Monday, May 15, 2006

Concerning the Soul of Tony Hendra and Fr. Joe Who Saved It

Aristotle taught that the perfect mathematical figure is the circle since it ends where it began. And someone said that psychoanalysis is the art of missing the obvious. I, as a hoary, arthritic priest/psychologist, had both thoughts upon finishing the brilliantly written and, at times, frighteningly sad book Father Joe by the British writer, Tony Hendra. After wading through the dazzling list of justified and laudatory blurbs, my interest was whetted, not so much to experience Mr. Hendra’s formidable writing skills, as to experience his soul or his personhood. I was not disappointed. It was most rewarding particularly for me, an 85 year old priest who has been practicing psychotherapy for 40 years.

With the touching innocence of the “black or white” teenage personality, Tony swung, at different life stages, from one singular certainty to another. At one time he is certain that a torrid, secretive sexual liaison with a married woman is the apex of life. Later, at another time, he is certain that he truly is called to be a (celibate) Contemplative Benedictine Monk. At one point he extols the beauty and freedom of chastity, at another he strains for a couple more supererogated orgasms. From a superficial Faith life he leaps, almost in an instant, to a Halleluiah level: “What had been baffling claptrap all my life suddenly became more than a proposition—it became true and real. I felt a welling overflowing excitement in the perception that God existed and therefore so did I.” (p.73) Was this the powerful and loving grace of the Gracious God or was it a function of a developing young personality or both?

Still, later as an adult, with a kind of cascading “blinders over the eyes” personality, he is certain that his call is to save the world from itself by a slashing, stinging, sometimes even savage life view he called “satire.” He becomes certain that he must destroy every sacred cow in sight, puncture every pompous balloon and eviscerate every strutting hypocrite on the horizon. Utterly nothing is to be exempt. This glorious mission is to happen through the great medium of laughter, with no holds barred and sensitivity ignored. But it will happen only within a kind of inner-crowd bubble.

It will not be the laughter of the Sam Levenson, Myron Cohen, Fred Allen, Jack Benny genre which gave millions the gift which C.S. Lewis called the “belly laugh". It isn’t even the laughter of one of my heroes, S.J. Perlman, whose book “Westward Ha” (with hilarious sketches by Al Herschfeld) became my laughing companion on a long, boring trip on a freighter to Capetown—to my first Missionary assignment. It isn’t the hilarity of Peter Sellers or the comedic genius of Sid Casear or Groucho and his loopy company. Why not? Because it destroys and has a tinge of “hate” in it. I cannot find it funny. While Fr. Joe taught (p.117) that “love alone can conquer hate”, Tony once said: “I hate Love.”

It isn’t the laughter of my vaudevillian parents, my Jewish father, joking, kidding, teasing or my Irish mother who laughed till it almost hurt. While, sometimes superficial, they were mostly sheer enjoyment. Never were they malicious or hurtful. Is there a substantive difference between laughter “at” someone and laughter “with” someone? When eyes don’t laugh anymore and humor becomes constricted, forced and ultimately bitter or pitiless, when the humorist gets hard-hearted and uncompassionate, when traces of sadism surface, we have gone too far. Or is it something like the kids writing dirty words on public bathroom walls? Is teenage blasphemy a way of thumbing one’s nose at parental figures (even if one is a 30 year old teen)? Is it latently about unresolved authority problems thrust deep into one’s unconscious life?

Is it psychology which has taught me that I get like what I “pay attention to”? Or was it my Irish grandmother, educated only to the third grade, who taught me “Never make fun of what is sacred to someone else”? Pre-articulation and intuition seem to shriek out to me some kind of cautionary signal! It is too complex for a facile explanation; nevertheless, it is comforting to remember my old buddy, Freud, and his “things are rarely only what they seem.”

Yet how frightened and sad Tony must have been at one stage: “I was one of the craziest, unhappiest, most vindictive, least trustworthy people I knew. Yikes…” (p. 197) But the marvelous Monk, Father Joe, with the “vast ears” and the “knobbly knees”, came to the rescue. He asks Tony (p. 187) about satire and the ideal of straightening out the wayward world: “Does satire often ‘bring the bastards down’?” And Tony responds: “Alas, no.” It is a puzzlement. How could it happen that a nice, smart Brit kid with a definite (if underdeveloped) attrait to God, with a mystical appreciation of the Eucharist (even through the dirty finger nails of Fr. Bleary) could be so misled? So seduced by false gods? Was it some evil spirit which masked the “the un-good” with the face of laughter?

