The Reverend and The Irreverend

The Busted Halo Interview with the author of the New York Times Bestseller Father Joe.

BUSTED HALO: Up until now you’ve been known to a lot of people as Ian Faith from Spinal Tap— is that something you wouldn’t mind shaking?

TONY HENDRA: Oh God no! I’m immensely proud of that movie. I love that movie. I don’t watch it anymore obviously [laughs]. I don’t really understand it, but I think it’s completely wonderful that there’s a new sort of ‘mini generation’ constantly coming up and saying, “I saw you in that movie.”

BH: Have any of your friends in the entertainment world reacted with surprise to the book and learning that you’re a practicing Catholic?

TH: I think that that’s happened a bit but rather more with my literati friends or my journalistic friends who’ll say, ‘Gee I didn’t know that.’ But because it’s for a book I think it’s ok. I mean if I had gone up to them and said, ‘Is Christ in your heart?’ then they would’ve gone…’Oh Jesus, Tony buzz off…[laughs]

BH: There’s a time between coming to the States and when you’re at the National Lampoon in the early ’70s that you kind of gloss over where it seemed you were sort of losing your soul to some degree. Is there any reason why you didn’t talk about that period more?

TH: You mean between Cambridge and the Lampoon? It’s very simple; there’s actually quite a large chunk of time there. From 1964, when I came here, until 1971, that I was a stand up comedian, so there was seven years in there and that was very definitely the time where I sort of lost my faith and…blame it on America…what the hell [laughs]. My comedy partner and I came to New York and almost immediately we got a job opening for Lenny Bruce. Which was really weird and wonderful because he was our idol. And a few days into the gig he was busted by the NYPD. So we did get a very quick lesson in doing comedy in the United States.

BH: What was he like?

TH: Oh he was a genius. Very tortured but also just hysterically funny. He was one of those people when he got into it he just had you in stitches. People don’t remember that.

BH: Andrew Sullivan’s glowing front-page review in the New York Times Book Review certainly must have been a big turning point for the popularity of your book.

TH: Yes, absolutely, I think Andrew would say also that we don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on a lot of things personally.

BH: He would be much more conservative politically?

TH: Oh yeah sure. But his was the first big review and the first really heartfelt review. But what I loved about it was there were several things in it that actually taught me something about my own book. In the final analysis it was a great effort to try and remember these conversations and put them down correctly. In a way at the barest minimum I was the reporter on this relationship. So I’m not awfully sure what this book is about. And many people have said it’s about many things; it’s about all kinds of things. But at least two of the things that Andrew said were, first, and this is I think one reason why it’s gotten popular, is his lead thing that it takes a sinner to evoke a saint. Which is brilliant. It never occurred to me that people don’t want to hear about a saint from another saint. But hearing about a saint from someone they don’t expect it from makes it come much more alive. And the other thing was just the journey of the book that had never been that clear in my mind that he’d seen this sort of surrender as he put it to God’s love over the course of the book. I thought that was wonderful, and I certainly hadn’t set out to write that sort of book.

BH: You didn’t see this as a chronicling a long-term conversion process?

TH: No not really. The various stages of the story just seemed to fall into place very nicely.

BH: What’s interesting is that all through those years, was that you were still going back to Quarr abbey. Was there ever a sense at all that this place had really gotten a hold on you and that you’d come back to your faith eventually?

TH: No, it was more self serving than that. When I went back to Joe it was for comfort or as I said in the book for that “hit of monastic peace.” And I very rarely considered how lucky I was to have this. Other people spend their whole lives looking for it and I had it under my nose available to me the whole time. So there was that, but I had also said many times to him that I wish I could get my faith back. And he would say the very fact you’re here is an act of faith though you don’t realize it. That’s the beginning. And I suppose on another level I guess it’s like the hound of heaven…the grace just kept on tugging away. But it didn’t seem that way at the time. It just seemed like I had this wonderful resource. Like I say in the book, I had my own Mahareshi, while other people spent hundreds of thousands of dollars looking for it.

BH: Was he sort of a therapist for you?

TH: No, It never felt like that. And I did a little bit of shrinking at one time or another–what New Yorker hasn’t? Therapy was always immensely dissatisfying to me, because Joe was just so much better. I mean shrinks never give you answers, they just ask questions! There was another level that was this paternal thing. I felt I owed him an awful lot as my spiritual and almost real father and at times it was almost obligatory, you know “I really better go say hi to Joe.”

BH: And yet when you finally realized how many people he was counseling…

TH: I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of me at all…[laughs] which Tony was that? When Joe died he left this fat address book, with all the hundreds of people in his ministry. Normally the Benedictines would destroy the personal effects when a monk is buried unless they were in some way of concern or interest to the monastery, which is I guess the call they made. For obvious reasons, they hung onto it and they still have it. The initial idea of the book would be that I would get access to that and go out and get all these other versions of Joe from all his other… patients. [Laughs].

[After his death, Hendra discovered that Fr. Joe had been a spiritual counselor to many different people from all walks of life, including the current Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and, briefly, Princess Diana.]

BH: Did you ever get a sense of what Joe’s life was like?

