Frank Sheed & Maisie Ward
By temperament and intellect, religion as such strikes me as a desperate attempt on the part of mankind to bore itself to death in expiation of some forgotten excitement.
[As the above quote probably makes clear, Wilfrid Sheed is not a believer, though he had been one for many years. As the son of two ardent Catholics who turned their passion for Catholicism into a shared life-long crusade and career, it would have been very hard not to have been. Maisie Ward came from the English upper crust, and her family turned Catholic two generations ahead of her. Frank Sheed, eight years younger than Maisie, was a lower-middle-class Australian, the son of a devout Irish Catholic mother, and an abusive, alcoholic, Presbyterian-turned-Marxist father. Against all the odds Frank and Maisie met, married, and formed Sheed & Ward, a successful and influential Catholic publishing house. They did not, however, succeed in permanently passing on to their son Wilfrid the thing they valued most, their Catholic Faith.
Lewis Mumford wrote, ‘Men become susceptible to ideas, not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by loving the person who so embodies them.’ There is no doubt that Catholic Christianity was embodied to an unusual degree in the work and lives of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. Moreover, it is obvious from his book, Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents, that Wilfrid Sheed had great love for his parents and even greater respect. Nor does he give any evidence of feeling intellectually superior, unlike many sceptical offspring who indeed are more intellectually sophisticated than their believing parents. Nevertheless, he eventually rejected their formidable faith—though he might argue with some justification that the Faith rejected him. This webpage, therefore, is a negative illustration of Mumford’s quote (to which it is linked); it explores an exception that proves the rule, for Mumford’s remark is, I believe, true often enough to qualify as a legitimate generalization.
In Sheed’s autobiographical memoir of his famous parents—famous in Catholic circles—he makes it clear, implicitly as well as explicitly, that he does not have a religious temperament, and that in this respect he was the polar opposite of his mother. But temperament alone offers a very incomplete explanation of why people believe or disbelieve. Lots of believers don’t have religious temperaments. Indeed, I suspect the majority of church-going Christians would emphatically deny they have a religious temperament. A fuller understanding, then, of the forces that induce an individual to accept or reject a received belief system requires that we look beyond temperament. And the obvious place to look is in the direction of experience. Experience can either reinforce or undermine the bias of temperament. But experience is a function of circumstance, and the following excerpts from Sheed’s memoir are meant to stimulate reflection on the complex interaction of temperament and circumstance, especially the all too common circumstance of a particular temperament being tormented by a particular environment.
In his book, Atheism in our Time, Fr. Ignace Lepp, a one-time Marxist turned Catholic priest, remarks, ‘No defined proposition [can] serve as an argument against a man’s personal experience.’ For our purposes we can paraphrase that to read, ‘No example set by loved ones, however admirable, can serve as an argument against a man’s personal experience.’ The good example set by others is, of course, a part of experience. Hence, there is some truth in the maxim: a good life is a main argument. But when a long series of circumstances all conspire to undermine the plausibility of one’s received belief system, it often happens that one more negative event in the series, real or perceived, is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Even with his irreligious nature Sheed’s faith might well have held firm, despite a strange suicidal impulse in his adolescence, or despite being partially crippled by childhood polio, or despite the failure of his first marriage with all the guilt and shame that that entailed—at that time the Church was much less flexible on the issue of divorce. But along with these there were other more subtle dissuasions that will not escape the reader’s eye, and keeping the faith would have been exceptionally difficult for any naturally irreligious man.
A secondary purpose of these excerpts is to draw attention to a form of enjoyment which, although most people have experienced it at some time in their lives, is so occasional and so uncelebrated (unlike eros) that many people forget that it exists: the enjoyment of a personality. In general, people tire easily of one another, and this is true even of those who possess splendid virtues of intellect or character. But there are a few people who have a kind of charm that fascinates even those who have ample time to grow bored—namely, their intimates. Frank Sheed was such a person. What is this mysterious quality, and how far can it be analyzed? Intelligence seems to be a necessary ingredient, and Frank had plenty of that. But lots of people are intelligent. Perhaps wit is an important factor. Genuine wit is a much rarer quality than intelligence, and, as a consequence, it is highly prized and envied—Jonathan Swift wrote: All human race would fain be wits / And millions miss for one that hits. I think that seriousness (though not earnestness) is also an essential. There is something about the spectacle of a man on a mission which tends to hold our attention, even when we can’t discern or appreciate the object of this mission. In the end, maybe charisma is just a form of glamour. There’s no final solution to this puzzle, but it’s interesting to work on it.
