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The Man Who Saved My Soul

Written by Tony HendraAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tony Hendra


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On Sale: May 18, 2004
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-381-7
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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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.


chapter one

How I met Father Joe:

I was fourteen and having an affair with a married woman.

At least she called it an affair; she also said we were lovers, and on several occasions, doomed lovers. An average teen, I was quite content with these exalted terms; in practice, however, I only got to second base with her. (I didn’t yet know it was second base, as I was growing up in England.)

It was only rather later too, when I saw The Graduate, that I realized my Mrs. Robinson may have been somewhat older than she admitted to—which was twenty-two. To my unpracticed eye she could certainly pass for that; I was still young enough that any woman with breasts and a waist and her own teeth was roughly the same age as any other—which is to say a grown-up—and the mysterious repository of unimaginable pleasures deserving . . .

. . . hideous, very specific torments. The fly in the ointment of this relationship was that we were both Catholics. At least in theory (theory to me, practice to her), there was a terrible bill being racked up somewhere, calibrating the relative sinfulness of everything we did, every gesture made, every word exchanged, let alone every kiss. Should death strike, should lightning fork from one of the huge trees outside into our concupiscent bodies, should one of the experimental jets being developed over the hill at DeHavilland’s disintegrate and plummet to earth (as they often threatened to do when trying to break the sound barrier), turning her trailer into a fireball, down, down we would plunge, into the bowels of Hell, unshriven, unforgiven, damned for all eternity to indescribable suffering.

A lot of what little conversation we had—much more the norm were interminable, agonized, what she called “existential” silences—concerned whether we should even be having a conversation, should even be together for that matter, doomed lovers in the throes of a hopeless and illicit liaison, wrestling with the irresistible temptation of being in the same neighborhood, town, county, country, planet, dimension. We were so bad for one another, she said, such a monumental occasion of sin for each other, it was playing with fire; oh, if only we’d never met and plunged ourselves into this cauldron of raging emotions from which there was no escape!

These sentiments were very new to me. My instinctive response was that they were pretty goofy, but what did I know? I dimly recognized that I was going through some kind of passage out of childhood and would from now on be required to learn, without being taught, how grown-ups acted and spoke. Best not to rock the boat, by suppressing a classroom splutter. I had a good thing going. Mrs. Bootle was no slouch in the looks department. Perhaps this was the way women always spoke in extremis. Books were my only guide and so far it all seemed pretty true to form—like being in The Thorn Birds if it had been written by Christina Rossetti.

But it had been a long time since the first hesitant kiss, and we’d done lots of kissing since. I was getting restless, anxious to find out what would be the next cauldron of raging emotions from which there was no escape.

Now on a bleak Saturday morning in the damp, dank early spring of green, green Hertfordshire, England, The World, The Solar System, The Universe, in the year of our Lord 1956, I was about to find out.

She stood at the kitchen end of the trailer, where the sink was, surrounded by dirty dishes, her back to the picture window through which a waterlogged plot ran down to the river, swollen and sullen in the rain, the depressed little green caps of her higgledy-piggledy vegetable garden poking through the mud. “Should we?” she said in an agonized half-sob. “I think we should,” I replied, having no idea what she was talking about. “But . . . but” (she never used just one “but”—always at least two) “it will be the end, the point of no return, all will be lost.” “Well, then,” said the voice of proto-adult reason, “perhaps we shouldn’t.” “No! no! yes! yes!, how can we help ourselves, I’m swept away, I tell you, let’s cast all caution to the winds! Turn round.”

I did as I was bid, averting my head and closing my eyes, mad excitement welling up through my body from my heels to my eyelids. This must be it, whatever it was. From behind me came surreptitious noises: rustling clothes, eyelets popping, zippers unzipping, hot little pants of effort.

“Turn round,” she whispered hoarsely. I did. “Open your eyes.” I did. Her eyes were now closed, her head inclined to one side, long hair draped over her white, slight, naked shoulders, framed by the rain-drenched window, the Madonna of the drizzle. My eyes ratcheted nervously down to her breasts. They were quite small, of slightly different sizes, and rather flat. Well, actually very flat. Making the nipples seem somewhat larger than I would have expected. The baby—to all appearances a sweet little scrap—must have been a voracious feeder.

