Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
Author: Tony Hendra
Publisher: Random House, 2004
Page Count: 271 pages
By Mark Ralls
(UMCom) -- Some friendships are so unlikely, they might be called miraculous. Such is the case with Tony Hendra and Father Joseph Warrilow. One is a cosmopolitan world-traveler known for bucking the establishment and celebrating all things related to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. He is a writer infamous for his rapier wit and searing satire. The other is a Benedictine monk, gentle and wise. He is an unassuming man of prayer who spends most of his life tucked away in a monastery on England’s southern coast. Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul is Hendra’s beautiful tribute to the redemptive power of one man’s enduring presence in his life.
The two first meet when Tony is a confused teenager. He is caught groping a married woman and is sent to the monastery for spiritual guidance. Expecting harsh judgment from his mysterious confessor, Tony instead encounters warmth and grace. “You’ve done nothing truly wrong dear,” the old monk assures him. “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.”
For the next forty years, a familiar pattern emerges. Tony returns to the old monk, whom he calls “my still center,” whenever he messes up, hurting himself and those he loves in the most creative of ways. Each time, Father Joe is waiting for him, ready to stutter a few precious words of grace. Through the years, his advice is remarkably consistent. Much of what we call sin boils down to selfishness, he says, and the solution is simple – love, not just extended to others, but bestowed on us by God, too. Tony returns to the monastery near the end of the book. He is approaching old age himself. Looking back on his life, he is overcome by the years he wasted and the love he withheld. “Tony dear,” Father Joe gently chides him, “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.”
There are moments when Hendra seems to lose focus, allowing his narrative to stray from his friendship with Father Joe. As he recounts professional triumphs and failures while taking the occasional shot at old rivals, Father Joe at times reads more like a celebrity autobiography than a spiritual memoir. Yet, when Hendra finds his way back to the central storyline his beautiful prose more than makes up for these digressions.
Ultimately, Father Joe is more than the story of two unlikely friends. It is a testament to the stubbornness of love, to the tenacity of grace and to the surprising power of gentleness. Speaking of the latter, Hendra writes, “Gentleness bubbled out from the funny figure in the scruffy black robes like clear water from a 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.” With such wonderfully descriptive language, Hendra allows his readers not just to observe their friendship, but to experience it. In the process, we are reminded not only of our own spiritual struggles, but also of those in our lives who have been carriers of God’s love and grace. This is what gives this remarkable book its spiritual depth. It allows Hendra to convey deep sentiment without becoming sentimental. And, it allows us, his readers, to look into Father Joe’s unforgettable face – with its “triangular nose … gigantic ears, wings of gristle…. long rubbery lips … stretched in the goofiest of grins” – and find ourselves face-to-face with the goodness of God.
It is rare for a spiritual memoir to become a popular success. Yet against the odds, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul found its way to the top of the New York Times Best-sellers List. Hendra certainly deserves this unexpected honor. His beautiful tribute has exposed our hunger for books that inspire us, not with canned “spiritual wisdom” but through the honest pursuit of something to believe in.
Mark Ralls is pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church in Brevard, N.C.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Meethodist Church.