A third and last purpose of these reminiscences is to help us understand what could be called “the appeal of America.” American culture and power being what they are, it is not difficult to understand why there will always be anti-American feeling. Of course it will wax and wane in accordance with current events. At the moment it seems to be approaching a high-water mark. What is not so easy to understand is the enduring appeal of America. To many, America has long appeared to be a land of plenty, of opportunity, of youthfulness, of childishness, of variety, of vulgarity, of confidence and enthusiasm, of faith in God’s approval, of high republican ideals and low business practice. Freud said, “America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.” Now there’s an over-simplification for you.
A word of warning: there are about forty excerpts here amounting to almost fifteen thousand words. Although Sheed’s informal jazzy prose style makes the going easy—he tells us that he fell on American slang like an aborigine on trinkets—don’t hesitate to skip and skim.]
They were very hard parents to explain. To take just one thing: whenever they were in England, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward trudged off every single Sunday afternoon—my father moaning to beat the band and praying for rain—to preach the Faith from soapboxes; and not just in glamour spots like Hyde Park, but in backwaters like Clapham and Pimlico and other places that properly belong in English comic monologues.
At first, the only thing that really struck me as strange was the sound of a man praying for rain in England: then again perhaps he was the cause of it all, and was doing a bang-up job. What does one know at five? Only slowly did I begin to realize that other people thought my parents were a little crazy. Soapbox oratory is by definition crazy. And when I attended my first meetings I saw little to shake the definition...
As the reader will discover, my parents were very far from being fanatics with that telltale gleam in their eyes. My father believes that he would not have been a religious man at all if he hadn’t found himself a Catholic. Of my mother, I am not so sure. She would certainly have been a casuist of some sort, and probably an orator as well, because she was so good at it and because, unlike Frank, she burned to speak out. But her mind was down-to-earth, in a high-minded sort of way, and I’m not sure she would have gone looking for a religion if she hadn’t been drenched in one from baptism on.
Anyway as I slopped around at the edge of the crowd in my gum boots and little school cap, I cared little about what got them up there. All I knew was that no amount of respectability in other sectors could make up for this one eccentricity; we were gypsies, oddities. “My parents are publishers,” I would emphasize. But their Catholic publishing seemed almost as bizarre as their Catholic tub-thumping in the starchy secularity of England. So I resigned myself to the delicate pleasures of outsidedness at an early age.
This was the world I found myself in from December 27, 1930, on; and if I had woken up in any other house, I doubt even more strongly than my father that I would ever have gone to church at all. By temperament and intellect, religion as such strikes me as a desperate attempt on the part of mankind to bore itself to death in expiation of some forgotten excitement. But what we had was never quite religion. It was a whole life and a merry one, and it never occurred to me not to live it. It was simply the thing we did.
In this atmosphere to be a Catholic was to be an ardent Catholic. It had nothing to do with sanctity or native spirituality: it was more a matter of correct technique. Certain games have to be played hard, if they’re to be played at all. So if you were supposed to make humble confessions, that’s what you made: it was just as easy as the other kind. And if Communion was the bread of life naturally you wanted all you could get of it.
Above all, you might as well enjoy yourself. If you yawned your way through Mass, for instance, you were only making things duller and worse. Contrariwise, if you prayed, pondered, paid attention in the right proportion, the time would fairly whiz by. Thus by simple habit and custom, my sister Rosemary and I and who knows how many thousands of others became what would now be considered freakishly devout Catholics. That it was not altogether dissimilar from being a Dodger fan does not trivialize it. A child’s intensity doesn’t come in different strengths according to the object. My love of the Dodgers was in its day quite a noble thing; and in fact it actually helped me to make a necessary distinction.
One must begin one’s story somewhere, and perhaps here is as good a place as any to show what it was like to be a little Sheed/Ward. Although I hung pictures of ballplayers where a better boy might have hung saints and Sacred Hearts, and although my heart welled with sorrow over Mickey Owens’s dropped third strike as I could never quite get it to well on Good Friday afternoon, I did figure out (with maybe a little help from Frank) that it was right to pray in church but wrong to pray in ballparks. . .
As I write this, I am transported back to a football halftime prayer-huddle, where I, age eleven or twelve, am explaining all this to our coach, a patient Benedictine monk. I say patient gratefully, because if he hadn’t been he would have really exploded. As it was, he tersely told me to pipe down and get on with my Hail Marys; and then bowed his head so that he wouldn’t see whether I was doing it or not.
