Tony Hendra. Wikimedia Commons

Dinner with Tony Hendra

The theme of vocation is at the center of the British writer’s autobiography. In New York he encountered the experience of the Movement. This past summer, during a visit to Italy, he told us about himself.
Michele Cantoni

We can learn who Mr. Hendra is from the autobiography, entitled Father Joe, published in the United States in 2004 and in Italy in 2005.

The title is the first surprise of the book. When my sister-in-law gave it to me last Christmas, I assumed that it was the story of a monk. But, as I read, I discovered that actually it was Hendra’s autobiography. Why use someone else’s name on your own autobiography? As I read on, I realized that it wasn’t specious. In order to talk about himself, Hendra has to talk about the man who loved him, who set him on the road of life, who always took him up again when it seemed that much, too much, had been lost–the man who, in short, had been a father to him. “It was immensely disarming and engaging to be treated as if you were the only one in his life; but then, for the time you were with him, you were. He loved the one he was with; spiritually promiscuous, utterly discreet.”

The Encounter with Father Joe
Hendra was raised in a family with an agnostic father and a Catholic mother. Through a pact of non-belligerence, his parents entrusted his religious education to a Catholic school, a rigid environment centered on the sense of sin and the fear of damnation (“My level of devotion was at a fairly obligatory level”). Forced by circumstances to attend a Protestant middle school, he was “saved” by a newly converted zealot who sought to teach him the fundamentals of the Catholic catechism. In return, Hendra became, at the age of 14, the lover (well, not quite) of the fellow’s wife. Caught practically in the act, he was brought by the husband to the Benedictine Abbey of Quarr, on the Isle of Wight, to meet and confess with Father Joseph Warrilow–Father Joe. This encounter changed his life, because it gave him the father he’d never really had. (“The verdict was gentle, final, the last word of, well, a father.”) Young Tony was so fascinated by Father Joe that he wanted to become like him; his one desire was to become a monk. “For the new identity, the non-craze, the one that had stuck, was monk.” Thus, the theme of vocation became central to the vicissitudes in the author’s life. Then, however, came the crisis that, out of pride, he wouldn’t admit to himself, much less to Father Joe. At the end of high school, Father Joe, with great realism, asked Tony to delay his entrance into the monastery until after college, and to attend the University of Cambridge, where he had won a scholarship. Here, one evening, Tony saw the satirical performance, Beyond the Fringe, and discovered his calling as an author of satire (“I went into that theater a monk. I left a satirist. Save the world through prayer? I don’t think so. I’m going to save it through laughter.”)

Audacious Life
Hendra moved to the U.S. and became a successful author of satire. He worked for six years as a stand-up comic throughout America. In 1971, he joined the editorial board (and subsequently became editor) of National Lampoon magazine, which later put out the albums Radio Dinner and Lemmings (containing the first-ever parodies of folk and rock icons like Dylan and Lennon) and the film Animal House. He was also involved in the making of another film parody, This is Spinal Tap. Hendra’s friends included such mythical figures of American satire as Michael O’Donoghue, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Chevy Chase, and John Belushi. He authored television programs such as Spitting Image and wrote a parody of the Bible entitled Not the Bible (which “included texts previously unknown to biblical scholars such as ‘Christ: the Early Years’”!). In those years, he lead a life that was, to say the least, audacious. A chaotic life, lovers, a failing marriage, a daughter… “I who had been given the keys to the kingdom, had held the pearl of great price, had dropped them in the mud, ground them in with my heel, and headed downtown to score.” He came to the point of confessing to Father Joe that he’d lost his faith, and their encounters became ever less frequent (“…one every year or so”). “For the first time since I’d met him, sixteen years before, I felt I didn’t need Father Joe to navigate the waters ahead. There were other, more experienced sailors from whom to learn.” It would be wrong to say that Hendra never let go of Father Joe. Actually, it was Father Joe who never abandoned Hendra, who continued to write him and who welcomed him affectionately whenever Tony went to see him.

In order not to ruin the pleasure of reading the book, we won’t recount the rest of the particulars here. When you get to the end, and read, with tears in your eyes, the last pages, you realize that a series of questions crowd your thoughts: How’s Tony now? What’s he doing? Is he happy? These questions are probably motivated by the affection you feel by now for this man. This is the autobiography of a living person, and the last page of the book is not the last word on his life.

At Dinner
This is why I enthusiastically accepted the unexpected invitation to dinner in his company with some friends from the Carate community. He brought his daughter, Lucy. He loves eating and drinking and is a great wine enthusiast (a passion to which he was obviously introduced by Father Joe), so in front of a sumptuously laid table he let himself go, answering all our questions. We discovered that a friend of ours from the New York CL community was struck when he heard Hendra on the radio, and went to meet him. This encounter led to others, and he began to meet the people in our American communities. He said he was happy, because he was not alone, and could continue to live the positivity of the Christian experience that Father Joe had communicated to him. He visited the Meeting last year and saw there the breadth of Catholicism’s cultural outlook.

Historical research
He told us that many of our CL communities, in Italy as well, have invited him to give a testimony. He has been able to see and meet people who live their Christian vocation raising families, in a way that only a short time before had seemed inconceivable, even though this was the way Father Joe had shown him, when he said, “[The problem] is your refusal to accept your true vocation.” “Which is what?” “You’re a husband and a father, Tony. … A husband and father is what God has always wanted you to be. It’s a vocation as sacred as ours.”

Now, Hendra writes full time, currently involved in historical research to write a book on the many “Father Joes” in the history of Benedictine monasticism.
“If you think it’s just my melancholy attempt to keep hold of a beautiful experience that’s over, you’re wrong. This undertaking of mine grew out of the gratitude for what I experienced and for the experience I am having now.”

“But how can this be, since Father Joe is dead?” I asked him.
“Christianity is communicated through a precise, concrete encounter, because, as I wrote in my book, ‘The Thing-God is inconceivable without a human body as a medium, something we can cling to, that has touched the inconceivable.’

Those who are fathers to you in the faith do not close you into a devotion. They don’t suffocate you in the unbounded affection you feel for them; rather, they open you to a new life.”

A moment recounted in the book came to mind: “Father Joe, I’ve made a new beginning…” “I know, dear. And it will grow and mature and blossom. But not here.”