Skip to comments.Laughter and salvation: Satirist Tony Hendra's memoir honors a monk who inspired him.
Posted on 05/30/2004 1:44:24 PM PDT by tridentine
Father Joe The Man Who Saved My Soul By Tony Hendra Random House. 271 pp. $24.95
Tony Hendra will always occupy a warm spot in my heart because of his hilarious (and uncanny) imitation of John Lennon on "Magical Misery Tour," one of the selections on National Lampoon's 1972 LP Radio Dinner. Hendra was one of the founders of National Lampoon, and he recounts both his days there and how the Lennon send-up came about in Father Joe. But only in passing. For this is definitely not your usual show-biz memoir.
True, by starting off with an account of how he "was fourteen and having an affair with a married woman," Hendra leads one to suspect this to be a thrice-told tale: sensitive youth overcomes brutal, sexually repressed Catholic upbringing and achieves sophistication and stardom. The brutality was certainly real enough. What distinguishes Hendra's account of his days "at a joint called... St. Columba's" is how funny it is:
Disputes between boys were settled on the spot by boxing bouts - not with padded gloves either, but ten-ounce gloves. The first time this happened to me I tearfully objected that I didn't know how to box and couldn't I run a race or something, whereupon Brother Colm, who happened to be headmaster, snarled, "You'll settle it with gloves - as Christ intended."
As for the "affair" - well, that's such a good story and Hendra tells it so well it seems wrong to give too much away. It comes about because Hendra's parents, understandably disapproving of St. Columba's Abu Ghraib-like disciplinary practices, transfer him to a Church of England school. A young neighbor takes on the job of providing Tony with Catholic religious instruction, and the neighbor's wife takes a shine to the boy.
And that is how Tony gets to meet Dom Joseph Warrilow, a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight - the Father Joe of the title.
Father Joe turns out to be someone who takes Jesus at his word that the law was made for man, not the other way around:
Being a monk, he spoke of God. But rarely unless linked with the word "love." And while he spoke of God as "he," it wasn't a "he" I recognized at all... . The "he" of his God was gentle, generous, endlessly creative, musical, artistic... a "he" who felt his joy deeply, who could be hurt just as deeply but would never give up on you, who showered you with gifts and opportunities whether you acknowledged them or not, who set you tasks but didn't abandon you if you failed them.
Hendra is so taken with Father Joe that his only ambition for the next few years is to become a monk himself. Thanks to Father Joe, however, he goes to Cambridge (a partial scholarship and government grants making this possible without placing any strain on his parents' limited means). And at Cambridge, he sees Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett stage Beyond the Fringe, and he undergoes another conversion - to the possibility of changing the world through satirical laughter.
What follows really is an often-told tale with the usual ingredients: sex, drugs, and egos in collision. There is a marriage, of course, and two children, but Hendra proves a neglectful husband and father. Naturally, he abandons his faith. One day, he gets a letter from Father Joe, "and - I couldn't remember ever doing this before - I didn't open it right away." When, days later, he does open it, "all that crossed my mind was: I bet I could write a great parody of a Father Joe letter.... I knew I'd passed a milestone. I have him down, I thought, I can do him... . Parody is also a way of owning and containing what once you were in awe of."
Father Joe had commented once on Sartre's notion that "hell is other people." Father Joe thought Sartre had it all wrong; hell was being entirely alone, with nothing and no one but yourself. Which is where Hendra finds himself: "What had happened to that far-off boy, murmuring his ancient Latin words, humming his ancient music, full of hope, hankering for the infinite, all agog for sanctity?... He wasn't what I'd become. Not at all. He was someone else entirely, who had died tragically young."
Gradually, with Father Joe's help, Hendra finds his way out of the wilderness of self and starts attending Mass again. Like many Catholics who return to the fold after years astray, he is appalled by what he sees from the pews: "Latin was gone entirely, replaced by dull, oppressive, anchorman English... . Like politics, all Masses were now local - and had about as much dignity... . Now priests had huge discretion in deciding the details of the 'modern' Mass, and all those egos were on parade."
But he perseveres and is lucky enough to live near a parish in Manhattan where the traditional Latin Mass is still celebrated.
Interestingly, it isn't until after Father Joe dies that Hendra learns that he was far from alone in depending on the monk's counsel. The current Anglican archbishop of Canterbury counted the Catholic Dom Joseph as his spiritual adviser. Apparently even Princess Diana sought Father Joe's help.
Hendra's book is so funny at times that you wonder if you'll ever get through it for laughing. At other times, it truly brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. It is splendidly crafted and a welcome reminder that what true religion is about is learning how to love.
Like many Catholics who return to the fold after years astray, he is appalled by what he sees from the pews: "Latin was gone entirely, replaced by dull, oppressive, anchorman English... . Like politics, all Masses were now local - and had about as much dignity... . Now priests had huge discretion in deciding the details of the 'modern' Mass, and all those egos were on parade."
EEEWWW! I remember seeing this happen literally from week to week and month to month. After a while, it didn't seem to matter if you went to Mass or not. Which is sort of understandable if you were never taught that the Mass was a sacrifice or if it seemed that the Mass was no longer a sacrifice but a community get together.
I'll put this book in my amazon basket.
I had that Radio Dinner album, and the Magical Misery tour was hilarious. So was another skit, Profiles in Chrome. Also on the album was the famous Deteriorata:
From the CD: National Lampoon Radio Dinner Album
A Parody of the poem Desiderata by By Tony Hendra
Go placidly amid the noise & waste, & remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof.
Avoid quiet and passive persons unless you are in need of sleep.
Rotate your tires.
Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself and heed well their advice even though they be turkeys;
Know what to kiss and when.
Consider that two wrongs never make a right but that three do.
Whenever possible, put people on hold.
Be comforted that in the face of all aridity & disillusionment and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big fortune in computer maintenance.
Remember the Pueblo.
Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate.
Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.
Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you. That lemon on your left, for instance.
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet.
Fall not in love therefore; it will stick to your face.
Gracefully surrender the things of youth, birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan, and let not the sands of time get in your lunch.
Hire people with hooks.
For a good time, call 606-4311, ask for Ken.
Take heart amid the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese, and reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee.
You are a fluke of the universe; you have no right to be here, and whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back.
Therefore make peace with your God whatever you conceive him to be: Hairy Thunderer or Cosmic Muffin.
With all its hopes, dreams, promises, & urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate.
"With all its hopes, dreams, promises, & urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate." --- the 'deteriorata' might be famous but I'd never heard of it until you posted it.
And now... her nibs
Hendra had an article on why he preferred the Latin Mass in the AARP magazine a few months back. Hendra is not exactly orthodox yet -- but seeing anything in the mass media in favor of the Traditional Latin Mass remains a pleasant surprise.
It was famous among fans of the demented!