Tony Hendra’sFather Joe was given a front page review in the New York Times Book Review in which it was very nearly damned with shrill praise. The reviewer, Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic pundit, certainly did not damn the book in terms of sales—his review undoubtedly helped make the book a best-seller. But the review was so tendentious as to all but obscure both the spirit and the letter of the book itself. According to Sullivan’s hyperventilating prose, Hendra’s memoir strikes a blow against the “petty, ecclesiastically fixated pedants now so beloved by Rome.” Four sentences later he adds, for good measure, that the sentiments uttered by the priest who is the eponymous subject of Hendra’s memoir are “far removed from the cramped, fearful admonitions of today’s Vatican.”
Those readers who buy the book hoping for a biting screed against the Church à la Garry Wills or James Carroll are sure to be disappointed. For Father Joe, while it contains a few ideological crotchets here and there, is in fact a moving, often lyrical, spiritual autobiography. It is also a compelling portrait of a wise and holy monk, Dom Joseph Warrilow, a man of peace who was the still point of Tony Hendra’s churning world for forty years.
Father Joe is a distinguished addition to the growing bookshelf of memoirs by prodigal sons and daughters, writers who chronicle their long journey home to the childhood faith they abandoned in search of liberation and fulfillment. The story gets off to a rollicking start. At fourteen years of age, Hendra befriends an eccentric Catholic couple who live in a trailer in the countryside outside of London. The husband is a convert, obsessed by apologetics, church history, and doctrine—something of a pious cold fish. His emotionally starved wife makes advances to young Hendra who, though a Catholic himself, finds himself unable to resist. One day, before things have progressed too far, the husband walks in on them while Hendra is in mid-grope.
Rather than informing the lad’s parents, the husband determines on a more high-minded course of action. He takes Hendra to see a Benedictine monk of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight for spiritual counseling. Ignorant of monks and monasteries, Hendra cowers in his room in the guest house, awaiting some awful confrontation.
What happens next is unexpected. Rather than some lean, intense ascetic, the monk turns out to be an almost comical figure, like something out of a cartoon: large, floppy sandals, “big pink hands like rock lobsters sticking out from frayed black cuffs ... gigantic ears, wings of gristle ... long rubbery lips ... stretched in the goofiest of grins.” The monk gently ushers the protesting husband out of the room and shuts the door. In spite of the ungainly figure he cuts, there is something instantly soothing about the monk. “Gentleness and goodness come off him like aftershave.”
When Hendra kneels for his confession, the monk insists that he sit, then takes the young man’s hand in his and says: “Now, dear, tell me everything.” After the boy gives a terrified but faithful recitation of the facts, there comes another surprise. Father Joe’s first reaction is to murmur a word of concern for the wife. He then looks up and says:
You’ve done nothing truly wrong, Tony dear. God’s love has brought you here before any real harm could be done. The only sin you’ve committed is the sin of ... s-s-selfishness.
This strange blend of mercy and judgment and intimacy strikes the boy as fatherly. It signals the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
In his review, Sullivan seizes on Father Joe’s response to the incident to pronounce the monk free of the Vatican’s hang-ups about sexuality. To bolster his case, he cites another conversation with Hendra in which the monk says that sex is sacramental. Too many believers, Father Joe says, surround the subject with fear.
It’s true that in Hendra’s account, Father Joe occasionally seems to stray from the more traditional formulations of church teaching. At such moments his refrain becomes: “D-d-don’t tell the Abbot!” Relishing this, Sullivan concludes that the only sin is when we “withdraw from God’s love,” something that happens apparently only when “Rome” hands down cramped admonitions and the guilt that accompanies them.
But Sullivan misses the point. What Hendra conveys so vividly (though implicitly) throughout the book is that Father Joe’s ethic, far from being subjectivist, is based on a philosophy of personalism, an awareness of the obligations we have toward one another. The monk’s personal presence is his most compelling trait; it not only makes him fully present to Hendra when they are together, but it is also grounded, as he makes clear, in a constant awareness of the presence of God as a person. In a conversation not quoted by Sullivan, he tells his young protégé that emotion is insufficient as a moral guide.
Feelings are a great gift, but they’re treacherous if that’s all we live for. They drive us back into our selves, you see. What I want. What I feel. What I need. A man and a woman pass beyond just feelings at some point, don’t they? That’s when they start to know true love. The love of another.
There are times when Hendra himself seems to take “D-d-don’t tell the Abbot!” a little too seriously, rather than seeing it as Father Joe’s gracious way of steering him away from the superficiality of moralism toward the deeper truth of personalism.