These were my first live breasts. The only ones I’d seen to date had been in nudist magazines. Were they all like this? I’d just read The Four Quartets for the first time: the image of Tiresias popped into my head and wouldn’t budge.

Then she kissed me. Her lips and face were hotter than usual, like my little brother’s when he had a temperature. She came closer. I could feel the warmth of her skin through my shirt and then what must have been those nipples. I put my hand inside her rolled-down dress between her hip and her belly. “No! no!” she whispered, covering my hand with hers. But she pushed it down infinitesimally. As I followed her pressure, she resisted, pulling it up even more infinitesimally. “You mustn’t!” she sobbed. “Think of the sin, the mortal sin, the eternal flames!” Then the downward pressure again. A textbook case of no-but-yes—though I was too young to grasp such psycho-sexual antics. I followed her hand down for a few millimeters. It resisted. Up we went. But not so far—we were definitely making headway. Down . . . up, down, up, down . . . My whole hand was inside her dress now, inching inexorably earthward. Her skin was silky and her flesh deliciously soft. And it kept getting softer. Where were we? Way down there, surely? Waves of—some unknown emotion—shuddered through me. I was dizzy with excitement, Tiresias having definitely taken a powder . . .

ben and Lily Bootle had first appeared at the local Catholic church a year earlier. She was petite and slender, he was big and rangy, a head or more taller than his mate. Though she was very pregnant she wore a clingy, full-length shift-like dress, emphasizing her milky breasts and bulging belly. Open leather sandals advertised tiny, shapely feet. Her outfit had a distinct bohemian flair in a Sunday congregation made up for the most part of dowdy English widows and hungover Irish laborers with the occasional large unruly family and cigarette-ashen wife.

Ben looked as though he’d just emerged from a night of electroshock. His thick wiry hair stood up in uncombed clumps and spikes, his clothes were always rumpled with at least one element undone, and he wore battered tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses of impressive thickness.

They seemed to have no friends and kept very much to themselves; no one even knew where they lived, least of all our ancient and embottled parish priest, Father B. Leary (the “B.”—for Bartholomew—leading us altar boys to call him Father Bleary).

In due course a baby Bootle appeared, which Lily carried in a rather self-consciously peasanty manner on her hip. Its gender was unclear, since it wore no conventional baby garments, being wrapped regardless of season in what my mother acidly called “swaddling clothes.” But still no one had found out a whole lot about them, except that Ben was some kind of scientist doing hush-hush work on jets or rockets or something. Since the church was the only place they made contact with us earthlings, it had also been noted that Ben was quite devout. As well as Sunday Mass he would appear at non-obligatory services like Rosary evenings to pray for the Godless Soviets.

Though our paths hadn’t crossed, serving Mass was also one of my chores, which I loathed not only because of the tongue-twisting Latin responses but also because Father Bleary had last brushed his teeth to celebrate victory over the Kaiser and his breath would have stopped even the leper-hugging St. Francis dead in his tracks. One moment of the Mass in particular, the Lavabo, at which the server is required to ritually wash the priest’s fingers, putting the anointed face inches from yours, was like being gassed in the trenches at Verdun.

My level of devotion was at a fairly obligatory level. I was the product of what the Church called a “mixed marriage”—one between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, which in my father’s case meant nothing fun like a Muslim or a Satanist, but simply a desultory agnostic, a “nonbeliever in anything much, really.” Ironically, he was a stained-glass artist, so he spent far more time inside churches and knew far more about Catholic iconography than his nominally Catholic brood.

My mother was what the priests called a “good” Catholic. She attended Mass every Sunday and holiday of obligation, went to confession once a month, shelled out handfuls of silver when required, but otherwise, as far as I could tell, didn’t allow the precepts of the Gospels and their chief spokesman to interfere much with her daily round of gossip, bitching, kid-slapping, neighbor-bashing, petty vengeance, and other middle-class peccadilloes.

