed by reading Tao: The Watercourse Way by Alan Watts and Al Chung-liang Huang and by an impromptu visit to Esalen in 1980.

Lattin wraps up the story with this paradox:

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."

Here's another facet of Cleese's spiritual life: in 1988 he recorded the definitive audio version of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Audio Literature of Berkeley, Calif., distributed the recording in abridged form on two cassettes, and in unabridged form in an anniversary package. Both versions, plus a three-CD set from England that includes "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," are available on eBay.

Joss Ackland, who depicted Lewis in the original Shadowlands, also has recorded an unabridged version of Screwtape, but Cleese does a far better job of it. Cleese's Screwtape mutters darkly, shouts and even loses himself in laughter. Cleese's performance is both hilarious and chilling.

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