Indeed, while Hendra is relieved that he isn’t on the receiving end of a moralistic sensibility, he ultimately goes off to indulge in it in his own way. After a period of puppy love for monasticism, in which he is convinced that he has a vocation to become a monk of Quarr Abbey, he gets caught up in the new irreverent comedy that he encounters when he begins attending Cambridge University. Acting on stage with the likes of John Cleese and Graham Chapman, future members of the Monty Python troupe, he discovers his true vocation: satire.
He goes on to become one of the founding editors of National Lampoon, editor of Spy magazine, writer of parody books like Not the New York Times, cocreator of the groundbreaking television satire Spitting Images. He even does a turn as “Ian Faith,” manager of the band in Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.
Along the way, he does his share, and more, of sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll. A loveless marriage finally ends and a new one gets off to a rocky start. His visits to Quarr Abbey become more infrequent, although loving letters from Father Joe continue to reach him on a regular basis in New York and Los Angeles.
In the end, Hendra’s self-described “precious mission to save the world through laughter” seems to end in failure. He allows himself to be drawn once again by the gravitational pull of Quarr. There Father Joe questions him about satire and its potential drawbacks: hurting and demonizing others. Hendra counters with the monastic concept of contemptus mundi, which he translates as “contempt for the world.” But the monk corrects him: contempt “would imply arrogance, superiority, pride.... No, Tony dear, contemptus mundi means ‘detachment from the world,’ seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis.” When Hendra admits that satire thrives on an “us versus them” approach, Father Joe responds: “You see, dear—I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world up into two kinds of people ... and those who don’t.”
Through three decades of absenting himself from the Catholic faith, Hendra has maintained his indispensable relationship with the cloistered monk (“the rock of my soul”), and in a middle-aged crisis in which Hendra can feel within himself nothing but “sheer unending malice” it is Father Joe who pulls him through (“I seem incapable of love, Father Joe.” “Tony dear, you will only be able to love when you understand how much you are loved”). Helped out of his slough of despond, Hendra starts “back down the path of faith” at the end of the 1980s.
Ironically, the famously left-wing Hendra returns to churchgoing only to find himself a conservative of sorts. His disgust at the devastation wrought by liturgical reformers knows no bounds. He declares them guilty of “one of our generation’s most deadly flaws ... a willful lack of any sense of history.” The result is the moral equivalent of “genocide,” the “posthumous mass murder” of centuries of tradition. In their quest for clarity and accessibility, the liturgical reformers had stripped the Mass of mystery.
It didn’t seem to have occurred to the well-meaning vandals who’d thrown out baby, bath, and bathwater that all ritual is a reaching out to the unknowable and can be accomplished only by the noncognitive: evocation, allusion, metaphor, incantation—the tools of the poet.
Nonetheless, he perseveres in his practice, saying the Hours of the Divine Office and finding a home at Corpus Christi, the New York parish near Columbia University once frequented by Thomas Merton. The latest update he offers here on his faith is that it is “growing and maturing.”
For all of Hendra’s thoughtful reflection on issues as vast as the nature of faith and the ethical implications of satire, this reader, for one, felt that there were too many missed opportunities in this book—opportunities to make vital connections. Take politics. While Hendra treats a host of subjects as worthy of careful sifting, he takes his political stance as axiomatic. Reagan and Thatcher are simultaneously incompetent buffoons and satanically effective in undermining all that is just and good. And so on. But if his generation is guilty of murdering the past, might there be a link between that and the steady political erosion in recent decades of traditional morals and the institutions that enshrine them?
And what of Father Joe himself? Human beings of his wisdom and grace are rare in any circumstances, even within religious communities. But just how much of an anomaly was he? The Catholic Church and the Benedictine rule formed him, made him what he was. Living saints may be passing few, but I would venture to say that few people who are open to the experience fail to find them. Nearly all of those who are writing memoirs of returning to a long-lost faith have their equivalents of Father Joe.
Though he never mentions him, Tony Hendra has much in common with another prodigal, a man born two generations before him: Malcolm Muggeridge. Both men felt an early attraction to religious faith, a Manichaean inner conflict between flesh and spirit, a difficulty with responsibility and commitment, and a genius for humor and satire. But Muggeridge and his contemporary Evelyn Waugh found a way to combine faith with satire, to great effect. Father Joe is a memoir, to be sure, but in the midst of his other obiter dicta on politics and humor, it would have been gratifying to see Hendra begin to forge a few more barbs tipped with a little sub specie aeternitatis, even if they were tossed from left of center. At the very least, we can hope that his next book will demonstrate that sort of synthesis. I bet even Father Joe would approve.
Gregory Wolfe directs the graduate program in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University and is the editor of Image.