Along with a gaggle of smart (just ask us!) young men in New York,
I worked with Tony Hendra on a number of humor projects two decades
ago. Beyond our wit, we all shared one attribute --- in the words
of the lone female on the team, "You're all guys who don't want to
go home." My reason was prosaic: no girlfriend. Hendra's, it turns
out, was more complicated.
Tony Hendra never talked about his background. I assumed that he
was, like the rest of us, -in flight from something --- you don't
gravitate to comedy because you're happy. But the nub of it was,
Hendra had been happy. And for an amazing reason: He had been, at
least in his own mind, a teenage monk.
It happened this way: "I was fourteen and having an affair with a
married woman." Well, not quite. This English schoolboy was taking
religious instruction from an eccentric Catholic named Ben Bootle
and spending too much time with Bootle's wife. Lily Bootle was a
tortured soul, drawn to the "sins of the flesh" and terrified of
them as well. She fell hard for this brilliant student (even if he
did crib the math homework from his schoolmate, Stephen Hawking).
The difference in their ages? Didn't matter. They began with
kissing. His hand moved south. And then her husband walked
Ben Bootle's response was not what you would expect: He took Tony
on a little trip. Two hours on a train across England, a half hour
on a ferry to the Isle of Wight, a short bus ride --- at last they
reached a Benedictine monastery called Quarr Abbey and Ben
introduced Tony to a big-nosed, floppy-eared, knobby-kneed,
grinning monk. Tony knelt at his feet to confess. "No no no no,"
Father Joseph Warrilow said. "Sit down next to me." He took Tony's
hand. "Now, dear, tell me everything."
Tony did. When he finished, Father Joe said, "Poor Lily." That was
it: no judgment, no prediction of brimstone, just total acceptance
of Tony's story, complete forgiveness for what happened ("You've
done nothing really wrong, Tony dear") and endless compassion for
Lily's pain and loneliness. Penance? "I think you've already done a
good deal of penance," Father Joe told the astonished boy.
Father Joe stood. "I didn't want him to go," Hendra writes. "I'd
never felt so safe and secure with anyone in my life.....I wanted
to tell him everything that had ever happened in my few years.
There were a million things I wanted to ask him."
But Father Joe had to be up early. "We'll see each other again and
talk and talk. God bless you, my dear."
"Again the hug, again the swirl of skirts, again the super-sandals
squeaking away down the linoleum," Hendra writes. "Then silence.
Over the decades, Hendra would lose that peace, even as he gained
the world. (Many of you will remember him as "Ian Faith," the
cricket-bat wielding manager of the crazy rock band featured in the
legendary mockumentary "Spinal Tap.") While he spares us the gory
details, he spares himself nothing --- he is, he tells us, a
loathsome husband, a despicable parent.
But don't forget the subtitle: "The Man Who Saved My Life." Father
Joe's message to Tony never changes, but at last Tony hears it.
It's not a theological message; it's nothing the Pope and his
Cardinals would turn into doctrine. Indeed, it's as corny as a
Beatles refrain: "All you need is love." And, of course, the
Beatles' follow-up: "And in the end/the love you take/is equal to
the love you make."
It's one thing to hear a lyric. It's a very different thing --- a
very rare thing --- to have someone walk the path ahead of you,
showing you by example how to live nobly. No wonder readers are
rushing to buy this book; it puts them in the room with one of the
greatest men of the century. A monk. An unknown monk, at that. And
funny-looking. And not so strong on the doctrine. What a
magnificent joke on all our pretty concepts of enlightenment!
There's a happy ending to this book, a very big one. On one level,
it's Tony and Joe's happy ending. But if you step back a bit,
you'll see it can be yours too. And you don't even have to be a
Catholic --- or even a Christian --- to experience it.
If you're only going to read one book this summer....
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 21, 2011
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul