Father Joe

Father Joe
The Man Who Saved My Soul
Tony Hendra
Random House, $24.95, 271 pp.

Is there a Catholic news story today that’s not related to sexual abuse? Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan gave Father Joe, Tony Hendra’s spiritual autobiography, a rave on the front page of the May 30 New York Times Book Review. He called it “extraordinary, luminescent, profound.” Consequently, the memoir climbed up the bestseller list. On July 1, though, an article in the Times daily arts section detailed accusations of sexual molestation against Hendra by his thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Jessica. Tony Hendra denied the allegations. Nothing in the book can confirm or refute the charges, and although the Times story made the allegations sound credible, further coverage has made Tony Hendra’s denials sound believable, too. The only certainty in this awful—and awfully public—family struggle is uncertainty. But the unlikely success of Father Joe, as a piece of writing, is hard to deny.

Until Father Joe, Hendra, an Englishman, was best known for his work as a humorist-in print and on stage and screen. He was an editor at National Lampoon and at Spy magazine, and appeared in Rob Reiner’s rock ’n’ roll “mockumentary,” This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Hendra spent many of those years boozing and snorting—“the crazed coke-and-drinking days,” he calls them. Now he’s a regular churchgoer and the father of three children from a second marriage. How did he find his way back to normalcy? Simple: Fr. Joe.

"All my conscious life he was my strongest ally, the cherished gatekeeper of my lost Eden, a lighthouse of faith blinking away through the oceanic fog of success and money and celebrity and possessions, my intrepid guide in the tangled rainforest of human love, my silken lifeline to the divine, my Father Joe."

In the deadest of deadpan, Hendra declares Fr. Joe a saint. No punch line. No knee slap. No sarcasm. If you find that hard to believe at the book’s start, you won’t by the time you reach its end.

Hendra is a gifted writer, and this is a wonderfully composed, touching, humorous, and surprisingly intellectual volume. In the concluding sentences of the brief prologue, Hendra sets out the challenge: “How to make my dear, good friend live again? Roll back the rock... take him by the hand, and lead him into the light. See him laugh and teach and heal once more.” Turning the page to begin chapter 1, you know you are in the hands of a skilled storyteller: “How I met Father Joe: I was fourteen and having an affair with a married woman.”

This is a wallop of a scene, opening where all good spiritual memoirs begin: big sin. Young Tony alone in a trailer—home with his fellow parishioner Lily Bootle:

"’Should we?’ she asks. ’I think we should,’ I replied, having no idea what she was talking about. ’But...but’ (she never used just one ’but’—always at least two) ’it will be the end, the point of no return, all will be lost.’"

Breathless and agonized, poor Lily speaks as though she learned English from the first talkies, the perfect foil for Tony’s adolescent simplicity. She was right, of course. Before Tony’s able to get past “second base,” her husband Ben, Tony’s catechism tutor, walks in on them. He does what any committed Catholic would do in this situation: sends the kid to a priest.

The fire and brimstone Tony expected were not in store for him at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. Fr. Joseph Warrilow, though, was. Most Catholics know at least one priest like Warrilow: he laughs often, can crack and take a joke, seems thoroughly pleased with the fact of being alive; he emanates peace, a connection to God, to creation; he is very obviously holy-and very obviously human. Fr. Joe’s gentle work as confessor inspires Tony to a rapid metanoia, and soon Quarr starts to look like an ideal way of life to Tony.

But this conversion wouldn’t last long. One night, weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Tony is seized by despair as he recites the Office of Compline. He becomes aimless and distracted, even in sports: during a swim meet, “halfway down the second lap I suffered a particularly violent assault on the doctrine of the Real Presence, and slammed into the end of the pool.” After hitting the bottom of a “profound and all-encompassing” depression, his dream of becoming a monk shattered, Tony takes off for Quarr, where Fr. Joe “did nothing but listen.” The next morning, the pair strike up a dialogue on the end of Tony’s initial romance with God. After Fr. Joe explains the selfish trap of living only for our feelings-even one’s feelings toward God-Tony sees a new level of belief, “another kind of light,” open before him. A monk, again, he would be.

The conversion, de-conversion, and re-conversion scenes may be a bit too tidy, too cinematic, but Hendra’s rendering of this time at Quarr is vivid. Many of his conversations with Fr. Joe serve as mini-workshops in literature and theology. Tony reads Meister Eckhart on the Trinity: “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten. When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that love is the Holy Spirit.” “That,” Hendra writes, “was a Trinity I could live with.”

Admitted to the University of Cambridge, Tony begrudgingly left Quarr believing he’d return to the monastery after college. But the satisfactions of the secular world intervened, and after seeing the sketch comedy of Beyond the Fringe one night in Cambridge, “I sensed something coming together, and something else falling away.” His vocation as a performer and a writer coalesced as his vocation as a monk evaporated. “Save the world through prayer? I don’t think so. I’m going to save it through laughter.”

With that pledge, part 1 concludes. It’s a good cliffhanger, but the second part of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. Part 2 has no shortage of amusing vignettes, but the story loses some focus, jumping around confusingly, from 1980-something to 1971, back to 1968, then 1972... One feels something of the disorientation Hendra must have experienced in those swirl­ing, intoxicated years. We follow Tony through his time as a writer/director/performer, and an editor at National Lampoon, into his troubled first marriage, his sense of total failure, and of irredeemable sinfulness.

While filming Spinal Tap, Tony feels powerfully intimidated by his costars, comedy geniuses such as Michael Mc­Kean and Harry Shearer. He sought counsel on how to do improvisational comedy. All advice came down to one word: listen. And it hit him: “hadn’t Fr. Joe twenty or more years ago said an almost identical thing?” He would do even more listening in the years to come.

It’s Fr. Joe, or rather it’s Tony’s conversations with Fr. Joe, that hold the second half of this memoir together. On satire and humor, these later exchanges prove to be some of the most fascinating in the book—the word mimesis makes a cameo, and to great effect. As Tony attempts to explain his trade as a satirist to Fr. Joe, the monk surprises with a series of pointed, illuminating questions about such a line of work. Is mimicking evil the same as participating in it? Do satirists turn into what they satirize? In Tony’s case, to some extent he had. And confessing again to Fr. Joe, confessing into his peaceful silence, his holy understanding, the pendulum of Tony’s life swung again, toward the church, one last time.

Despite a few relatively minor hitches, Father Joe remains a ray of hope in a foundering genre. Spiritual memoirs are too often simpering, self-serving, schmaltzy, and freighted with deadly prose. But Father Joe is theologically and emotionally sophisticated, very funny, and very well written. Most books of this type are all heart and no head, or vice versa. Given the genre’s conventions, it’s a miracle that Hendra manages both. Perhaps this marvel can count as one of the two the church requires for Fr. Joe to make sainthood.

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About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.