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Laughter--the best medicine.

Not from the simple and direct title of this book, but because of the times in which we live, I'm afraid people will think it is a story about a pedophile priest. It is not, perhaps to the disappointment of some.

Instead, Father Joe (Random House) centers on the powerful, continuing spiritual presence of a humble, engaging priest in the life of an intensely creative, often wayward, and always questioning person. That person, Tony Hendra, an original editor of National Lampoon, actor, satirist, and journalist, now adds spiritual autobiographer to an already impressive list of credentials.

Tony first meets this Benedictine priest on the Isle of Man at Quarr Abbey. He is unwillingly hauled there as an adolescent by the husband of a woman with whom Tony was more than flirting. Expecting the worst, Tony encounters the best. Father Joe's unique style of ministry eschews anything remotely connected to the wrath of God in favor of divine love.

"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." So begins a unique spiritual relationship between this faithful priest and this fascinating penitent.

Like many Benedictine abbeys, Quart is a romantic and remote place embracing the ideals and idiosyncracies of monastic living. Tony is intrigued not only by Father Joe but also by this isle's natural environment and by the monks' chanting of the Divine Office.

Tony spends his college years preparing for entry into Quarr Abbey as a monk, although his enchantment for abbey life eventually wears thin with a little help from Father Joe, who knows Tony is not monk material. But the spiritual relationship is just beginning.

Through the ensuing years, Father Joe, a true believer in the abiding presence of the divine, focuses some of his conversations with Tony on laughter, humor, and satire. This wise Benedictine quotes Meister Eckhart: "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."

Father Joe never tries to tether Tony with a short leash. Tony wanders through various jobs, marriages, countries, and addictions. Yet the golden thread of laughter and love spun by Father Joe continues to connect Tony to the divine.

Laughter, humor, and satire are hard to find on the religious landscape these days. Might laughter be the next thing banned from church? Might humor be ruled sacrilegious?

This is a serious problem.

But as long as the spirit of this Benedictine monk and others like him continue to live, move, and have their existence in various precincts of church life, this problem is solvable.

The book's subtitle, "The Man Who Saved My Soul" obviously applies to the author, and, quite possibly, to today's church. Enjoy reading Father Joe.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:Odds & Ends; "Father Joe"
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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