Quarr Abbey, on the Isle of Wight
A few posts ago we were talking about the movie This is Spinal Tap and it reminded me of a post I'd been meaning to write for a long time, but that I was also reticent about taking on for certain reasons. Back in 2004, I was given a great holiday read called Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Life. It was written by Tony Hendra. You'd remember Tony Hendra in Spinal Tap as the guy who played the part of band manager Ian Faith. In addition to that acting role, Hendra is also known as the longtime editor of The National Lampoon (back in the days when it was funny) and other vehicles of sharp parody and satire such as Spy Magazine and a British television program called Splitting Images.
Tony Hendra is a somewhat controversial and complicated character, which is why I have a postscript... a caveat of sorts... at the end of this post.
The book itself is a wonderful read, and very inspirational, not so much for the biographical details of the ups-and-downs of Hendra's life, but for the beautiful description of his mentor and the man whom he gave credit to for saving his soul - a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey by the name of Dom Joseph Warrilow.
The story begins with Hendra describing his growing up and coming of age in a diffident Catholic household in Hertfordshire, England, in the mid 1950s. Young Tony is enamored of nature and at the age of 14, exploring the woods and glens near his home, he comes upon the trailer of Ben and Lily, a married couple that he has noticed before in his own parish. Upon getting acquainted, Ben, an intellectual, cerebral, and somewhat repressed and bloodless convert, learns that Tony has had no proper instruction and catechesis in the Catholic Faith. Ben takes it upon himself to provide this, and Tony starts spending a lot of time with Ben and Lily, under Ben's instruction.
Lily, however, who is feeling lonely and frustrated in her marriage, takes a shine to Tony and things start happening in an escalating fashion between them. Finally, Ben catches them together just barely before they would have been in flagrante delicto. Tony is afraid that Ben will attack him, but that is not the way Ben reacts to anything. Several days later, after insisting on praying a Rosary together, Ben addresses Tony:
"We're confronted with an unfortunate situation," said Ben... "You and I must resolve it." What did that mean? Fight a duel?
"We will have to bring the matter to a priest," he continued. I began to panic. Presenting Father Bleary with our unfortunate situation would not only do no good, it would lead inevitably to parental retribution.
"But not just any priest," Ben continued. There was a monastery he knew of, in the South of England, where dwelt a monk whom he and Lily had consulted on some prior marital matter. We-meaning he and I--would travel there as soon as possible. It happened to be the school Easter holidays, so we could leave in the next day or two. He would make the arrangements. He was willing to tell my parents the white lie that it was part of my instruction.
"This monk," pronounced Ben, looking at me directly for the first time, his cold, gray, alien eyes made colder and grayer and more alien by the permanently skewed lenses "will know how to handle the matter.” The heart of the matter, I thought. Ben's tamped-down hostility struck a chill into my gut. ' The matter was me.
Ben and Tony take the ferry across the cold and choppy sea to the Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight, Quarr Abbey. Tony is shown to a separate room, where he waits in dread and trepidation for the visit from the mysterious priest that Ben has told him of. All sorts of horrifying confessional scenarios are going through his head. Finally, there is a knock on the door, and the terrified Tony stands and advances to the door.
The sandals first. They were huge and stuck out from floppy, flapping black skirts at an angle of sixty degrees. They contained the flattest pair of feet imaginable. Thick black socks could not conceal their chronic knobbliness. Knobbly too: the big pink hands like rock lobsters sticking out from frayed black cuffs, the scrawny neck rising from its frayed black collar, the award-winning Adam's apple. A fleshy triangular nose sported granny glasses that must have predated the Great War. The crowning glory: gigantic ears, wings of gristle, at right angles to the rather pointy close-shaven skull. The long rubbery lips were stretched in the goofiest of grins. Father Joseph Warrilow was as close to a cartoon as you could get without being in two dimensions.
"Ben-my dear!" He came toward Ben, arms outstretched for the big hug, but Ben, no devotee of physical contact, converted it into a handshake. Holding on tight, the good monk hustled him toward the door. "Out we go," he grinned at an open-mouthed Ben, who began to protest as the door closed on him. "Tony and I want to be alone." He turned to me and gave me the hug instead. Then a smacky kiss on the cheek, as if we'd known each other for years.
"What terrible weather you brought with you, my dear." He gathered his skirts around his knees and plopped into the only armchair. "But it's always remarkably wet in Holy Week. Then on Easter Sunday, out comes the sun!" He had a hurried, eager, very English manner of speech, his rs always threatening to become vs.
I went to kneel beside the chair as I had with Father Bleary when he heard my confession in his lair. "No no no no," said Father Joseph Warrilow seventeen times. "Sit down next to me." He reached over for a little wooden stool at the table and pulled it to him, patting the seat.
I sat down. Without looking at me he took my hand in his-big, surprisingly soft-and held it on the arm of the chair. His long mobile lips pursed and unpursed several times; he blinked rapidly until finally his eyes closed. Evidently it was his way of concentrating his energies. His hand relaxed slightly over mine and I began to feel its warmth. The intimacy took me aback, but I was drawn in by something stronger. There was a stillness in the room, the same stillness I'd noticed earlier when we'd arrived, this time without any apprehension. A calm suffused me, a physical sensation running through my body like a hot drink on a cold night. For the first time in a week, all my fears melted away.
"Now, dear," he said, eyes still closed, "tell me everything."
An editorial comment of mine at this juncture... In his review of the book, Andrew Sullivan acknowledges how these passages might make people uneasy today in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal, but Sullivan points out how a different dynamic is at work here:
A Catholic reading this description today -- perhaps anyone reading this today -- is struck, sadly, by the intimacy, an intimacy some priests have terribly betrayed by sexual abuse. But here we see the real beauty of such intimacy in a spiritual context; and I have rarely read anyone since Gerard Manley Hopkins who understands the Catholic sacramentalism of the physical world as deeply as Hendra. For Catholics, God is everywhere in nature, and Hendra revels in the tangibility of faith.
So I did. I told him how Lily and I had met, how it had started, where it had started, the things she said to me, the things I said to her, the kissing, the existential silences, our deception of Ben, the dinginess of the trailer, Gallic versus Teutonic, the religious indoctrination, the parallels with Graham Greene, everything I could think of. His lips continued to work, pursing and unpursing; occasionally there was a flurry of blinking, but his eyes stayed closed as he listened without comment or prompt, concentrating on every aspect of what I had to say, as if he were meditating as I spoke, murmuring "yes yes yes" from time to time, his whole knobbly, lopsided body focused on my story. When I came to the parts that had made me privately laugh or had seemed absurd, he smiled and nodded but didn't laugh. The only time he frowned was when I threw in a self castigating "mea culpa," as if this was an irrelevant intrusion into the narrative.
Inevitably we came to the part I dreaded, the breaking point, the unhappy ending…To my complete surprise, this didn't seem to merit a different response from anything else I'd said. His lips went on working, his eyes, as always, closed. They didn't purse and unpurse at any greater tempo or blink any more rapidly. None of it seemed to warrant any of the shock or horror I had anticipated.
And so my tale was done.
A beat of silence, his busy face at rest. "Poor Lily," he murmured. It drifted across my mind, as he sat there saying nothing further, that this had been a cue; he'd gotten me to open up, now wham - punishment! The door swinging open, younger, tougher monks pulling me to my feet ... Even as the fatuous thought passed into the limbo of fatuous thoughts, I knew 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 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.
He hadn't questioned a thing I'd said; he hadn't asked me to repeat or clarify, or was I sure that so-and-so had happened or that I hadn't left something important out? He seemed to assume that I was telling the truth-which I'd tried to the limit of my ability to do - or he knew by instinct that my account could be trusted. That alone was remarkable: no authority figure had ever failed to question me, directly or indirectly, about any account I'd ever given of anything. Adolescent life is governed by cross-examination.
When he finally spoke, his words were slow and stilted, his face beginning to work again, as if he were trying to puzzle out what was being said by someone speaking to him through a spiritual earpiece.
"You've done nothing truly wrong, Tony dear. 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."
The soft, hesitant emphasis on the word made it quite clear he regarded this as a far more serious crime than the one that was officially on the charge sheet.
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.
"You won't see her for a while, will you dear? Not alone, anyway. It wouldn't be fair to her."
I nodded, swept by waves of relief, then by a new consternation, that I'd never once considered the pain of a hungry, trapped, unhappy woman. Yes, selfishness. Lily came into sharp focus; 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, a prop for my young posturings on the stage of adulthood. For the first time, I felt toward her something like love, or at least the gentleness I owed her. How had he done that?
He murmured the words of absolution and made a tiny cross on my forehead with a big long thumb.
"No penance. I think you've already done a good deal of penance, haven't you?" He shot me a little grin, sidelong and conspiratorial. And how did he know that?
He got up awkwardly and a fuss of departure began, words tumbling out of him in his funny rushing prattle. I didn't want him to go. I'd never felt so safe and secure with anyone in my life. I wanted to tell him everything that had ever happened in my few years. There were a million things I wanted to ask him. No, two million. He'd been with me only five or ten minutes, for Heaven's sake. (I realized later that it had been nearly three quarters of an hour.)
"Can't you stay a bit, Father?"
He chortled. "I'd love to, my dear; I'm a night owl-if they'd let me, I'd talk all night. But these old bones must be up at the crack of dawn for Vigils. Now don't you try and come like these others, silly things--it's much too early for sensible people. We'll see each other again and talk and talk. God bless you, my dear."
Again the hug, again the swirl of skirts, again the super-sandals squeaking away down the linoleum.
Then silence. And peace.
From this point on the relationship between Tony and Ben & Lily is over, but it is just begining between Tony and Fr. Dom Joseph Warrilow ("Father Joe"). Completely put at ease by the wisdom and the uncritical and unconditional love put forth by Father Joe, Tony starts visiting Quarr Abbey on a regular basis, and becomes somewhat of a "little monk" himself, learning under Father Joe's tutelage while also diving into spiritual classics like the writings of Dame Julian, Thomas à Kempis, and Meister Eckhart. Finally, after undergoing what he terms his own "Dark Night of the Soul", he announces his firm intention of entering Quarr Abbey as a postulant after he finishes school. While he is extremely fond of Tony, Father Joe has his doubts about Tony's suitability to be a monk, but even he seems to come on board eventually as Tony comes close to finishing up at St. Alban's School. Tony's father, however, will have none of it, and is determined to see Tony attend Cambridge University when he gets the chance to do so (based upon superior grades), and that is what Tony does.
At Cambridge... the vocation goes right out the window. Religion falls before political consciousness and the excesses of the Baby Boom generation. It's the 1960s, and Tony discovers at university the nucleus of what later will become the Monty Python troupe and the power of humor and political satire. Tony decides that his mission in life is not going to be a life of saving the world through prayer in an abbey, but in saving the world through laughter. Thus begins his career as a professional parodist and political satirist, which takes him to eventually to the US, Hollywood, and beyond.
Still, Tony never loses touch with Father Joe, attempting to visit him at least once a year at Quarr.
Not only has Tony gone on to embrace New York and Hollywood and their attending celebrity circles, but he has also embraced a dissolute and debauched lifestyle that often goes along with those circles. Father Joe is never harsh and is never judgmental. I do have to say at this point that there were times when I was reading this when I thought that Father Joe needed to show him a little bit more "tough love." There were times when I think Tony needed a kick in the ass, but it occurs to me that maybe Father Joe had his own gentle way of kicking him in the ass. Here, on one of his visits, Tony tries to explain to him just what he does for a living when he's put on the spot...
"You've never told me much about satire. How does it work?"