Frank’s father’s people were wintry Scotch-Irish Presbyterians with a particular antipathy to Rome. Years on the sea as whalers and merchant seamen had lined their faces with negative convictions. In fact, just in case little Frank might be leaning toward the hated Rome, an aunt once left a copy of the notorious Maria Monk in his path. Maria was all about the salacious doings in convents, full of underground tunnels and such, and it served the same kind of purpose as the Protocols of Zion for a certain school of bigot. But my father reacted the wrong way. He decided that only a very bad person would give such a foul book to a child, for any purpose whatever; he did not, he later insisted, even enjoy the damn book.
In a sense he backed his way into the Church while warding off less savoury possibilities. His father was a premature Marxist (premature for Australia anyway) who, in a routine fit of perverseness, sent my father to Methodist Sunday school, in order to madden his Presbyterian kin and his Catholic wife all in one go. Again it worked out wrong. Frank, without trying, learned a lot of Methodist hymns—in fact he still absentmindedly hums “Shall We Gather at the River” at odd moments, such as dull sermons. Otherwise, he paid the services no mind at all—except in his last weeks (call him ten or twelve) when he helped out the instructor a bit—but just sat there reading the Bible through and through, something little Catholic boys seldom got to do, and began to gather the ammunition that would years later make him a match for the Bible-bashing hecklers of Hyde Park. He also formed a rather Protestant crush on the personality of Jesus, by not having his words filtered through a clergyman, and nothing could ever make this personality seem unreal to him, or made up, or a composite, as it did to some textual critics.
Methodism, of which he is still fond (“I knew they’d be saved, of course; I just didn’t want to be saved with them”), did Frank another small favour. It drove his real religion underground, which is much more exciting for a kid than the up-and-up stuff. While he was officially going through his Methodist motions, Frank was secretly making his first confession and Communion and getting himself confirmed. This subterranean religious life made him in a small way one with the early Christians and with the Catholic recusants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who hid priests in the wainscot and held whispered Masses in makeshift chapels. This mood is hard for a child to capture if they march you through the front door at the age of six and make you do these things, as they make you brush your teeth. The Church always had a rare whiff of adventure about it for Frank, however artificially arrived at, which later gave an edge to his speaking and caused even young lovers to drop what they were doing in Hyde Park and wander over to listen. From a distance he could almost have been a revolutionary urging a crowd to action right now.
But what got him hooked in the first place? The frontier-style Protestantism he had seen lacked a certain charm: the Presbyterianism seemed harsh, the Methodism bland. This left the field clear, since his father’s droning Marxism had made even rationalism a thankless chore. But of course it takes more than an absence of anything else to make one an ardent believer. The personal heat required for this came originally from Frank’s feelings for his mother, Mary Maloney of County Limerick. Her own faith was probably intense enough to convert a son all by itself, as Saint Monica’s converted Saint Augustine; but besides the faith there was, as the Irish say, the Situation.
Frank seldom talks about his father, and he has a stubborn sense of privacy about such matters. But I don’t see how his lifelong religious mission can be understood without some reference to this spiritual and physical counterforce.
John Sheed was a brilliant draftsman, unfortunately in more senses than one. While stationed in the Outback for a lengthy spell, he developed an ungovernable thirst for beer, as indeed does everyone stationed in the Outback, where the weather is screeching hot and there’s nothing else to do except gamble on the flies landing and taking off from the windowpanes. Unfortunately, John brought his thirst back to Sydney intact, though at first quite artfully concealed. Mary Maloney actually fell in love with his dancing, which was rated among the best in Sydney, and his all-night gaiety.
John retained these qualities all his life long, and years later when I met my Australian relatives they still marveled at his unfailing “street charm.” John had a smile and a cheery word for everybody. So these same relatives were downright incredulous when Mary “Minny” Sheed and her two little boys, Frank and Jack, came to them looking for sanctuary from such a darling man. It seems that once his own door was shut, the street charm came off like greasepaint, to be replaced, if John had been drinking, by murderous rage. Domesticity must have clawed at him, strangled him. Still warm from a laugh at the bar, he would find himself locked in for the night with a pious, possibly prudish wife and two brats who needed feeding out of his good beer money. Worse, like the other barflies, he came home to failure.
I used to ask myself if John Sheed could really have been as bad as all that. Having been in a bar or two myself, I was anxious to sympathize with and greet a fellow spirit on the family tree. Since this was perhaps the only subject my father wouldn’t talk to me about, I was free to indulge myself—until I met those Maloney relatives in Sydney and discovered how bad things really were. It seems John Sheed was a hitter, and it didn’t much matter with what: a belt, a razor strop, a chair—whatever came to hand. And a generous share of this weaponry landed on Frank.