One aspect of my mother’s behavior did seem to me to be well up the scale of venial sin, if not all the way to mortal: she shared with local non-Catholics a broad prejudice against the Irish laborers who were appearing in our village in considerable numbers, as they were in many other parts of England, to work in the ongoing reconstruction of postwar Britain, particularly the new motorways. All of whom were Catholic.

The vast majority of these workers were fleeing chronic unemployment in the new Republic and brought with them habits of poverty that didn’t sit well with the upwardly mobile Protestant burghers of southeast England: the drinking and plangent midnight singing in the street—naturally—but also the taking a leak round any old corner, the possession of only one jacket and pair of trousers—worn to the construction site every morning, to the pub every night, to church on Sunday, and to sleep in anytime.

Mostly they were loathed just for being Irish. The depth of British odium for a people they robbed, murdered, enslaved, and starved for eight hundred years is hard to exaggerate; I often experienced it at second hand when gangs of local toughs would run me to cover as I walked home from school, screaming “dirty Catholic go home” and heaving stones at me. True, British anti-Catholic prejudice harked back to the seventeenth century and was institutionalized in many ways, but it’s unlikely these troglodytes had the excesses of James II on their tiny minds; for them, “Catholic” and “Irish” were interchangeable slurs.

I hadn’t made this connection yet; kids tend to take prejudice in their stride, a fixed peril you find a route around on your journey toward adulthood. For the moment its larger meaning was opaque and my dealings with it open to compromise if not outright collaboration.

Example: every November fifth in England, Guy Fawkes—a Catholic conspirator of the early seventeenth century who almost succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament—is burned in effigy on thousands of bonfires across the land. While it’s fine that Guy Fawkes be remembered for what he was—an odious antidemocratic terrorist—this custom has for centuries also expressed and refueled anti-Catholic prejudice. So every Sunday before Guy Fawkes Day, Catholic priests would condemn it and order Catholics not to participate. For me—a serial pyromaniac—the prospect of no bonfire was bad enough, but it also meant missing the truly glorious part of Guy Fawkes Day: fireworks.

In a mixed marriage this sort of thing could be sheer poison. The arrangement my father worked out was as follows: (a) fireworks, naturally—kids have to have fireworks; (b) smallish bonfire (though I’d always creep out in the night and pile it higher, and if possible stick tires in it); (c) absolutely no guy (as the effigy of Mr. Fawkes is known). When my mother objected that we were still symbolically burning a Catholic, Dad would reply yes, but every time we let off a firework we were symbolically blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

So then we’d celebrate the same prejudice that got rocks thrown at my head on the way home from school. And the same prejudice that had the good villagers muttering about lazy drunks and refusing to rent rooms to the Irish or serve them in their shops. I found this obnoxious in them and, to the degree that she agreed, in my mother. I’d like to pretend that I was smart enough at fourteen to have worked all this out in total consistency, but in fact I had simply picked up from somewhere an aversion to discriminating against people because they had next to nothing and did work no one else wanted to do.

Unbeknownst to me there was more at work than mere altruism; a deeper bond made me take the Irish side.

If challenged, Mum would have said she was just being protective in putting as much distance as possible between us kids and the boyos down the pub. (She certainly did in church, where she would sit as far away as she could from her boozy coreligionists, moving up a row or two if they got too close.) Something much juicier, however, was going on beneath these maternal protestations.

She always insisted that her maiden name—McGovern—was Scottish, even though it began with “Mc” as all the finest Irish names do, not “Mac” like all the finest Scottish ones. She and the other four McGovern sisters had indeed been born in Glasgow, so she did have that on her side. But as one of her older sisters would say, less skit- tish than she about their true origins: if a cat has kittens in the oven, are they biscuits? Nonetheless Mum stuck to her guns; we were Scottish and proud of it, och awa’ the noo. Of course the British weren’t much fonder of the Scots than they were of the Irish, but on the spectrum of Anglo-Saxon anti-Celtic prejudice she evidently felt it was better to be ridiculed as Scottish than despised as Irish.

