Thursday, March 03, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Joe Warrilow?

Tony Hendra's Father Joe occasionally has the quality of candy: a joy, a treat, and 20 minutes later . . . . a little disappointment mixed with craving for more. In this memoir of considerable style and charms, Hendra, an accomplished writer and performer who first came to fame as an editor and writer at the satire magazine National Lampoon, explores his relationship with Dom Joseph Warrilow, an English Benedictine priest who served as his mentor and friend, off and on through the years, from Hendra's adolescence in the 50's until Warrilow's death in the late 90's.

First, a couple of jarring notes: there are several outbursts of left-liberal polemic that are misplaced. Father Joe comes across in the memoir as relaxedly apolitical. Perhaps the diatribes merely recount Hendra's attitude at the time. He depicts Father Joe ever so gently taking him to task for a lack of charity and a closing of his heart in his strident attitudes while not contradicting his political leanings. Later, the reader gets the sense that Hendra is defending his current views. It all has little to do with Father Joe and everything to do with Tony Hendra. Given our memories of 1980's events, it's extremely hard for us to take someone seriously who praises "men of peace like . . . Mikhail Gorbachev" for magnanimously and unilaterally ending the Cold War and liberals within "the stubborn populations of Europe - my contemporaries and their parents - who for all their manifest mindlessness and endless tribal squabbles had remained a generation of peace, refusing to buy Reagan's fatuous cartoon of the Russian people or be cowed by his cowardly weapons of mass murder" (p. 237) Perhaps Hendra should consult Russians such as Natan Sharansky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about how the Russian people were treated by the Evil Warmongering President Reagan. An angry aside decrying "the Church's relentless intolerance of different sexual orientations" (p. 269) comes out of the blue without warning.

Given that this is book is a good deal about Hendra, it's telling to see where he focuses. The best of the book is Part One, his description of his childhood encounter with Sin, Monasticism, and Father Joe. He spins a good yarn about family, adultery, and rites of passage that brings many smiles and sighs to the reader. Then suddenly, at the outset of Part Two, 20 years have gone by, and Hendra is removed from England to Southern California, contemplating suicide in a drug-addled state. He gives very little sense of the first ten of those twenty years -- he alludes vaguely to the difficulties of launching his career in America, the details of his first marriage are sketchy, and he never even bothers to name the daughters from that marriage. In part two, Father Joe is absent more than present, and Hendra presents himself schizophrenically -- self-effacingly making light of his talents, yet only detailing the periods in his life when he achieved some amount of worldly success. Thus Father Joe dwells on topics with little relation to Father Joe: National Lampoon, Not the New York Times, Not the Wall Street Journal, Spinal Tap, and Spitting Image. None of this would be news to Hendra. He indicts himself over and over again for self-obsession and self-centeredness. He is a man with a profound sense of sin, struggling to believe in a God of unbounded love.

But let's grant that this book is as much about Hendra as it is about Father Joe. This is an utterly endearing book. Hendra, a gifted writer with a wonderful tone and an excellent ear, conveys the precious quality of presence by reflecting on its opposite, absence. Between the two, by the grace of God, we encounter the Other, our neighbor. Everything in Father Joe's story suggests he had a special grace, a fabulous gift from God, that enabled him to enter into true friendship and community with quite a few people, to truly listen and truly love, making him present even when absent. Hendra navigates between absence and presence in this book, his goal being to make Father Joe alive, both for us and for himself. Still, we worry about Hendra, for whom presence and absence have formed difficult waters throughout his life, sometimes nearly unnavigable -- the book contains a vivid anecdote recalling a chilling early intimation of damnation as a cold eternal absence of God. It's not clear whether or how strongly he sees Father Joe as but one earthly face of the ever-present Christ. Salvation appears here as the unfinished drama in a tragic world, the Eternal Cliffhanger. Hendra emphasizes Father Joe as his connection to the transcendent to such an extent that we wonder whether he will succumb to despair now that Dom Warrilow has left him here on earth.
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