"Good question. First of all, it's cruel and unfair. It hurts people and it's supposed to. You take on the coloring of your target's thoughts and beliefs and exaggerate them mercilessly. But you can't just do it arbitrarily, without knowing them. You have to be inside his skin. Or, in the case of Maggie Thatcher, her hide."
"Good heavens. It sounds horrible."
"It's not a pretty business."
He walked thoughtfully for a dozen paces. Much twitching of lips and eyebrows. Setting lobes aflutter.
"Tony dear, by `inside' Mrs. Thatcher's, er, `hide,' do you mean that you're thinking the way she does?"
"Part of you is, yes."
"And that would be the unpleasant or unkind side of her. The side you want to criticize with your satire?"
"So that would mean that you have an unpleasant or unkind side too?"
"Well, er ... no, not necessarily."
How had we got here so fast? I was supposed to be the expert.
"It's a question of mimesis," I explained. "You're just mimicking her cruelty or hypocrisy or whatever. It's like a kid walking behind an old man, copying his limp."
"You don't mean that satire is childish, of course."
"Nope. It's serious grown-up business. I think of it as a branch of journalism. The inspired lie that's closer to the truth than any number of carefully researched facts."
"I'm sorry, dear-did you say satire was a lie?"
"Only in the sense that all art is fabrication."
He walked for some distance, head down, concern in his busy brows, thinking this over. The silence between us grew so long that I was on the brink of saying something, when he stopped.
"You don't think, dear, that if you do a great deal of, er, mimicking cruel or hypocritical people, it won't have a bad effect on you eventually?"
"Satirists do have away of turning into what they satirize. But it's a risk I'm willing to take-if you can bring the bastards down."
"Does satire often `bring the bastards down'?"
Over the years, Tony finds his life and his career spinning a bit out of his control. He's failed at two marriages, has neglected his children, and his magazine ventures and television programs have not been long-term success stories. He has treated neither friends nor enemies particularly well either. Seeking solace, Quarr once again becomes an important touchpoint for him, and the visits back there do a great deal to sustain him.
He notices, though, that Quarr is changing, and like many prodigal sons, he has a traditionalist heart that chafes at change. Distressed by the dropoff in vocations and the replacement of the sonorous Latin chants with banal and ill-suited English, he voices his frustations about the Vatican II reformers of his own generation to Father Joe. I found Father Joe's response to be interesting.
In the days that followed, I read as much as I could about what had happened to my Church while I'd been away. It was pretty bad. The mighty chain of events and people stretching back over almost two thousand years, which even a pimply teenager like me had once thrilled to, had been not just shattered but thrown on the garbage heap. As if only certain links in it mattered-the Church's official lapses and sins-not the hundreds of millions of other links: kind and generous people, clergy and laity, hard-striving souls full of faith and good works and humor-and of failure and frustration and sin and tribulation. These had been the Church also-for two thousand years. But they appeared to be without merit for our doughty reformers, nothing but a millennium-long death dance of superstition and gullibility.
As far as I could tell, the reformers who had taken charge after Vatican II-mostly my contemporaries or slightly older-had indulged enthusiastically in one of our generation's most deadly flaws, nurtured, no doubt, by growing up in the rubble of World War II - a willful lack of any sense of history.
I'd been doing no reforming, but I was not without blame. Like my contemporaries, I'd for years bought into an attitude that went well beyond Henry Ford's reprehensible "history is bunk." In our version, history was far worse than bunk: it was suspect, the enemy, invariably evil, a repository of constant failure and deadly delusions and appalling role models. History was when all the mistakes were made, all the atrocities committed, that time before we knew better. History was before we were born again to the One True Faith: only change, with its benison of the new and the now, can lead to salvation.
There was an object lesson here that went beyond the chaotic state of the Church. To reject any vast group of one's cultural ancestors in the cause of some current theory is not just arrogance; it's posthumous mass murder. It's the same kind of thinking that makes genocide possible. The masses (albeit the dead masses) and the pathetic little lives they lived are irrelevant compared to this greater purpose we have at hand. Write them out of the record. They never existed.
