Monday, September 04, 2006

Book: "Father Joe," by Tony Hendra

I'm doing some fall cleaning, purging my backlogs of email and such to start the new season fresh (and attend to any important long-overdue matters, of course. But mostly it's DELETE DELETE DELETE, a trick I learned from Bob Smyth). Found an issue of IMAGE Update that I'd set aside a couple Septembers ago because of this intriguing book review;

by Tony Hendra

One of the more interesting sub-genres of memoir these days is the “coming home” story: personal narratives written by individuals who abandoned their childhood religious faith in search of liberation and fulfillment, but who have returned after many years and vicissitudes. An early entry in this genre was Dan Wakefield’s Returning. More recently, we’ve been treated to Kathleen Norris’s Dakota. Given the fact that many of these writers are Boomers who got caught up in the sixties and seventies, there will undoubtedly be more volumes to come. They are to be celebrated, especially by those of us who may suffer from the “older brother of the prodigal” syndrome. A convert—or even a re-vert, to coin a word—brings a wealth of experience, suffering, and searching back into the community of faith.

Another distinguished contribution to this category is Father Joe by Tony Hendra. His resume makes Hendra an unlikely presence in the realm of spiritual biography. He acted with John Cleese and Graham Chapman in the Cambridge Footlights troupe, a precursor to Monty Python; he was a founding editor of National Lampoon and helped establish its brand of no-holds-barred satire; he even did a turn as an actor (as “Ian Faith,” manager of the band in the hilarious mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap).

But as a boy he became deeply entranced by the Benedictine Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight in England. There he met a living saint, Dom Joseph Warrilow, or whom Hendra writes: “Gentleness and goodness come off him like aftershave.” After his youthful infatuation with the church and monasticism, Hendra went off into the wild and wooly world of satire, sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll. But throughout those years there were letters from Father Joe and occasional visits to Quarr Abbey. In the end, Hendra did come home. While this book is a memoir, it is also a funny, tender, moving tribute to one of those rare creatures: the living saint.

(There's a full review by Image editor Gregory Wolfe at First Things, and over at the NPR site there's interview with Tony Hendra)

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