The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: July 30, 2004
Best-selling book explores complicated life of noted comic
Reviewed by JAMES MARTIN
There is a long history of memoirs by Christians who have not always acted very Christian. While the most often noted sin in St. Augustines Confessions is his youthful stealing of a pear from a neighbors vineyard, sometimes overlooked is his taking of an unnamed woman as a concubine for 15 years. Famously dissolute as a youth, Thomas Merton spent a good deal of his self-centered time at Columbia University in the 1930s chasing women and getting drunk. Earlier, during his studies at Cambridge University, after fathering a child out of wedlock, he promptly abandoned both child and mother. Before Dorothy Day took up residence with her lover, Forster Batterham, she had already undergone an abortion, the product of an earlier affair.
Father Joe lies squarely in this tradition: the conversion of a former sinner. This surprise American bestseller is also a fine spiritual memoir, and one of the best primers on grace, on holiness and on friendship you may ever read. In its own way, it is almost a how-to book for priests, spiritual directors and pastoral counselors. As an added bonus, it is beautifully written, well paced and funny to boot. Finally, the author not only describes a model of contemporary priesthood that is both inspiring and realistic, but also, perhaps inadvertently, offers the best description in contemporary writing of the goal of the chastity and celibacy in religious life: love. Though different in its tone, scope and goals, Father Joe can be fairly compared in its power and effect with memoirs like The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day and Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis.
Tony Hendra is well known to connoisseurs of humor. Casting about for his lifes path while at Cambridge, Hendra stumbled onto a convulsively funny performance by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore that convinced him of his vocation: to make people laugh. Later, Hendra would perform at the university with his Monty Python friends, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, serve as the founding editor of National Lampoon and work as editor-in-chief of the cheeky 1980s humor magazine Spy. Along the way, he was featured as the hapless band manager Ian Faith in every comedy buffs favorite satirical movie, This is Spinal Tap.
So one might assume that Hendras life has been funny, or at least as lighthearted as his comedy. But one would be wrong. Much of his adult life has been painful, bleak and often terribly destructive, save one particular grace.
At age 14, in Hertfordshire, England, Tony Hendra falls into a relationship with a young married woman. After her equally young husband, a devout Catholic, finds out, he brings Tony to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, where he is introduced to an ungainly Benedictine monk: A fleshy triangular nose supported granny glasses that must have predated the Great War. The crowning glory: gigantic ears, wings of gristle at right angles to the rather pointy closely shaven skull. ... Father Joseph Warrilow was as close to a cartoon as you could get without being in two dimensions. Though fearing the worst from his new confessor, young Tony pours out his story.
In response, the infinitely kind priest focuses less on the boys sins and more on the young woman. Poor Lily, he says, at a stroke changing and deepening Tonys understanding of sin, responsibility and forgiveness.
Thus begins an improbable spiritual friendship between the two. Father Joe will remain Tonys spiritual polestar throughout a life filled with drugs, egotistical behavior and general immorality. However, like The Seven Storey Mountain (which suffered severe edits at the hands of Mertons Trappist censors), the level of immorality in Hendras life is at times difficult to discern. Recent allegations in The New York Times about Hendra having sexually molested a daughter from his first marriage makes the fuzziness in the middle section of the book all the more problematic. For here the edits cannot be attributed to overly sensitive Trappists.
Although I finished the book before news broke of his daughters allegations (which the author has adamantly denied), this section already seemed the weakest part of Father Joe. While Hendra tells of marrying a woman and raising a family, as individuals they remain maddeningly vague, largely ciphers in the narrative. (I was reminded of St. Augustines failure to provide even a name for his concubine in the Confessions.) True, the author admits to being a terrible father and poor husband during his first marriage. No father could have been more selfish, he writes, treating his family like props, possessions, inconveniences, mostly forgetting them completely. And true, even the forthright Dorothy Day omitted mentioning something as important as her abortion in The Long Loneliness. Nevertheless, greater clarity and transparency about this period in his life would have made the books confessional tone even more compelling.
Though clearly harboring doubts about many of Tonys selfish actions and decisions, Father Joe nevertheless patiently sticks with him, listens to his troubles and ponders the world in which his friend lives. And while the book is, strictly speaking, an autobiography, it is more accurately described as a portrait of an extraordinary priest. The Benedictine is a master spiritual director, knowing when to listen (which is most of the time) and when to insert le mot juste. When Tony discusses his job at the satirical TV show Spitting Image, Father Joe asks mildly, To say people are stupid when theyre not -- isnt that a little cruel? Over time, Father Joes wisdom seeps into Tonys soul, enabling him to alter and finally right his lifes misguided course.
In the midst of a church itself reeling from a sexual abuse crisis, Father Joes manner may seem outmoded. When he first meets Tony, he does what comes naturally: Without looking at me, he took my hand in his -- big, surprisingly soft -- and held it on the arm of the chair. He calls people dear. Father Joe is, in short, a loving and affectionate person, and it is this that makes him a good friend and a good priest. And when, near the end of the book, we learn that there have been many, many other people whom Father Joe has been counseling -- from the Princess of Wales to the future archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to persons living with AIDS -- it is not entirely unexpected. It is the hundredfold that Jesus spoke of, the fruit of fully living out ones vocation.
But Father Joe himself may be less a throwback and more an augury of what will reinvigorate the priesthood: compassionate men of integrity. For finally, the church will be renewed as it always has been, not so much by edicts or documents or ecumenical councils, as important as these things are, but by saints, some of them very much like Father Joe.
Jesuit Fr. James Martin is associate editor of America and author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004
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