One very concrete result of these "reforms" could be seen in the choir stalls of the Quarr Abbey church. If you brought the next generation up to despise history, especially the history of their own Church, pretty soon you'd have only one third the monks, the old farts or young kooks who liked singing unhummable thousand-year old chants and following an unempowering, self-negating fifteen hundred-year-old Rule.
Quarr was not changing. It was being changed. Why? What on earth had been wrong with it? A more serious question: if it was shrinking at this rate, could it survive?
I mentioned my misgivings to Father Joe. He was less concerned about what looked to me like wreckage.
"People are always changing themselves and their world, dear. Very few of the changes are new. We rather confuse change and newness, I think. What is truly new never changes."
"You speak in riddles, aged progenitor."
"The world worships a certain kind of newness. People are always talking about a new car, or a new drink or p-p-play or house, but these things are not truly new, are they? They begin to get old the minute you acquire them. New is not in things. New is within us. The truly new is something that is new forever: you. Every morning of your life and every evening, every moment is new. You have never lived this moment before and you never will again. In this sense the new is also the eternal."
Unless change generated newness of this sort, he went on, it was pointless change, undertaken simply for the sake of change. That did not mean that every so often it wasn't necessary to clear away bad habits, deadwood, and outdated customs, to adapt to new information. That was necessary to return the Church to its essentials.
That in turn did not mean fundamentalism, the recurrent urge of all reformers to sweep away everything and return to the way it had been "in the beginning"-in the Vatican II reformers' case, "the early Church." Wisdom and genius and sanctity undreamed of by the early Church had been acquired along the way since then. It had to be preserved too.
Ultimately, Tony assesses the increasing trail of wreckage in his life and comes to terms with the fact that although he wanted to change the world though laughter, he had to face the fact that he himself just wasn't very funny.
In the wake of two failed marriages and a career that was no longer satisfying, he makes a decision. He is going to become a postulant at Quarr after all. He goes to Quarr to tell father Joe the news...
I turned the rounded old shoulders toward me. He was quite a bit shorter than I now, squinting up at me, a twitching smile on his lips, relishing my air of mystery, the surprise I had planned for him.
"Dear Father Joe, I've thought about this long and hard. It's why I'm here and why I'm being led back to faith and, well, there are a hundred reasons we can go into later ...
"I'm twenty-six years late, dear Father Joe, but I've never been known for punctuality. I wish to present myself once more as a postulant to the community of Quarr Abbey. This time, I'm ready."
Over the last week I had seen it in my mind's eye a hundred times: the old face turning in surprise, creasing bright with joy after all these years. After so much sin and apostasy, the lost sheep is found. The prodigal returns. The father embraces his long-lost son and gives thanks to the Lord, and there is great rejoicing in that house ...
What I actually saw was an old man suddenly look very weary. He sank down on a huge newly cut oak stump and patted the stump. I sat down beside him.
"Dear Tony. We've known one another so long. You have been such a joy in my life."
Every crease of his face radiated tenderness. For once it was at rest, rapt, serious. His sharp old eyes searched mine. He was silent for a while.
"You know, dear..." He paused a long moment and sighed. ". . . almost from the first moment I set eyes on you, I knew you would never make a monk."
Never in my life had a few little words hit me with such force. I had to gasp for breath.
"Often I resisted this knowledge. I would think perhaps I'm wrong. You never know. One must be humble. And you were so dedicated, even after your terrible vision of Hell, so certain of your vocation ... I was confused."
Father Joe was gazing at the ground, hands clasped as if he were in Confession and searching his conscience.
"Sometimes I tried to push you away. Sometimes through my selfishness I encouraged you to persevere. Because I love you, dear, and always have, and wanted you very much to become a monk here. That's why I kept you in the guesthouse all those weeks, Tony dear. I could not bring myself to present you as a postulant. Although I wanted to-oh yes. That was what I wanted, you see. That was not what God wanted."
I wasn't listening. His self-examination had given me a moment to regroup.
"Father Joe-wait! Is this because of my marriage? My marriage is-"
"No, there is no canonical barrier to your entering Quarr. The Church recognizes neither of your marriages."
