104-IRENE RUTH BILLO
Westerner from Switzerland
Meher Baba called a group of His Western women disciples to live in Meherabad in December 1937. A few more came the following year, among them Irene Billo, a 21-year-old Swiss girl, the youngest of them all. Irene Billo lived in Switzerland and was one of many westerners to live in Baba’s ashram for a number of years.
Important event of her life with Meher Baba is briefly described as under:
Irene had come to Cannes in August 1937 to help with the cooking and household work. When she met Baba that was it. "I felt I had come home," she wrote. She just adored Baba, with all her enthusiasm and innocence. She asked Him if she could join the group coming to India, and He said, "Yes."
So she came in July 1938, along with Nadine Tolstoy and two Swiss women, Helen Dahm (who painted the murals in the Samadhi) and Hedi Mertens. They joined the other Western and Eastern women staying in the dormitory on the first floor of Meher Retreat, up Meherabad Hill.
After some initial difficulties, Irene adjusted to this new environment. She had been brought up to be practical in all household matters. She was very good at sewing and stitched clothes for the patients in the hospital on the Hill. She also taught the three Dastoor sisters (Kaikobad's daughters) how to make their own clothes. Irene loved animals and helped look after the various pets that Baba collected. There were horses, donkeys, dogs, geese, even pigs! Her love of animals and her sewing skills brought her close to Mehera, for whom she had a very deep love and respect.
One of Irene's assets was that she was fluent in English, and she was hired by Siemens as a telephone exchange operator. As she proudly told me, if a customer called from America, she could chat with them on the phone while trying to locate the engineer they needed to speak with. Irene was quite successful at her job, and when Siemens started manufacturing special phone exchanges that could be operated by blind people, Irene was asked to train them.
Irene Billo told of her eight years' stay with Baba in India where every moment of her life she had been trained toward following Baba's directions. It therefore became a very difficult problem when she was leaving for her home in Switzerland and had no idea of her future. She went to Baba and asked him for instructions. Baba pointed out on the board:
"What do you mean? You have been here eight years and you don't know what you have to do? You should know yourself. Why should I give you any instructions?"
This was very difficult. Irene said, "If he would have given me instructions! But he said, 'You get married if you like; but, you know, you have been here, and if you have not yet learned to know what I wish, well then, what has been the good of these eight years?'"
She reiterated, "To brave the world freely this way was far more difficult than to obey any difficult rules Baba had given, because one could always hold onto the rules. On your own you keep thinking, 'What have I now done? Have I acted in the spirit of Baba or not?' And if others disagree, one can only say, 'Well, I am just a human being and I hope that Baba loves me all the same.'"
In Venice, Baba gave each of His lovers an Eastern name Padmini (lotus) to Irene Billo and many others for years afterward, Baba would address or refer to His close ones by these names; they, in turn, would sign their letters likewise.
Baba and few mandali arrived in Zurich where Baba met Hedi and Walter Mertens and their children. After a while, Baba remarked, "Someone I was expecting has not come. Now, I'll have to come back again (to the West)." He was referring to a young Swiss woman named Irene Billo, whose rendezvous with the Divine Beloved was soon approaching. Irene knew of Baba, but felt too "scared" to come and meet Him. She naively thought she was not pure enough, which Baba of course would know. She had secretly gone to a restaurant nearby with friends, but then cried all night at the opportunity missed.
Baba arrived in Cannes on 15th August 1937, and moved to Baba villa, situated on a hill, was called Villa Caldana, at Montfleury. Baba had asked Kitty to arrange for two maids, but she had only been able to bring one from London. Baba did not want local women to do the housework as he thought they would gossip about him and the group.
Thereupon, He asked if there was a daughter of one of His European disciples who could come and help with the household chores at Villa Caldana.
Hedi Mertens was cabled in Zurich, but since her own daughter Annakatharina was not used to housekeeping, she turned instead to their family friend, 20-year-old Irene Ruth Billo. Irene was interested in Baba through the influence of her parents, who had met Baba. She accepted Hedi's offer and left soon after she arrived in Cannes on the 15th. Irene recalled the sequence of events that led to her first meeting with Meher Baba:
I remember it was one afternoon in 1936 that I sneaked into my father's office and opened his secret cupboard to steal chocolates and saw for the first time a photograph of Baba taken at Feldmeilen [the Mertenses' house]. It was a beautiful picture and had a profound effect on me. I asked my mother about Baba and she gave me the booklet, Questions and Answers, but I was not intellectually interested in spiritual things.
During the Nasik period, Norina would write to my father and I also began attending meetings in Zurich, though I had not gone to meet Baba when He came in November 1936, as I felt shy. I felt Baba would be able to see all my secrets.
When I arrived at Cannes, Elizabeth picked me up at the station. As soon as I arrived at the villa she brought me before Baba. Somehow I felt that I had come back, I had come home. It was something so great which I had never experienced before or since.
The next evening Baba told me to sit next to Him on one side; Mehera was on the other side. It was very stirring to be with Baba all the time. Meeting Baba was an upheaval which turned me upside down. His was a love much greater than anything else I had ever experienced.
In 1937, Irene would meticulously clean Baba's room and keep things tidy. She also cleaned a small adjoining room where Kaka would sit while on night duty. In the course of her cleaning duties, Irene would collect Baba's hair from His pillows and carefully preserve it.
