Synopses & Reviews
A key comic writer of the past three decades has created his most heartfelt and hard-hitting book. Father Joe
is Tony Hendra's inspiring true story of finding faith, friendship, and family through the decades-long influence of a surpassingly wise Benedictine monk named Father Joseph Warrillow.
Like everything human, it started with sex. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Tony found himself entangled with a married Catholic woman. In Cold War England, where Catholicism was the subject of news stories and Graham Greene bestsellers, Tony was whisked off by the woman's husband to see a priest and be saved.
Yet what he found was a far cry from the priests he'd known at Catholic school, where boys were beaten with belts or set upon by dogs. Instead, he met Father Joe, a gentle, stammering, ungainly Benedictine who never used the words "wrong" or "guilt," who believed that God was in everyone and that "the only sin was selfishness." During the next forty years, as his life and career drastically ebbed and flowed, Tony discovered that his visits to Father Joe remained the one constant in his life the relationship that, in the most serious sense, saved it.
From the fifties and his adolescent desire to join an abbey himself; to the sixties, when attending Cambridge and seeing the satire of Beyond the Fringe convinced him to change the world with laughter, not prayer; to the seventies and successful stints as an original editor of National Lampoon and a writer of Lemmings, the off-Broadway smash that introduced John Belushi and Chevy Chase; to professional disaster after co-creating the legendary English series Spitting Image; from drinking to drugs, from a failed first marriage to a successful second and the miracle of parenthood the years only deepened Tony's need for the wisdom of his other and more real father, creating a bond that could not be broken, even by death.
A startling departure for this acclaimed satirist, Father Joe is a sincere account of how Tony Hendra learned to love. It's the story of a whole generation looking for a way back from mockery and irony, looking for its own Father Joe, and a testament to one of the most charismatic mentors in modern literature.
"[An] inspirational saga....The writing is certainly quite smart....Heartfelt tribute to a kind and wise teacher, though the author seems to have kept the best words of wisdom for himself." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] graceful, humorous tale....Hendra writes well...chronicling the failure of his first marriage, his descent into substance abuse, his self-hatred and his incessant search for meaning in compelling prose and with clear-eyed honesty." Publishers Weekly
"Don't expect anything remotely funny from this book. This is a memoir masquerading as a homage to what must have been a truly kind and decent man....It is a book for men who think of themselves as trapped, misunderstood geniuses, so it should sell well." The Washington Post
"Father Joe may be the best, most important nonfiction book I have ever read. This true story is filled with wild escapades, ribald humor, moving religious experiences and profound thoughts on the meaning of life." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"Hendra's book is so funny at times that you wonder if you'll ever get through it for laughing....It is splendidly crafted and a welcome reminder that what true religion is about is learning how to love." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[B]elongs in the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written....[T]here is something in this book that speaks particularly to our contemporary spiritual desert and to the kind of faith that...can help us grow and heal again." Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review
"A worldly-wise and heavenly book....Almost every page of Father Joe delights and surprises." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"The first few chapters are a bit slow going, but by the time readers are introduced to Father Joe, they'll find themselves happily caught in the complex web of humor and spiritual vulnerability Hendra deftly weaves." Chicago Sun-Times
"Tony Hendra has accomplished one hell of a lot in his life, and doubtless has many achievements ahead of him, but this memoir of his spiritual journey, and the monk who guided it, will almost certainly be his masterpiece." Christopher Buckley, author of No Way to Treat a First Lady
"I picked up Father Joe intending to read just a couple of pages before bed and found that I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. The nature of a wise man, and the true nature of what wisdom feels like in action, is beautifully captured in Tony Hendra's portrait of Father Joe, who is one of the few convincing saints in recent writing. The book's last episode, when Hendra brings his son to meet Father Joe, brought unexpected tears to my weary eyes." Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon
"When I read passages to my wife and my voice began to give way she said, Keep going, keep going. I really didn't need much urging. I could easily have read the whole book in one sitting but it's too rich, too powerful, overwhelming....Like me you might cherish this book so much you'll keep it on the shelf beside St. Augustine, St. Theresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, and when you dip into it you might hear Gregorian chant from the monks of Quarr." Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes
A key comic writer of the past three decades has created his most heartfelt and hard-hitting book. Hendra shares his inspiring true story of finding faith, friendship, and family through the decades-long influence of a surpassingly wise Benedictine monk named Father Joseph Warrillow.
