Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Comic Reveres Cleric: Father Joe by Tony Hendra

[Reflection on Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Life by Tony Hendra.  I posted this on my web site in 2005.]

Tony Hendra's memories are all real ones, but his "Father Joe" still seems too good to be true. You know the book must lead to the last time the author meets this quaint and supernaturally wise old monk, and you're set to choke back tears over it ( the reviews on the back prepare you ), but then the epilogue gives the story another turn of the screw.

Hendra is someone I wouldn't like, someone who's spent his life in political causes and cultural niches I've detested. As I read, I could recall a half-dozen times I encountered his work. Shocking "Son O' God" comics and other titillating gross-out humor in National Lampoon magazine (70s), hilarious improvised acting in a take-off of rock-umentaries This is Spinal Tap (early 80s), and puppets caricaturing Reagan and Thatcher in Spitting Image (mid-80s).

But he's honest about himself, and his "progressive" politics don't keep him from cherishing old-fashioned religious practices and from voicing a caution to his own generation that the truly important things in life and society are eternal -- "progress" an illusion. Sounds very William F. Buckley - G . K. Chesterton conservative to me.

The book splits in two halves. The boy Hendra suffers a trip to meet a spiritual advisor named Father Joseph Warrilaw after being caught in an affair with a married woman, when he was only 14 years old. Hearing Hendra tell the story of the affair, Father Joe's reaction isn't the disapproval that the boy expects. Instead, he shakes his head: "How that poor woman must be suffering." That makes the boy realize how selfish he has been, never once thinking what the woman must have been feeling all along. The boy falls in love with monastic life, and aims to become a monk, until other things get in the way.

The second half of the book begins after twenty-five years of "other things," including worldly successes, a marriage, and a couple of children. Hendra has lost his faith, and he's still trying to use humor to change the world, and failing. He half-heartedly attempts suicide.

We expect the story to follow -- that he will go back to Father Joe, see the error of his ways, and become truly faithful for the first time. Yes, that's what happens, though it's not a straight line. Along the way, for example, we see Hendra toying with the idea of making a cruel satire about Father Joe himself.

Still, the author's evolving understanding of Father Joe's deeper wisdom helps us to share in him. That's the greatest gift in this book.

Here's a sample of Father Joe:
    People are always changing themselves and their world, dear. Very few of the changes are new. We rather confuse change and newness, I think. What is truly new never changes. . . . The world worships a certain kind of newness. People are always talking about a new car, or a new drink or [play] or house, but these things are not truly new, are they? They begin to get old the minute you acquire them. New is not in things. New is within us. The truly new is something that is new forever: you. . . .You have never lived this moment before and you never will again. In this sense the new is also the eternal.

In another memorable dialogue, Father Joe takes apart writer/director Hendra's driving need to make fun of political leaders in his television comedy work. Hendra admits to Joe that he hasn't changed any leaders' policies or voters' satisfaction with them. The dialogue also preserves some of Father Joe's verbal tics:
    "Well, the truth is, Father Joe," [says Hendra], "what we really do it for is -- attention. We all jostle endlessly to be on talk shows, get items in columns, in papers, or books on the best-seller list. . .how did you used to put it. . . to extend ourselves out into . . . other people's awareness."

    He considered this, looking out at the Solent.

    "Needing attention is a p - p - powerful force in the world, isn't it? . . . Without God, people find it very hard to know who they are or why they exist. But if others pay attention to them, praise them, write about them, discuss them, they think they've found the answers to both questions... [Then they] only have a personality other people shape.... [They] really exist only in other people's minds."

    "I think you've just described celebrity."

    "I've just described pride, dear."

Father Joe passes away as we know he must, but not before blessing Tony one more time.

The Epilogue, which I almost skipped, reveals a truth about Father Joe that Hendra and the monk concealed throughout the rest of the book: that every one of hundreds of people thought that he (or she) was Father Joe's one best friend.

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