TH: I think he was a man of peace no question. And certainly what little I’ve gleaned from other laymen, who knew him and his monastic brothers; he was very funny and lively. As one of the monks told me last year, ‘You know one of the great things about Joe was you could always go off in a corner and sort of dish with him. You know just really carve the other guys up.’ He was wicked in his way, sort of naughty. But he also said that with Joe you always felt safe. Joe was a born monk. He first went to Farmborough which is this other smaller monastery when he was 15 or 16. He took his final vows when he was 19. So the guy was really a monk and completely satisfied with the monastic life. There are some diaries that the abbot found that I’m running on the website: Through these diary excerpts you can see that the great thing about Joe was that ultimately he was just another monk. And that’s what I love about him as much as anything that he comes out of a grand tradition of this same wisdom and this same gentleness. However many bad things we have to say about the Church’s history this also is part of its history.

BH: It’s funny how you mention that Andrew Sullivan is so conservative and yet one of the things that interested me that as liberal as you are politically…I imagine you are still somewhat politically engaged.

TH: Yes, I refer to myself as a Neo Comm….[laughter]

BH: And yet theologically you almost sound pre-Vatican II. Do you still go to Latin Mass?

TH: No I don’t seek it out. I love it when I find it. But this is a very good question. One of the things that I didn’t realize until I started talking to Catholics about the book is that I sound suspiciously like other Catholics who come back to church after 30 years and bitch and moan about you know ‘it’s nothing like it used to be’ but that wasn’t quite my point. But I do think, at the risk of rubbing people the wrong way, that what was intended in large part with Vatican II was to sweep away such tradition and custom and so forth that got in the way of an open and communal sense of charism, of spirit. And of reaching out to God and responding to his love. On the other hand, supportive of that was a democratization that the increasingly well-educated and intelligent laity would be given the voice that they deserved and an often not well educated and not intelligent hierarchy had so far denied them. But entirely the opposite seems to have taken place, which is that all the great traditions of the church, the liturgical, the musical and the canonical have just been dumped wholesale while the hierarchy hasn’t given an inch on this quasi-feudal authority it exercises.

BH: I think one reason your book resonates with people is probably because so many of us are Catholics in spite of the institutional church…

TH: Right.

BH: …and when we see this faith journey and the relationship

with such a beautiful and deeply spiritual person like Fr. Joe it’s in some ways an affirmation of what is best in the church. I wonder if you’re going to come across some Catholic organizations that are going to want to co-opt you as their poster child for [stricter] orthodoxy?

TH: I’m fully
expecting that but it hasn’t happened yet. This is one of the things that isn’t in the book but it occurred to me later, that Joe and all the others like him was a true conservative, he was part of a 1500-year-old tradition that conserves the best of what it has to offer human beings. That’s truly conservative. A lot of what passes for conservative now is just right wing; its just sort of brutalism or authoritarianism. It isn’t conservative at all. My theory is that what passes for conservatism today conserves the way the world was when you were six years old and safe. That’s what Pat Buchanan’s conservatism is. It’s like a brutal version of ‘you go back to when I was six or else’. But by the same token, Joe lived a life that, in an advanced consumerist society, is completely subversive: voluntary poverty, you live communally and you have no possessions. I mean what could be more subversive of the free market and a consumerist society than that?

BH: The message of the gospels is really the most radical message that exists.

TH: Precisely.

BH: Since Joe’s passing, how has your faith changed without your spiritual father there for you?

TH: Well it’s a struggle actually. I did not realize until he died quite how central he was to my faith, really. And it’s not that I’ve sort of re-lost my faith actually, I’m stronger on some things. I think one of the reasons is that I’m so concerned by the loss of Latin or the loss of so many of these great traditions. And more importantly, even a sense that tradition is important and is a part of our faith. Tradition and ritual is a valuable crutch when you’re in trouble faith wise. The parish we belong to is heavily Hispanic and quite often I much prefer going to the Hispanic masses because for some reason I feel more connection with the tradition than I do for example we have a jazz mass and I can’t stand it, I’m sure they’re great musicians but it has nothing to do with our religion. But anyway. I think the most important thing to me is that Joe, in death, is much more vivid and real to me than almost any other part of my faith. And I have no problem with that at all, but once again, if you have no problem with one part of it then there really is no problem in having no problem with all of it.

BH: This is a deeply spiritual book and clearly you open yourself up. How does that feel? You were a satirist poking fun at other people…where do you go from here?

TH: I don’t have any idea what to write next and they desperately want to sign me up to another book. The Hollywood guys are already phoning so we’ll see what happens.

BH: Has this been an enormous change for you?

TH: I think it will be. It’s going to be very hard book to live down if you know what I mean. But I haven’t been writing a lot of the satiric stuff anyway. I do write some humor columns here and there. In fact, if I don’t have to do it anymore I’d be happy not to. I think that whatever is funny about my writing has now been folded into a rather different style that I would be much happier to stay in. Incorporate it into a larger purpose than just making fun.

BH: You said in the book that satire is meant to change
things, do you think you might touch more people with this than anything else you’ve done before?

TH: I would think that’s how it is going to turn out. But it has only been a few weeks, so we’ll see [laughs].