Where was I, the priest-shrink living in New York, when this good natured, ambiguous Catholic was flailing around, being pursued a la Francis Thompson by the Hound of Heaven? “I needed something that I could get nowhere else (Fr. Joe), least of all in New York. A Confessor. A shrink who knew right from wrong: one who would talk while I listened.” (p. 185) I was, in God’s Providence, doing the spiritual walk with those to whom I was called. This unique Father Joe, no one else, was tailored for this unique Tony Hendra. It was this unique Father Joe who needs a Polish joke explained, who likes a glass of red wine and who is fascinated by blondes, intelligent or otherwise--- this is the one who is tapped by the loving Lord as the catalyst for the salvation of a special soul.

It was Father Joe who encouraged Tony to read Meister Eckhart where he found that real laughter is linked to God.

“When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten. When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love and that love is the Holy Spirit.”

There is something very arresting in Father Joe’s style, as a Spiritual Director. He combines “…not taking one’s self too seriously” with treating the “other with gentleness and respect”. His skill in the “Care of Souls” is fascinating to me. With my own clinical background I sense at least a quasi Rogerian Counseling dimension in his priestly ministrations. I didn’t “hear” scolding or lecturing or terrifying or moral frowning. I note his positive language, e.g. “Be unselfish” rather than “Don’t be selfish.” It strikes me that there is a significant difference here in the tonality. On the contrary, I sensed a deep belief in the goodness of the human being and an enormous trust in the gracious Lord Who loves all with an implacable love beyond understanding. There was, it seemed to me, a belief that, in God’s good time, Tony would rise to the Call of Grace. It reminds me of the thinking of my old swimming partner, Dr. Tony Schwarz, who, as the expert in understanding sound, taught the Invisible Chord theory.

This Tony believed that all one has to do is find the existent frequency within the soul of the “other”, play to that chord and the correct music, peace or energy or joy or commitment, will emerge. Father Joe, perhaps intuitively or possibly with a special grace of understanding, played this Invisible Chord on young Tony and on all he met. Actually, the Divine Conductor, I believe, was behind it all.

The young Tony’s observational skills were astounding. His delicious description (p.51) of the Monk Groupies was hilarious and a remarkable “bull’s eye.” These unattractive old “Gollum-like” types are all over the Catholic world with their superficial, poorly understood theology and their insatiable appetite for daily gossip. Ever more delightful to them would be public scandal within the Church. What a picnic they might have with the thieving Monsignor and the ephebophilic priest!!!!!

The older Tony arrives at another remarkable and profound truth. Listening. One page 181 he notes: “…..listen at every level; to the words, the emotions, the intent of the other… completely open…bring nothing preconceived or prepared to the moment. Listen and then speak only to what you’ve heard.”

“The only way to know God is to listen------listening is the reaching out into that unknown other self……..the first exercise in love.” And Tony writes this in the Big Apple which he calls “a city of non-listeners.” And it does seem that God is always saying: “Be still. Be still.”

It is patently clear that Father Joe was a real listener whose two “vast” ears were not his only mode of hearing. He owned what the shrinks call the “Third ear.” He obviously had deep affection for Tony who becomes, in effect, his son. Their relationship became a deep and loving one whereby whatever deficits Tony’s natural father had, were healed. It speaks volumes (p.133) when Tony describes his anemic familial relationship: “I wasn’t used to being held against his tubby body--- smelling of the day old aftershave on his jowls.” It is surprising that Tony was not more damaged, psychologically.

I have never met Tony, except through this book but I like him. Fr. Joe who knew him exceedingly well, loved him. Clearly before God, he must be lovable. ‘nuff said!!!

As to Aristotelian metaphor: Tony began with inchoate Faith, sincere and true. He winds up in the same Faith place, but deeper and truer.

As to psychoanalysis and missing the obvious: Tony’s quasi obsession with noses…. How did he miss the treasure under his own? In that inchoate Faith there were tons of peace and joy, authentic excitement and laughter, meaning and God. The Kingdom of the Lord is within. I rejoice that now he knows the real score.

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