Once when I was about ten, Dad brought home a book of Scottish tartans—he was painstaking about the heraldic and chivalric symbols he used in his windows—and I got very excited over the rich old aristocratic patterns. Surely with our deep Scottish roots we must have a tartan? That in turn would mean we could wear a kilt, och awa’ the noo. This line of questioning threw Mum for the biggest loop so far. “Um—that one,” she said, pointing at the Campbell tartan. “But that’s the Campbell tartan,” I objected. “Well,” she fired back, “the McGoverns are part of the Campbell clan.”

Only later, when I moved to New York, where I met dozens of McGoverns, every one as Irish as a pint of stout, did all become clear; I realized that the closest my maternal ancestors had ever come to the Highlands and a Campbell kilt was the wilds of County Leitrim.

If I’d known at the time how Irish I was, I mightn’t have been so pleased about it. I wasn’t a whole lot keener about being a Catholic. This had less to do with being on the receiving end of prejudice than with the growing gap between what I heard in church and learned in school. Not that my mother hadn’t tried to prevent the gap from growing. The mixed-marriage contract the Church required the infidel half of the couple to sign said that all resulting offspring had to be brought up in the Faith. If humanly possible, this meant being sent to a Catholic school.

Between the ages of five and eight, therefore, I had gone to the nuns, in this case Dominicans, followers of the intrepid Spanish preacher Domingo de Guzman, aka St. Dominic, scourge of the Cathars and inventor of the very first version of the Inquisition. The good sisters were known by baffling names like Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Mary Frederick, and Sister Mary Martin. While they never actually condemned us first-graders to an auto-da-fé, they certainly devised some Inquisition-level torments to instill the One True Faith in us; and, to be fair, they were effective. (Why did God make you? God made me to know him love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next.) There are several concepts and assumptions in this catechesis which might be a little beyond a six-year-old, but half a century later I can still recite it in my sleep.

The next stop after the good sisters was the good brothers.

These hard men ran a joint called, benignly enough, St. Columba’s, quartered in a sprawling old Victorian mansion. I’ve blanked on the name of their order; I’d like to think it included some phrase like St. Aloysius The Impaler, but it was probably more along the lines of the Holy Brothers of the Little Flower. They were, to a man, Irish; in all my years in and out of the Church I’ve never come across a gang so utterly unholy. They dressed in lay clothes and wore lay haircuts, and as far as anyone could tell, they performed no religious observances whatsoever. Nothing distinguished them from what they appeared to be—members of a sleeper cell of the IRA or participants in some particularly vicious form of organized crime.

They beat us with their belts, they beat us with their metal rulers—the thin side, not the flat. They set dogs on boys who strayed into their quarters, they had beer on their breath at morning assembly. They encouraged the older boys—especially if they had Irish names—to beat the crap out of the smaller ones ad majoram Dei gloriam. This toughening-up process would turn us seven- and eight-year-old boys into good soldiers of Christ. Religion was invoked only as a prelude to violence; the fires of Hell awaited any infraction or indiscipline, especially the mortal sin of being anywhere near a Holy Brother with a morning head. Threatening the fear of damnation had limited force—as far as I could tell, I was already in Hell.

Disputes between boys were settled on the spot by boxing bouts—not with padded sparring gloves either, but ten-ounce ring gloves. The first time this happened to me, I tearfully objected that I didn’t know how to box and couldn’t I run a race or something, whereupon Brother Colm, who happened to be headmaster, snarled, “You’ll settle it with the gloves—as Christ intended.” I scrolled mentally through the Gospels for occasions where Jesus had gone a couple of rounds with the Pharisees or Sadducees. Nothing. Then the other boy hit me in the face and knocked me out.

After I came home for the umpteenth time with a bloody nose or my arse covered in welts or a smashed hand bandaged in a handkerchief—there being no school nurse at St. Columba’s, the soldiers of Christ performed their own first aid—my parents decided that the mixed-marriage contract notwithstanding, my Catholic education was at an end.

