Comedy, Tragedy and Redemption
A Satirist Encounters the Message of Divine Mercy
I never expected that I would learn a thing or two about God's mercy from a British satirist. Isn't mercilessness a necessary part of the satirist's job description? And maybe I'm being unfair to modern popular culture, but when I want to read something that will nourish my soul, I don't usually turn to the New York Times bestseller list.
Yet there I was in my local library one day, ready to try anything to stay awake. It was a Saturday afternoon, and while sitting in a comfy leather chair by a sunny picture window, I had, in about three hours, graded six essays by my seventh grade students between dozing off, my glasses sliding down my nose and a red pen dangling from my hand. I decided it was time to take a walk. I found myself in the audio book section, where I picked up Tony Hendra's memoir Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul on CD.
I had seen the book on many bookstore shelves but had never been interested in reading it. I thought the title might be ironic, and I'm sensitive to criticisms of the clergy. This time, however, I was curious enough to read the back jacket of the CD and found that it was an honest-to-goodness spiritual memoir about a sincere friendship between the author and a Benedictine monk. I checked out the book, got into my car, and popped the first CD into the CD player.
The first line of chapter one made my jaw drop: "How I met Father Joe: I was fourteen and having an affair with a married woman." Eventually it became clear that this affair had been nipped in the bud pretty early — not early enough, but earlier than I'd feared — and that it had proven to be one of those errors in life that God uses for good. When the affair was discovered by the woman's husband, young Hendra's catechist, his response was to whisk the boy to a Benedictine monastery in the Isle of Wight, where he insisted that the boy confess his sin to a gentle middle-aged monk named Fr. Joseph Warrilow, whom everyone simply called Father Joe.
Hendra had enjoyed his little romance and regretted only being caught; actually, he was more than regretful: he was terrified. In the Catholic religion as it had been taught to him — in the 1950s by teachers who had not been conditioned to show mercy — sin was a cause for severe punishment and paralyzing guilt. Hendra had not learned to expect compassion from God or confessors. Even after Fr. Joe's warm and loving manner in hearing the young man's confession, Hendra felt uneasy, expecting at any moment to see "The door swinging open, younger, tougher monks pulling [him] to [his] feet."
As I listened, Hendra's anxiety struck me as a typical example of the lack of trust that Jesus lamented when He told St. Faustina, "Let the sinner not be afraid to approach me ... Distrust on the part of souls is tearing at my insides ...; despite My inexhaustible love for them they do not trust Me" (Diary, 50).
That day, however, Hendra found mercy and acceptance in a priest for the first time, and he was drawn back into the fold of the Church. He began to practice the Faith with a passion that almost led him to the monastery himself until he discovered the world of satirical comedy while studying at Cambridge. Nevertheless, the friendship between the satirist and the monk lasted for the rest of the latter's life, even when Hendra's religious fervor gave way to outright atheism in his adulthood.
As I listened to the story of Hendra's life unfold, I honestly wasn't sure whether he would ever return to any faith, Catholic or otherwise. I thought this memoir might turn out to be a nostalgic story written out of gratitude to the monk who helped a writer come of age, despite the writer's permanent shedding of the religion the monk professed. But it didn't turn out that way. Father Joe is a redemption story, one that we modern-day sinners can really sink our teeth into and perhaps see a little of ourselves in.
I didn't agree with everything Hendra wrote. He has strong opinions about politics and the Church (pre- and post-Vatican II) that don't always seem quite fair or well-balanced. That's the satirist in him, I suppose. But once I had accepted these opinions for what they are, I was able to enjoy and be nourished by the simple story of a monk who may never have heard of St. Faustina but who fulfilled Jesus' desire "that priests proclaim this mercy of Mine toward souls of sinners" (Diary, 50).
In the climactic scene when Father Joe helps middle-aged Hendra finally see his true vocation, the old monk tells him, "Yes, you fought God ... But boundless love, Tony dear, is giving you a second chance." Doesn't He always give us those chances, as long as we're alive? That's what the Bible and the Diary tell us. And in stories like Hendra's, we see this truth acted out in all the drama and messiness of real life.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.