About the Author
Tony Hendra attended Cambridge University, where he performed frequently with friends and future Monty Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman. He is the author of Going Too Far, a classic history of modern American satire. He was editor in chief of Spy magazine, an original editor of the National Lampoon, and he played Ian Faith in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. He has written frequently for New York, Harper's, GQ, Vanity Fair, Men's Journal, and Esquire, among other magazines. He is married to Carla Hendra; they have three young children, Lucy, Sebastian, and Nicholas.
Reading Group Guide
1. One of Father Joes recurrent themes is to see selfishness as a core modern failing. He “diagnoses” Tony Hendras sin not as adultery but as selfishness (p. 58), while later he speaks of possessions as being “extensions of the self” and helping to create a “prison of self” (p. 120). In what way is Hendras sin selfishness, and how is it linked to conspicuous consumption? And what is meant by Hendras conclusion that “Shop-till-you-drop and true love may well be mutually exclusive” (p. 121)?
2. During their first days together, Hendra says that Father Joes version of God fits better into his fifties-shaped notion of “she” rather than “he” (p. 67). In the epilogue, Hendra says of Father Joes ministry, “to some he was a father, to some a mother” (p. 270). Are these two things connected? If you are a believer, do you think of God in a gender-specific way? If not, would you be more comfortable with the notion of deity if it were usual to refer not to “God the Father” but to “God the Mother”?
3. Hendra writes that in Europe the Benedictine tradition is “so deep you never heard the stone touch bottom” (p. 77). Later he refers to Father Joe as “thriving after fifteen hundred years of other Father Joes” and expresses excitement at “the discovery of changelessness” (p. 238). A little later he asserts that humanity needs changelessness as well as change. Is changelessness valuable? Is it possible in the modern world? What are the drawbacks, if any, of constant change?
4. Hendra and Father Joe discuss Macbethand depictions of Christs Passion and Crucifixion, noting that evil acts and people often seem to inspire writers and artists to great art (p. 110). Is this, as Hendra worries, “celebrating” evil? If not, how does art relate to the moral ambiguity it often depicts? Does it transform it? Does it have a redemptive function? Discuss the connection between this and the recurrent attempts in many societies, past and present, to insist that art only depict “good” acts and people.
5. One aspect of Father Joes Benedictine background that Hendra is attracted to is its ancient historical roots, which can also be expressed as its deeply conservative tradition. Another thing that Hendra admires about Father Joe, however, is that he owns nothing and lives communally. Hendra even says the St. Benedicts Rule concerning possessions and communal living “sounds a lot like communism” (p. 120). Is it possible to reconcile the deeply conservative side of Benedictine tradition with its subversive attitude toward a modern consumer society? Does this in any way mirror our current political notions of right and left? How do you think Father Joe would vote in present-day America?
6. Father Joe says that sex is “almost like a sacrament” (p. 126). He also says we must “take the fear out of sex.” What does he mean by these statements? Do you find Father Joes attitude towards sex surprising? Inadequate? Dangerous? Illuminating? How could a man who has spent all his life celibate and in a cloister have such definite opinions on the subject?
7. At several points in the book, the supposed dichotomy between sacred matters and humor arises. Hendra says that Father Joe was the only priest whod ever made him laugh (p. 199). Father Joe responds that we should laugh at priests more often, and that if God is happiness, “God must be laughter too.” Discuss what Father Joe means by this insight. Do you see humor and laughter having a place in sacred matters, or should they always be dealt with seriously?
8. Ben explains to Hendra the Benedictine concept of work summed up in the Latin phrase Laborare est orare: “To work is to pray” (p. 45). Later Father Joe expands on this, saying that any kind of work done well, with gratitude and enjoyment, for others first and yourself second, “binds us together and therefore to God” (p. 202). Is it possible in the modern world to do work to Father Joes standards? Does he mean that work is sacred? Could work done to Father Joes standards have a positive effect on a company? On society in general?
9. Hendra says that Father Joe was, “to me and for the moment, God. God the Other” (p. 100). Later, although he no longer believes in God, Hendra refers to Father Joe as “a body God would from time to time inhabit” (p. 229). In the epilogue, Hendra writes that God is unimaginable without a human body as a medium, something “that has touched the inconceivable” (p. 266). How are these perceptions connected? Does Hendra really mean that Father Joe was God?
10. The word saintoccurs several times in the book. In the prologue, Hendra defines a saint as someone who practices the “keystone human virtue of humility” (p. 4). Hendra later describes Father Joe as “a commonsense saint, a saint of what could be done, not what should be done, a practical saint, a saint of imperfection” (p. 203). Does this mean that Father Joe had lower standards than other spiritual guides? Do you find the term saint useful in describing Father Joe? Have you known any people you think were saints?