My first Protestant stop was a small Church of England prep school with pretensions to be rather classier than was merited by its location—a nouveau-riche dormitory town north of London. I didn’t like it much, and perhaps as payback to some greater educational authority in the sky, I became possessed by a demon of petty crime, a juvenile delinquent playing right into the stereotype of the perfidious Irish Catholic.

Excluded from morning prayers each day and C of E religious instruction several times a week, I spent the time allocated for spiritual reflection rifling through the pockets of my classmates’ coats and jackets in the cloakroom. I could garner vast sums this way—sometimes as much ten or fifteen shillings a day, a huge sum for a preteen in the mid-fifties. The proceeds were then spent at the local Gaumont cinema.

My visits were so regular that Mum became convinced that it really did take three and a half hours to get home on the bus, not the official hour or so. I caught—at least four or five times each—the Ealing comedies, Olivier’s Henry V, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and a long succession of early Technicolor Hollywood goodies, best of all the garish biblical epics that aging 1930s moguls were pumping out to nip TV in the bud (and in some cases to subliminally bolster the scriptural claims of the new state of Israel). My all-time favorite was Samson and Delilah, with ravishing Yvonne de Carlo as the hair- clipping houri and bulging Victor Mature as Samson. It riveted me that Samson’s breasts were almost as big as Delilah’s. One of my earliest sexual crises had been rage and bafflement that I would never be able to have a baby, and I found Mr. Mature’s bosoms strangely comforting.

I became adept at theft, staggering my raids and leaving the heavier copper and bronze coins in the victims’ pockets so they wouldn’t discover their loss till they were out of school, where it could be blamed on their own carelessness. I’m sure the authorities were leaning over backward to be Christlike and tolerant, hesitant to conclude that the school’s only Catholic was ripping off his Protestant classmates.

Eventually the well-meaning dolts put a patrol on the cloakroom, but by then the demon had parted as abruptly as it came, leaving me with no further taste for felony. I’d scored high in the eleven-plus exams and won a place at the best school in the county; then, to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I won several events at the end-of-term athletics meet and was declared my year’s champion. A top student and a track star could hardly be a thief. So the good Prots not only provided me with a small fortune in stolen goods and a solid grounding in Hollywood movies, they sent me on my way with a silver cup.

Robbery, violence, Hollywood—all classic enemies of Catholic piety. By the time I arrived at St. Albans School at the age of eleven, I was already drifting away from Holy Mother Church. St. Albans was nominally C of E; it was also the oldest surviving school in England, having been founded by the Benedictine monks of St. Albans Abbey in a.d. 948. This meant, for what it was worth, that it had been Catholic far longer than it had been Church of England, from 948 to the Dissolution being roughly six hundred years while the Protestants had had it only since then, a paltry four hundred. Up until the Second World War it had been a minor public school, but by the time I got there, the socialist leveling that was transforming British education had swept most of this religious and classist history away. St. Albans was a government-funded feeder school for the coming meritocracy, and academic excellence was its overwhelming concern.

The level was scary. Where up to this point I’d had little trouble making it to the top rank of any class, here I was just one of the anonymous striving middle. The aim became simply to keep your head down and your marks up. The syllabus included Latin and Greek, but there was no doubt about the long-term utilitarian emphasis—math and science, with English (and French) literature a distant third.

Our classes were seated in alphabetical order, and right in front of me for my first three years was an inarticulate homunculus named Stephen Hawking. The great utility of Hawking to his classmates was that he could do math and physics homework at the speed of light—a concept, by the way, only he seemed able to grasp. He usually had the homework finished by the end of lunch hour, and the thuggier element in his class—including me—found it easy to persuade him to share it. Our math and physics marks were terrific, until the inevitable day of a test, which Hawking would finish in minutes and sit snuffling and grinning and doodling for the remainder of the hour, while the rest of us sweated through the now-incomprehensible scientific runes.