"So then surely it's not your decision. It's mine!"
His eyes had moistened. I realized that I'd never seen this profoundly emotional man with tears in his eyes.
"The evening your father called for you to go to Cambridge, Tony ... well, God seemed hard that
night. But it was for the best. I knew then that we would not see you after university.. ."
"I should have come back! That's where I went wrong!"
"If you had come back to us, dear, sooner or later, you would have exploded..." A smile creased the old mouth. ". . . causing considerable d-d-damage to b -b -bystanders.
"Father Joe, that person was immature, confused, deluded, unreliable, faithless! I've made a new beginning.. ."
"I know, dear. And it will grow and mature and blossom. But not here."
"You're wrong this time! You were right long ago about being wrong. This has been part of me forever. It's why my marriages didn't work. Why I destroyed the lives of those around me. Even at my least spiritual times, it was still there, a hard little spur of truth. I belong here. Quarr is my home!"
These words seemed to strike deep. He looked totally exhausted. He shook his head imperceptibly.
"That little spur is not a monastic vocation, dear. It's your refusal to accept your true vocation."
"Which is what?"
"You're a husband and a father, Tony. I could see that long ago. The way you thought of Lily and treated her, even as a boy, gently and generously. A husband and father is what God has always wanted you to be. It's a vocation as sacred as ours."
"I've failed utterly at both those things. Father Joe. Not once. Twice!"
"Yes, you fought God. One could even say that the first time, you w-w-won. But boundless love, Tony dear, is giving you a second chance."
"Father Joe, dear Father Joe! Please! Don't do this!"
In reply he took my face in his old hands and, as he had in the first moment I ever saw him, gave me the kiss of peace….
I slunk back to New York, chastened and, as ever after a visit to Quarr, with far more to contemplate than I'd reckoned on. The bedrock of my great idea had been that my whole life had been tending toward Quarr. That Father Joe had been gently leading me back, first to faith, then to my true destination, the cloister. That my monastic vocation had always chafed against the bonds of my marriages, destroying them both.
Alas, something else made just as much sense: it was my delusion of a monastic vocation that had chafed against the bonds of marriage, destroying the first and almost destroying the second. Even at my most apostate, I had kept in the back pocket of my soul the idea that I could leave any situation, opt out of any problem. I had a secret escape route: Quarr. Tony the Monk, my alter ego, had been making excuses for, and rationalizing, my selfishness for thirty years.
Because Tony the Monk had a higher mission, he didn't have to obey the norms by which ordinary, worldly, little people lived. Tony the Monk had savaged people in writing and in person, careless of the damage, regardless of the consequences-even to himself- - because he had contemptus mundi, detachment from the world. And less lofty-because he could always flee to his sanctuary to escape retribution. Tony the Monk was so far above the flimsy moral system of other mortals that he was allowed to commit transgressions with impunity-to treat others, his wives or his children or friends or enemies-with utter contempt and lack of humanity. He was entitled to because his heart was pure.
The "something else" that had always lain beside the love Carla and I had together, plotting its murder, that we had never been able to get rid of, our unwanted partner, our Iago, our Unholy spirit, had been, all along ... me.
The book received great critical acclaim, and it does seem like Hendra got his life back in order and has been able to come to terms with his past and with his future.
About a year after the book's release, however, Hendra's daughter Jessica wrote a book called How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir. In that book, she accused her father of sexually abusing her, and expressed her anger that he had not revealed this point in a book in which he had claimed to have gotten a lot of things off of his chest, acknowledged his faults, and had his soul saved. Tony Hendra denies the charge. It's not up to me to say what is true or not true. I do find it troubling. Although "ambush" books are sometimes written by the children of celebrities, I see no reason for his daughter to write such a book unless there was some truth to the charges, but ultimately, in my view, it has no bearing on the real hero of Hendra's book, who is not Tony Hendra himself (as he would most readily admit), but Fr. Dom Joseph Warrilow.