Tony Hendra is a satirist whose name is familiar to readers of National Lampoon and Spy magazines, and to moviegoers who have seen him in "This Is Spinal Tap."
So he would seem to be an unlikely candidate to take on the story of a Benedictine monk whose understanding of God and of the human spirit would help guide, ground and ultimately heal one man's life.
But that is what Hendra has done in "Father Joe," an endearing love letter to Joseph Warrilow, the monk who became Hendra's spiritual mentor, father figure and friend after they met when Hendra was only 14.
Hendra had been sent to Quarr Abbey to talk to Father Joe after being caught kissing a married woman. Hendra, who was familiar with the harsher side of religious education, was prepared for the worst when he entered the abbey.
When Father Joe came into Tony's room at the abbey, the frightened 14-year-old immediately knelt at the monk's side.
"'No no no no,' said Father Joseph Warrilow seventeen times. 'Sit down next to me.'
"... His hand relaxed slightly over mine and I began to feel its warmth. The intimacy took me aback, but I was drawn in by something stronger. There was a stillness in the room, the same stillness I'd noticed earlier when we'd arrived, this time without any apprehension. A calm suffused me, a physical sensation running through my body like a hot drink on a cold night. For the first time in a week, all my fears melted away.
"'Now, dear," he said, eyes still closed, 'tell me everything."'
From that first conversation, which Father Joe concluded by telling Tony the only sin he had committed was that of selfishness, Hendra's compass had been reset and was now guided by the North Star that was Father Joe.
After that meeting and the many more that followed, Hendra eventually sought to become a member of Father Joe's order. But when Father Joe learned that Hendra, who was by then ensconced at Quarr Abbey on his way to becoming a monk, had been accepted at Cambridge, his orders were clear:
"I'm sorry, Tony dear. You must leave today."
And with that, Hendra headed to Cambridge, where he discovered satire, Monty Python and Dudley Moore, and where he decided that saving the world through prayer wasn't his path after all, choosing instead to "save it through laughter."
Hendra eventually moved to New York, "a city whose true coat of arms is a wrecking ball rampant on a field of Sheetrock." Divorce and depression, professional disappointments, personal deceits and spiritual confusion all took their toll. But through them all Hendra had a place to turn, a man who offered only his own truths and love, never judgment.
Hendra, with all his personal and professional exploits, no doubt added a vicarious dimension to Father Joe's life. But it was the constant grace that Father Joe bestowed on Hendra that was the true gift for Hendra and for the reader of his inspiring memoir.
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