An amusing story involves Irene's trying to be so careful in saving Baba's hair. At times, Kaka would take a pillow from the bed and keep it behind his head while sitting on the chair during night watch.
Thinking that this hair was also Baba's, Irene would collect it, too, but wondered why Baba slept in two places. This went on for a number of days, after which she discovered she had been carefully collecting Kaka's hair.
On 28th June 1938, Irene Billo from Switzerland among four westerners arrived in Bombay on the Conte Verde and was driven to Ahmednagar to join Baba's burgeoning ashram. Irene contracted jaundice shortly after she arrived, so by Baba's orders, Rano began nursing her. Baba supervised her treatment and she gradually recovered.
Irene Billo's father, who had met Baba several times, had died at the end of October. Discussing his death on 27th November 1940, Baba informed her: "You should be happy. Your father was very lucky. He died like Vivekananda, without suffering. He is free. All relations of those who are with Me, whether they know Me or not, or even if they do not believe in Me, get salvation. Krishna has said, 'Seventy-two generations of such lucky ones get liberation.' "
Baba added about present world conditions: "During this period half the world will die — perhaps even My mother."
On Baba's birthday, 14th February 1943, Baba departed Meherabad for Mahabaleshwar with the men and women mandali. Besides the Indian women, Irene Billo, was among four Westerners living with them: In Mahabaleshwar as He had done in Meherabad, Baba formed them into groups, but He now kept Irene with Margaret. Here, too, Baba would not see any women except Mehera and Mani.
Baba and all shifted to Bhilar on Thursday, 1st April 1943. Baba was to be away for most of April and May, arranging another meeting at Meherabad and contacting masts. As a pastime for the women who would be staying in Bhilar, three other horses were purchased — one for Mehera, one for Irene Billo and one for Mani, Meheru and Katie.
In March 1946, just when Irene felt that she had understood what obedience means, Baba told her to go back to Switzerland. Her father had died in 1940, and the family's financial situation was no longer one of affluence. Her fiancé had married Irene's sister—eight years was a long time to wait! Irene had to earn a living, which she accepted, though she had not been brought up for this possibility.
Around 26th March 1946, Don accompanied Irene Billo to Bombay, from where she left three weeks later by ship for Switzerland, according to Baba's order.
On 6th August 1952, Charmian drove Baba to the airport. From London, the group flew to Zurich on Swiss Air 111. Irene Billo was waiting at the airport to receive them when they landed two and a half hours later. She had also hired another car and a driver for Baba's visit.
The Western lovers had been informed that Baba intended coming in July 1956, provided the expenses of the trip could be met by His lovers in the West. Nicknamed Energy, Marion Florsheim of Jackson Heights, New York, was appointed by Baba to make all the necessary arrangements for the trip. The "Meher Baba Hospitality Committee" was formed, with Marion as chairman, Fred Winterfeldt as vice-chairman, and seven other members from Baba's following in New York, to raise the estimated $12,000 in expenses for Baba. Irene Billo prepared for Baba's stopover in Zurich. In Australia.
On 16th July 1956, Baba left Satara for Bombay, where He stayed for the day at Ashiana. Same night at midnight, Baba with mandali flew from Santa Cruz airport on Air India Flight 103 (economy class). On the way to London, the plane stopped for about an hour each at Damascus and Beirut. By the afternoon they arrived at Kloten Airport in Zurich, where Baba met about 35 Europeans. Close lovers including Irene Billo. Baba and the mandali disembarked from the plane and walked to the conference room that Irene had reserved. Baba embraced Irene and then the others one by one.
Dr. Shoebel Boss, 53, was a well-known Swiss professor of psychotherapy at the University of Zurich. He later wrote a book about two trips he made to India (A Psychiatrist Discovers India) and his conversations with various gurus, rishis and saints. Irene Billo sent Dr. Boss a copy of God Speaks but Boss returned it unread.
Baba sent this telegram to Irene Billo in Switzerland who, due to ill health, had been unable to come: "While your love is with Me here, I am with you there."
In 1983, a friend offered Irene a plane ticket to go to India. She was delighted. She had met Baba again in Switzerland twice—in 1952, and in 1956—but it had been 37 years since Irene had been to India. She was prone to sudden and severe asthma attacks, so Dr. Goher asked me to be with Irene all the time during her visit. Jack Small, the only resident at the time who owned a private car, was at Irene's disposal to drive her everywhere. Of course, Irene went to Meherazad and spent time with Mehera and the other women mandali, but most of all; Irene wanted to be up the Hill. She spent hours talking with Mansari. Both had received the order from Baba to observe silence for one year while they traveled with Him on the Blue Bus tours. Now they could catch up!
It was touching to watch Irene and Mansari remembering the time of the ashram—the time when they were with Baba. But what struck me deeply was what Irene kept repeating to one and all, "It is just like it was. It feels as if Baba has gone to Nasik and will be back next week." She also said, "The whole essence of Baba is here. He fills the whole atmosphere."
Irene, who had seen the murals of the Samadhi being painted, who had sat with Baba near the Samadhi, did not feel that Meherabad was any different. Mani said the exact same thing, "Meherabad is saturated with Baba's presence." Yes, this is sacred ground indeed!