Love is a cliché until you experience it. And Christianity can seem a forbidding puzzle of doctrines—until you meet someone who looks at you the way Christ looked at John and Andrew. When the two apostles asked Jesus where he lived, his answer was "Come and see." They went with him because they immediately sensed something different in this man, something fascinating and attractive.
Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, Tony Hendra's moving new book (Random House, $24.95), is about his encounter with Christ, through a remarkable man, a Benedictine monk, Father Joseph Warrilow.
Tony Hendra's friendship with Father Joe started with an earlier friendship with Ben and Lily, a Catholic married couple in his native Hertfordshire, England. The teen-aged Mr. Hendra's friendship with the couple devolved into an affair with Lily. When the husband discovered what was happening, he took Mr. Hendra for a talk with a priest.
Having a talk with this particular priest required a four-hour train ride through the south of England, plus a ferry passage to the Isle of Wight. After a tense trip, the guilty young Mr. Hendra found himself shut up alone with a flatfooted, jug-eared priest. Tell me everything, the monk said.
Mr. Hendra nervously filled him in on the background. Then: "Inevitably we came to the part I dreaded, the breaking point, the unhappy ending, my adulterous eyes on the breast of another man's wife, my adulterous hands under her dress, my adulterous fingers inching their way into another man's wife's vagina. To my complete surprise, this didn't seem to merit a different response from anything else I'd said. ... None of it seemed to warrant any of the shock or horror I had anticipated."
"I saw her anguished, longing face, a real person with a real inner life whom I had treated as a mere extension of my nerve endings.”
Mr. Hendra was shocked that this priest did not condemn or cross-examine him.
"I'd just met a man from whom would come none of the usual responses I'd learned to expect from priests. Some unknown fuel drove his engine. Gentleness bubbled out of from the funny figure in the scruffy black robes like clear water from solid rock. It was flowing into me through his dry warm hand. I felt on the brink of learning an entirely new set of possible responses to the world."
Some centuries previous, a woman caught in adultery had a similar experience, meeting a man who interrupted her execution with some scribbling in the sand. "Go and sin no more," Jesus told her.
The first thing Father Joe told Mr. Hendra was, "Poor Lily." Father Joe gently awakened Mr. Hendra to the wrong he was doing to Lily through his selfishness.
"God's love has brought you here before any real harm could be done. The only sin you've committed is the sin of ... s-s-selfishness." Mr. Hendra adds that Fr. Joe "regarded this as a far more serious crime than the one that was officially on the charge sheet."
Mr. Hendra describes the effect of his Fr. Joe-prompted awakening: "I saw her anguished, longing face, a real person with a real inner life whom I had treated as a mere extension of my nerve endings..."
Fr. Joe told Mr. Hendra, "You won't see her [Lily] for a while, will you dear? Not alone, anyway. It wouldn't be fair to her."
Those who desire conversion (in themselves or others) should note how this came about: "The verdict was gentle, final, the last word of, well, a father. A father unlike mine or anyone's I knew, unlike the men we were accustomed to call Father or even—according to all reports—the God we called Father. I'd confided something that had confused and tormented and terrified me to this father. And the matter had been handled."
Hendra's monastic ideals evaporated, replaced by a drive to save the world through satire. That didn't work.
Mr. Hendra is changed because of a relationship with someone who can help him see things differently, and encourage him to live accordingly. It's not simply a matter of rules or willpower; Mr. Hendra is converted by someone who manifestly loves him and will continue to do so in spite of this sin or others. This person will continue to point out a better way to live. But without that love, that new way to live won't be attractive and compelling.
This, by the way, is the point of having a church. The question: "What would Jesus do?" will always be a bit unreal (partially because the real question is, "What, as a follower of Christ, should I do?)—unless you know people you can trust to be Christ for you, as Father Joe was for Tony Hendra. Better to ask yourself, "What would my friend the purchasing agent, or teacher of English as a Second Language, or priest do?" Best of all, you can call them up and ask them what the hell they'd do if they were in your shoes.
Andrew Sullivan, in the May 30 describes Father Joe as seeming "so far removed from the cramped, fearful admonitions of today's Vatican." Sullivan misreads both Father Joe and the Vatican. To be true to the Catholic faith or its teachings doesn't mean to betray or deny your humanity.
Father Joe cares about Tony Hendra—and Lily, and Ben. And Father Joe makes clear that having sex with Lily is not good for Tony or Lily or Ben. This is a sin, not because sexual intercourse is a sin, but because using a person for your sexual pleasure—a person who, by the way, has bound herself to someone else in marriage—hurts you and others.
You can find people in the Church who are afraid of sex, but fear is not what drives the Church's teaching. It's the desire to follow what Christ taught—the objective basis for responsible sexual acts (not how we happen to be feeling at the moment). Whether you call it respecting the personhood of others, or being chaste, following Christ means recognizing the truth about yourself (of which your sexuality is one aspect), and making a commitment never to use another person merely as a means to an end. This higher purpose becomes attractive when you meet someone who is really like Christ, like Father Joe. Otherwise, as Father Joe might have said, if Christianity isn't about living a truer, happier life, if it isn't about fulfilling your ultimate destiny, if it's just about arbitrary rules—to hell with it.
If Christianity isn’t about living a truer, happier life, if it isn’t about fulfilling your ultimate destiny, if it’s just about arbitrary rules — to hell with it.
So struck was Mr. Hendra by Father Joe, that he quickly aspired to join him at the Quarr Abbey community on the Isle of Wight. He spent much time at the abbey, immersing himself in the sung prayer and work of Benedictines. He did everything he could to push himself into the community. But Father Joe and the abbot nudged him in a different direction—to accept a scholarship at Cambridge University, where he had his second conversion: to the vocation of satire, sparked by seeing the "Beyond the Fringe" starring the Oxbridge crew of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
Amazed by what he saw in "Beyond the Fringe," Mr. Hendra threw himself into Cambridge's undergraduate satire and theater scene, which led to professional comedy work and a doomed marriage. His monastic ideals evaporated, replaced by a drive to save the world through satire. That didn't work, but he had good times, working with some phenomenal comic talents at Cambridge (Graham Chapman and John Cleese of later Monty Python fame) and National Lampoon magazine, and its theater and and comedy album offshoots. (Mr. Hendra has been at the right place at the right time, sometimes: He cadged physics homework answers from Steven Hawking in prep school and got comedy writing tips from Michael O'Donahue, "the plutonium rod at the core of the Lampoon.")
His ideals and work brought him no peace, and he had discarded his faith. Father Joe remained faithful. Eventually, Mr. Hendra's sporadic visits to his friend at Quarr Abbey eventually became more frequent. Almost in spite of himself, Mr. Hendra came to see the good counsel of Father Joe, who subtly pointed the way out of a dark wood.
Coming to a personal and professional impasse, he visited his old friend. "With consummate skill he'd led me step-by-step to the realization that I had become a rather unpleasant person, that it was time to move on to a second phase, but without rejecting, as I was prone to do, everything I'd so far accomplished."
Eventually, Father Joe helps Mr. Hendra live his vocation as a husband to his wife, a true father to his children, as a man with his work (which wasn't his first choice—a helpful example to many of us).
Mr. Hendra has returned to the Catholic faith, attending Mass, prudently avoiding liturgies that exceed his threshold for linguistic and musical pain, wrestling with life like the rest of us. But he's changed (and was able to change) because he has known "a saint," who told him:
"Tony dear, you will only be able to love when you understand how much you are loved. You are loved, dear, with a limitless ... fathomless ... all-embracing love."
Sort of like John and Andrew