Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tony Hendra's _Father Joe_

Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, 2004.

Three-quarters memoir, two-tenths paean, one twentieth context, Hendra's book needs to be approached as a reflection on how his own life has been changed by another. It's not a biography, nor an introduction to what life is like in a Benedictine monastery: it's about Hendra's life, and how it's better because of Father Joe's role in it.

The eponymous Father Joe was a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey. After an indiscretion as a lad with a married woman, her husband took Hendra to the Abbey. The book is really about how Fr. Joe helped Hendra to grow up: recovering from the relationship, and then in nearly every aspect of his life. Hendra discovers a deep admiration both for Fr. Joe himself and for the Benedictine way of life (though with, I'd argue, an overly fixed view of the latter: later in the book Hendra describes his inability to cope at all well with the liturgy changing from Latin to English). He decides he wants to become a monk, and lives with Quarr as a second home and Fr. Joe as a second father. Thwarted in his desires to enter Quarr by winning a scholarship to Cambridge, Hendra's life turns to the career as a satirist — and all of the accompanying messes that emerge as a life is lived.

The book is an engaging read, and it's easy to identify with many of the stages Hendra identifies in his own life: his awakening to vocation, and his subsequent loss of faith; his discovery of comedy as art, and his flailing attempts to live with another. I found it both moving and endearing to read his portrayal of his father and his own marital challenges.

The two most effective parts of the book were for me the twin morals: be where you are, and love. The first is explored best around Hendra's second marriage: Fr. Joe's advice to Hendra is to do a better job of being a husband (and father), to find his sense of roots in the marriage. It's a translation of the Benedictine vow of stability, the sense that life isn't better anywhere else, but is best lived where one is. The second portion is best expressed when Fr. Joe and Hendra talk about what humour is, and we see the ease with which humour — and satire in particular — can hurt: Fr. Joe's impulse to ask deeper questions about the intent and design of the humour is subtle for the reader, but wise indeed.

One weakness of the book is the dialogue, and I wish I had a better sense of what bothers me about it. Hendra presents conversations he had with Fr. Joe, and there are times when the dialogue is plausible, and times when it's quite difficult to read. I think this is just a stylistic issue, a failure of the author to capture the authentic rhythms of speech because the idea is more important than the style, but I'm not quite sure. I plan to spend some more time thinking about that question.

Ultimately, it's an enjoyable read and rewarding for more than just those interested in living a religious life: Hendra succeeds in capturing something of the struggles of life, and his view of his path manages to offer insights for the reader without ever slipping and becoming prescriptive.

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