By Sharukh Vazifdar
Former Jesuit priest, P J Francis has a single point spiritual agenda: Cultivate awareness and allow it to guide you towards the divine.
‘One of the hallmarks of a sincere seeker is his willingness to let go of what he is in order to become what he can be.’ I had read that quotation somewhere and when I was assigned to interview Francis Padinjarekara, it popped into my mind. A former Christian priest, Francis not only courageously left the order in 2006, but he has also married his soul mate since, an Irish woman called Liz Dillon, with whom he currently lives in Ireland. For Francis’ former priestly order, the Catholic Church is father, mother and God all rolled into one, for it takes care of their every need: boarding. lodging, schooling, socialising and so on. To freewheel out of its grasp takes rare moral fibre. Today, Francis, who used to run the Sadhana Institute, the legacy of his mentor and spiritual teacher, Anthony de Mello, has reinvented himself as a spiritual teacher, workshop facilitator and writer. The going is tough but the serene Francis, his square set face wreathed in peace, wears the countenance of one who knows he has done the right thing. Francis was in town for the book launch of his book, A Dewdrop in the Ocean (see review in the June 2009 issue of Life Positive) and we met at a relative’s place in Andheri, in the western suburbs of Mumbai.
For Francis, the essence of the spiritual life lies in the practice of awareness. He shares the simple but pithy definition that one of his students, an Irish lady, used. “It is looking at my life directly, without blinkers on; and without judgement.” The capacity to look within, without judging is obviously potent. Francis agrees, “People transform when they do this.”
He enthuses, “Awareness is seeing what is there with the heart, the inner eye. It is the birth of light in a person.”
Francis joined the Jesuit Order at the age of 17, looking to lead a spiritual life, but soon after he had a few wonderful experiences that could not be explained within the confines of the Church. He carried on as a Jesuit priest for 35 years, becoming a clinical psychologist and the director of the Sadhana Institute of Spirituality and Counselling in Lonavala for 14 years. He had a decade-long bout of depression, anguish and fear starting in the ’80s because of his changing beliefs. Eventually he found himself moving beyond religion. He says, “I could not compromise my freedom to do what I have to do and teach what I have to teach.” He realised that he did not belong to the Church anymore, because his experience of God did not match what he was taught by the Church. Francis says, “God is not the object of belief, but the subject of experience.”
|Francis PJ ‘God is not the object of belief, but the subject of experience.’.|
For the Christian, brought up on a creed of beliefs, this is indeed a radical departure. “The God we believe in reflects the qualities of the believer. Our God is the sum of the expectations, beliefs, experiences and constitution which we have. We become like the God we believe in,” says Francis. He clarifies that the true understanding of God comes only from experience. He says, “God can be experienced in the deepest part of your being. The being, energy, or consciousness we call God is universal and beyond our individual boundaries. It cannot be intellectually grasped, it needs to be experienced.”
When he left the Order, he had no money or possessions. But the Divine Hand has sheltered and looked after him since, providing him with what he needed. Shortly thereafter, Francis grew close to a friend in Ireland, Liz Dillon. Although he had formerly been disinterested in marriage, what grew between Liz and Francis was a beautiful natural bond, and today he can scarcely conceal his regard for her. Describing her as an intuitive healer and counsellor, he says that in her simple way she has found what many a seeker has striven for. They got married in 2008 in Ireland in a moving Celtic ceremony. He explains that one of the rituals in the ceremony involved tying his hand to hers, which is the origin of the phrase ‘tying the knot’.
The couple also works together and has started Awareness Arc, an organisation that holds workshops for individuals and corporates, helping the transition from unawareness to wakeful living. Says Francis, “The journey is the life path of all human beings, starting wherever they are and coming to a state that is known only in its living.” They use guided meditations, group work, and personal exploration for an experiential communication of awareness.
Quoting the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, Francis says, “People are not looking for meaning, they are looking for the experience of being alive.” He goes on to say, “One of the most important and relevant questions is ‘Who am I?’” If this is answered, our entire lives fall into perspective. We then know the answers to all the other fundamental questions. When we answer this question, we see that the I does not stop at my physical form, it goes on. It encompasses all there is, building up to a grander and greater version of I. We then see that there is no I but us. This question tells us who we are in relation to God, to other life forms, and about our place here. It is the most essential question there is.”
In Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero or protagonist undergoes transformation, after which he returns to everyday life. Francis states that coming back to everyday life is what life is about. Awareness isn’t going to a monastery or a mountaintop to live in isolation. It is to live out the divinity within us, every day and in every way, while encountering everyday events. The hero comes back to the world with blessings for it. “The result of all transformation is not to escape from the world, but to return to it,” says Francis.
‘An ultra-modern station three kilometres away from the track is as much of an absurdity as a much frequented temple three centimetres away from life.’
One of the persons who has most impacted him is the enlightened Jesuit priest, Father Anthony de Mello. Tony, as Francis calls him, conveyed his teaching through stories, jokes, anecdotes, parables and meditations, writing books with a spiritual focus. Among his most famous books are One-minute Wisdom and The Prayer of the Frog. These exchanges on a number of subjects dealing with everyday life always end with a telling point that causes us to pause and look anew. The Dewdrop in the Ocean follows this model, admittedly a delightful vehicle to convey wisdom. It started out as a serious theoretical book that took him three years to write. At the end of it, he threw it out and recreated it within months in its present form. Francis explains that stories or metaphors are more powerful than theory. They sidestep the rational mind, and cannot be refuted. Stories also work very well with different cultures and religions, not having a particular identity to them. He says, “You either allow a story to touch you or you don’t. If it does, it sticks with you.”
Returning to the subject of Tony, Francis explains that he has attained an elevated and saint-like state in English and Spanish speaking countries. His books are read by all kinds of people, beyond religious or other divides. Although he was banned by the Vatican, this only drew more attention to him. Even the Times of India and Indian Express wrote against the ban. It was unofficially lifted six months after being imposed.
Over the last few years, Francis has felt a change in world energy, a rise in human consciousness. The recession has hit us hard and it seems to be the dawn of a major change in consciousness. He does not view the recession, tsunami, Iraq or Afghanistan as a punitive act of God but as events in human history. “As the Buddha says, ‘Events happen, deeds are done, consequences follow, but there is no doer thereof,’” says Francis. “It is just reality unfolding itself.”
After spending a memorable four hours with Francis, I leave feeling peaceful and serene. He exudes an aura of compassion and love, which rubs off on those he comes in contact with. Surely, this church man has transformed into a man of God.
Francis’ website www.awrarenessarc.org has a list of programmes he conducts on awareness. His book is published by Zen Publications (www.zenpublications.com)
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