Father Joe: the man who saved my soul, by Tony Hendra

A spiritual classic for our cynical times
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The Independent Culture

Hurray for America. There may be many things we bemoan about our closest allies, but if it hadn't been for their enthusiasm for Tony Hendra's extraordinary memoir, I doubt whether we would have seen it published over here - although the author is British. For Hendra is writing about religion: specifically, his on-off vocation to be a Catholic priest. While that may go down well in the States, here such soul-searching is usually regarded as plain embarrassing.

Hurray for America. There may be many things we bemoan about our closest allies, but if it hadn't been for their enthusiasm for Tony Hendra's extraordinary memoir, I doubt whether we would have seen it published over here - although the author is British. For Hendra is writing about religion: specifically, his on-off vocation to be a Catholic priest. While that may go down well in the States, here such soul-searching is usually regarded as plain embarrassing.

This enchanting book is essentially a two-hander. On one side is Tony Hendra, part of the Sixties comedy generation that emerged from Cambridge. He went off to America and made his name as a satirist at the National Lampoon. His writing is, as you would expect, sharp and funny, but his target audience is clearly American. So British readers will have to put up with explanations of the Isle of Wight and Plasticine. Persevere; it's worth it.

On the other side is Father Joe: Dom Joseph Warrilow, a Benedictine monk at the enclosed community of Quarr on the Isle of Wight. Hendra begins by explaining how he met Father Joe: "I was 14 and having an affair with a married woman." Her husband, catching them in the act (not much of an act, in retrospect), marches Hendra off for punishment by Father Joe.

It's the 1950s: Hendra feared eternal damnation at least, but instead the engaging, eccentric Father Joe absolved him from his sins and beguiled him by presenting an image of a church that was loving and compassionate. So beguiled was Hendra that he decided he wanted to become a monk, and turned prig on the spot.

At this stage, I still had my suspicions that this was a spoof autobiography by a satirist with many piss-takes to his credit. But as I read on through Hendra's loss of faith, his two unhappy marriages, the ups and downs of his career in the US, I knew that the central account of this unbreakable bond could not have been made up.

Even as he embraces disbelief, Hendra continues to regard the monk as his own father, journeying back regularly to Quarr. His accounts of conversations while they walked the cliffs are a remarkable Q-and-A session, with every charge ever laid against organised religion considered and answered. The responses are by no means definitive, but simply encourage greater thought - in Hendra and the reader.

In its own oddball way, this is a wacky spiritual classic, perfectly geared for our muddled and cynical times. There's humour, star names and backstage gossip in the mix to stop it getting too heavy. But at the core is a very human tale of fall and redemption that brought tears to my eyes when the two are finally parted by Father Joe's death.

The reviewer's 'Heaven: a traveller's guide' is published by HarperCollins

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