The custom of using Hawking as a source for spiffy homework marks persisted until sometime in the third year when he began moving at warp speed. Now he would take a fairly simple problem of, say, calculus as the pretext for a far-ranging dissertation expressing itself in pages and pages of equations and formulae that no doubt stopped just short of the event horizon. The cloddier types duly copied all this out, figuring it would lead to massive bonus marks. It didn’t, and soon Hawking disappeared from all math classes to pursue his destiny alone.

The fine print in the Church’s mixed-marriage contract demanded that where offspring were forced to attend a non-Catholic school, religious instruction should counteract the heathen lies with which their little ears were filled. In practice my syllabus was so arduous that I had no time for religious instruction even if it had been available in a small country village. So there was no counterweight to my favored subjects, history and organic chemistry, leading my education in an increasingly secular direction.

History textbooks hadn’t caught up with postwar historical thought or research; they tended to be Anglocentric, casually anti-Catholic, and often virulently antipapal. This was very much the case in my favorite period—the Middle Ages. One of the more egregious examples of skewed papal history concerned a local lad, Nicholas Breakspear, who in the mid–twelfth century rose from being Abbot of St. Albans to become Adrian IV, the only Englishman ever to attain the papacy. Breakspear, it was emphasized, was that very rare bird: a good Pope.

A teenager eagerly and uncritically lapping up all such great stuff, I had no frame of reference to judge it by. As the Curial bureaucrats who wrote the mixed-marriage contract no doubt foresaw, I much preferred the new analysis to the old, maternal, pro-Church one.

My fascination with chemistry added fuel to the heretical pyre. The clear message of chemistry—especially of lab experiments, which I’d never done before—was that everything in the phenomenological world had an explanation, and that if it couldn’t yet be explained, further research would soon do the job. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the standard proof of God’s existence (“someone must have made it all”) began to get a little rocky in the lab. There was the evidence in the microscope slide: amoebas reproduced all by themselves without a flash of lightning or a big finger pointing at them, just as they had long ago in kicking off the chain of evolution that led to Hawking.

For me there was another factor too, in some ways more all-encompassing and from a strict doctrinal point of view more insidious. I had fallen in love with the Hertfordshire countryside.

Hertfordshire contains many of the signature images of the great landscape artist John Constable: slow, meandering streams winding through lush meadows intersected with vast stands of elm; gentle hills and soft bosomy fields trimmed with neatly laid hedges of hawthorn and hazel; animals of all kinds, wild and domestic, in huge profusion; rich clay and loam, its vegetation moist and bulbous, bursting with primal juice. You could hardly break a stalk in the meadows without some thick or milky essence bleeding from the plant.

I don’t mean I passed my youth in a Wordsworthian trance. I had goals. The most important was the killing of small waterfowl and the roasting of them over an open fire. Hunting in turn required the construction of weapons—first spears with, for one brief and frustrating period, hand-chipped flint tips, but later and more practically, bows and arrows.

In the wonder years that I spent wandering the countryside with my lethal weapons, I never managed to kill a single living thing, let alone roast it—though I did once find an arrow sticking in the rump of our neighboring farmer’s Guernsey. (She didn’t seem to mind; he was livid.)

I was fixated on a tubby little waterfowl called a moorhen—ducks were iffy since they might belong to someone—but when moorhens broke cover they ran in crazy evasive patterns and you couldn’t get a bead on them. But failure didn’t matter. My self-image as an intrepid hunter alone in the wilderness, surviving on my wits, implacably tracking my prey, was reward enough.

I built a succession of secret huts from interwoven reeds and boughs and grass. I got quite good at siting these in natural blinds and clumps of vegetation to minimize construction. (Which made them even more secret.) Nothing better than to sit in the mouth of a secret reed hut after a hard morning’s hunt, a campfire sizzling in the drizzle, toasting a slice of bread or a sausage and puffing on a dried, rolled-up dock leaf. Tomorrow, always assuming I could figure out how to pluck it and gut it, a fat moorhen would be spitted over this very fire and my entire life would be fulfilled.

