Is this the book that you thought you'd end up with?
Not at all. When I came to see Joe the last time, the book I was planning was just recorded dialogue, two men talking. After he died, that obviously became impossible, but I discovered that Joe had had quite a little ministry going. I thought it would be a non-self seeking way to celebrate Joe to get lots of other impressions of him. The abbey was reluctant to cooperate with that, understandably, because it meant invading people's privacy.
So I became very frustrated. I desperately wanted to write about Joe,because of the void that he'd sort of left in my universe. But I was not really equipped to do it. Whenever I tried, it would come out sort of hideous mush. The only muscles I had were comedic ones, you know--ridicule and diminishing and so forth. Not exactly a way to celebrate a saint or someone who looked like a saint.
As it happened, I had been asked by a storytelling group here in Manhattan called "The Moth" to tell a story. I decided I would tell the story of my relationship with Joe in capsule form. It was terrifying, but the audience loved it. They laughed, but what was truly extraordinary was they wept. I realized that all I had to do was to tell the story of this relationship and however it came out, funny or sad or both or neither, it didn't matter.
You're the perfect foil for Joe. On the one hand you're a sinner, but even as a child you already seem to be not of the world, always roaming the countryside. Did that innate spirituality lead you to stumble upon the trailer where you end up having the affair?
I was very happy to live a kind of proto-hermitic life in the countryside. I was never scared by it. I never missed other people's company. There was this fascination with discovering bird's eggs and seeing things like that for the first time. There was something sort of miraculous about it. I didn't recognize it as spiritual. I didn't even recognize it as antithetical to the lack of affect that I got from organized religion. But I suppose looking back on it, it was a little piece of what attracted me to Joe.
Where did that come from? Is being not of the world a response to a lack of belonging, say, with your own father?
If it was, I wasn't alone. A lot of the problems my generation had with authority possibly came from the fact that our fathers were not there for the formative years of our young lives. They were off fighting war. But he himself was a quiet and hermitic type, and his vocation was a very odd one. I was the son of a stained glass artist and it made me odd by reflection.
So Joe becomes the father you never had.
Yeah. I don't really get into that as much as I would have liked. Joe had fatherly qualities which were sort of extra-clerical. He was gentle, he was never angry, he was non-judgmental, he didn't cross examine me. He didn't do any of the things my father did and above all, he was consistent, about his beliefs and his actions formed from his beliefs, which my dad wasn't. My dad was treacherous that way, as many dads are, and, speaking as a dad, I am.
Absolutely not. I recognized that as soon as I became a father myself. But to a young teenager, this looked like an ideal father and once my own father died, Joe became in every way, negative and positive, my father figure.
You write about the discrimination against Catholics you saw growing up, but at the same time Catholicism in 1950s Britain was also on the rise, with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Can you explain that sort of schizophrenia?
In part, I suppose it's not unlike being Jewish in an anti-Semitic society. It was a defense mechanism, being really good at what you choose to do. The Jesuits in late '50s in England were fantastic, I mean really, really smart people who would argue the Church's case forcefully and brilliantly whenever they got the chance. Waugh was regarded as part of that. He was a feather in our cap, as Greene was.
You describe this galvanizing moment when you first saw Beyond the Fringe, and realized comedy was where you belonged. Were you conscious of leaving Father Joe and the monastery behind then?
No. In the moment I was first exposed to that intensity of laughter and intensity of reverence, I didn't know I was having a moment on the road to Damascus, quite. But very soon afterwards I realized that it had been, and it was. It was a life-changing moment.
But you don't leave behind your alter ego, Tony the Monk. Your new life as a satirist is driven by the same contempt for the world, or detachment, only it's the artist's detachment.
Absolutely, though I didn't know that. It took Joe to point that out the very simple insight that a satirist and a monk have a lot in common. He once told me, "You know dear, I'm a reverend and you're an irreverend."
That's why this man was so extraordinary. His sort of manner was trying to include you in what you feared you had lost. Rather, he would comfort you that you hadn't lost as much as you feared you had.
And yet his conversations about what you did eventually changed how you thought about satire.
Ultimately he illumined that I had always been thinking . aggressively if you like. I saw the effect I was having on the world, with no real thought to what effect it had on me. Once again, it took him to just ask those simple questions--which I'm sure he asked of others in very different fields, in different ways--to bring me back really to what was just a more sophisticated, grown-up form of examination of conscious.
You're back to church now.
Do you go every day?
Oh, no, I don't go every day. My wife and I, have found a parish we like in Manhattan with a very dynamic pastor. It's largely Hispanic, and then there's the troublemakers from the Upper West Side like me and some Columbia students. It's an interesting parish. And we're bringing our children up with religious instruction. They've all done their First Communion, and two have been Confirmed.
Yeah, very much so. The last time I went to a Mass that had a substantial amount of Latin in it was an Episcopal baptism, in Los Angeles of all places--on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. They're doing the Roman mass.and what are we doing?
This is not an uncommon reaction among "returning Catholics." I think in some quarters it's quite resented-"You went off and had a good time for 30 years, and now you come back and tell us how to run the church." I don't want to be that kind of person. On the other hand, while discarding useless tradition was very much a part of Vatican II, and a good one, another part of it was democratizing the church. This intelligent, well-educated laity were being told what to do by an often not very intelligent, not very educated hierarchy. But that democratization, as far as I can see, hasn't taken place in the least. Whereas tradition has been dumped wholesale, good and bad, we've got a hierarchy with the same quasi-feudal grip on authority that it's always had.
Do you believe in the Resurrection?
What a question! If I had any sense I'd sidestep this in a second. As I said in the book, it's the big one. It's the claim that trumps all other claims, so from a purely strategic point of view, it has to be considered. You can't avoid it. The other stuff you can sort of fudge on a bit, but not this. I would say I have never understood even at the height of my conversion as a kid, if you'd call it that. I never understood what resurrection of the body meant. There was going to be resurrection of the dead, but where were they before that?
What would Father Joe say?
I can't remember discussing that. But with evidence of the divine-in-human that Father Joe represented at certain moments, the possibility of the resurrection, the actual physical resurrection of Jesus, didn't seem nearly so outlandish as it did before I met him. I'm not sure what I think now that he's dead. I think that shook my faith more than anything.
He was kind of the proof of it all. In some way, this book has helped me reestablish the connection to some degree. But when he died, I felt like the entire bottom had dropped out again and I didn't believe anything. It didn't stop me practicing, but none of this stuff made any sense for a while. Writing this book was in itself an act of resurrection. And in doing putting together all my memories of him and the ways in which he impacted me, he does live again.