Nobody knew where I was, nobody could find me. I was one with my allies, the trees and leaves and folds in the earth, the banks and hedges and stands of wild grass. On fine days the sunlight became a coconspirator, filtering through the filigree of leaves and vegetation to make a second, even more secure dimension of dappled camouflage—and me even more invisible.

This was when I first came across Marvell’s

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

No doubt I was creating an alternate or fantasy life (food, shelter, security) in rejection of the one my parents provided. But nothing so tediously psychological ever occurred to me. I was happy without knowing it, at peace long before I knew how crucial and elusive peace is.

One summer a terrible epidemic called myxomatosis ran through the entire wild rabbit population, and there were little corpses of my former prey everywhere, their eyeballs forced halfway out of their skulls by the jellylike tumors the disease causes, making their eyes, still staring wildly in death, look like tumors themselves. There were trophies everywhere, meat for the taking, but I could only think what a horrible way to die—for my friends and coconspirators to die—and that in some implacable way my callousness had caused their agony.

Why was all this a doctrinal threat? Because my woods and meadows seemed a much better church than the Church. The irresistible force of life—the tiny eggs appearing in the nest, the buds on the dead wood of winter—evidenced a much more immediate presence of something divine than the presence that was supposed to exist in the tabernacle on the altar.

There beneath a flickering red lamp that was always lit to indicate he was home (the Savior is . . . IN) was Christ himself, really present in the Holy Eucharist, a chalice full of consecrated wafers. We were taught this was a sacramental presence, the outward sign of inward grace. The standard exegesis was that while the outward accidents of the bread did not change at the moment of consecration, its essence—that which made it bread and bread alone—had been transformed into the essence of Jesus Christ, that which made him and him alone the son of God. A neat analysis and, if true, a mind-boggling miracle. The trouble was I felt nothing gazing up at Christ’s little brass hut. No presence at all; just the exotic odor of last Sunday’s incense and that dusty mushroomy smell of decay all churches have, whatever their age.

Whereas under my canopy of sun-dappled leaves I certainly felt the presence of something, and something I was quite prepared to say was divine, powerful, benign, even loving, and if beyond my ken, not that far beyond. It could be God or a god, or more likely a goddess, the spirit of sun-dappled leaves. The lazy River Lea, polluted though it was, was still a miracle, a whole liquid universe of life.

One early summer evening, down along the River Lea, following my best moorhen route, I came upon something I’d never noticed before, concealed by thick curtains of willow fronds and giant reeds: a decrepit trailer with saggy old power lines running into the trees, painted a morose green. In the yard outside, a couple, one with a baby on her hip, were tending a newly turned garden. I’d come upon the secret lair of Mr. and Mrs. Mystery—Ben and Lily Bootle.
Tony Hendra

About Tony Hendra

Tony Hendra - Father Joe
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.


"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

"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

"Father Joe is a many-layered memoir of a god-driven Englishman, Tony Hendra. 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. Even when he's describing his days of wine, roses and rock and roll Mr. Hendra gives himself no quarter. There are furious paragraphs where he echoes Hamlet's 'Why, what an ass am I.' But we know, from the subtitle, 'The Man Who Saved My Soul' that salvation is down the road. Father Joe waits for this wild, satirical, loving, poetic, lusty, blasphemous penitent. You might see some of yourself in Tony Hendra. If you see anything of yourself in Father Joe you are blessed. 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
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. One of Father Joe’s recurrent themes is to see selfishness as a core modern failing. He “diagnoses” Tony Hendra’s 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 Hendra’s sin selfishness, and how is it linked to conspicuous consumption? And what is meant by Hendra’s 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 Joe’s version of God fits better into his fifties-shaped notion of “she” rather than “he” (p. 67). In the epilogue, Hendra says of Father Joe’s 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 Christ’s 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 Joe’s 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. Benedict’s 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 Joe’s 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 who’d 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 Joe’s standards? Does he mean that work is sacred? Could work done to Father Joe’s 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?

  • Father Joe by Tony Hendra
  • May 31, 2005
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $13.95
  • 9780812972344

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