So it is not surprising that he formed a fast alliance with his mother, and everything she stood for. If you loved Mary Maloney you had to love her religion. It was central to her. Her father had been a “hedge teacher” in Ireland, which meant bootlegging education to unreconstructed Catholics as the priests bootlegged Mass. Priest and teacher were brothers in crime. The Church was also Mary’s rod and her staff in a strange land (she had emigrated at fourteen) and a strange marriage. So just as her beloved Ireland grouped itself around Catholicism in the face of persistent bullying, so did she and her little garrison within a garrison, herself and her two small sons.
Going to stay with his Catholic cousins while on the run from John may well have sealed the deal. The Maloney side was and is as kind and happy-go-lucky as the Sheeds were frequently not. (Frank’s grandfather Sheed had been known in his prime as the stingiest man in Sydney.) Frank proceeded to pass the pleasantest two years or so of his life: the Good Time by which one measures everything else. He had two slightly older girl cousins called Bernie and Diddy who became his real family, as they would become mine when I went out there later. Frank has always had an unusual number of women friends (and I mean friends, not the other stuff) but it all began with those two. Bernie Reid and Diddy Garrick are the kind of people you meet at the end of a Dickens novel, the impossibly happy part, so that moving in with them must have seemed like dying and going to heaven. Just to top it off, the Maloneys, who except for my grandmother, had never cracked a book, thought that my father was a genius, which does wonders for a boy.
In the 1913 elections my father became an ardent fan of the Australian Labour party. Unfortunately, it won and set some sort of record for breaking its promises. Frank decided then and there to put not his faith in politicians. So the negative factors were all in place for a Commonwealth-Catholic vocation. One longed for an international brotherhood which did not break its promises, which by covenant could not let you down, a spiritual British Empire. And across the table one had John Sheed once again, still proposing such a thing in the form of the Communist party. Although Sheed Sr.’s personal brutality made nonsense of his ideals—even the unlettered Maloneys must be onto something better than this—it would be a mistake to think that John and his ideals were not a major factor in Frank’s intellectual formation.
“I’ll say this for him, he was intelligent,” concedes my father; and although Frank himself suffers fools, not so much gladly as willfully, blindly, like Lord Nelson, he truly worships intelligence, almost as though it were a physical perfection. Thus Katharine Hepburn was the actress for him and Maisie the wife. So although he had set his heart against his father, and attributes his sanity to that, it’s a cinch he didn’t close his ears. And what he heard was the wondrous logic-chopping of Marxism so easily transferred back and forth, to and from, Catholic scholastic philosophy. Few young Jesuits can have received such training, such table talk so early, and all the more compelling accompanied by slight terror.
When Frank did get to school he whistled right through it, winning scholarships as fast as they could hand them out, and he credits this to the fact that his mind was left blank for the first eight years, so he had nothing to unlearn. Ingenious at least, but I think he also learned from two very bright parents, on separate time (when John spoke, that was the meeting). Anyway, Frank later wrote a book about communism, as if to kiss all that goodbye, and a very good kiss-off it made. After a typically lucid and fair summary of Marx, the book went on to accuse him of being too mathematical—of thinking that two boys working together would do a job twice as quickly as one, and so on. Whether this is the last word on Karl Marx, it very likely wraps up old John Sheed, who first brought the news home.
My father continues to have a deep respect for Karl Marx (“He was necessary”), and a total respect for his diagnosis if not his medicine. What is perhaps interesting is that Frank himself turned out to be a natural mathematician, who still has to fight the mathematician in his own thinking. There may even be some among his bruised hecklers who could say that he learned his dialectic too well. Certainly he has never heard anything on a street corner that his father’s table hadn’t prepared him for.
Mention of John’s “street charm” reminds one of an Irish politician, and so at times does Frank’s, whose blarney conceals, as blarney must, his inner self as successfully as his father’s had. I was astonished when I saw a picture of John in his fifties to find that he looked exactly like his son. So much for deserving your own face after forty. By whatever dark route, he had arrived at even the same expression as the later Frank, which meant an expression born to please.
But Mary Maloney could also light up a room, though more with laughter than with calculated charm. When she was merry, everybody was merry. I have never seen anyone so infectiously rollicking. Nor, on the other hand, have I seen anything darker than her dark moods. At those times she seemed quite out of reach and hard as stone, and the only cure was to make her laugh, if you possibly could. It may well be that any success my father and I have had in amusing people goes back to our desperate attempts to loosen up “Auntie Min,” as she came to be called.
John’s contribution here was more saturnine. He was witty all right, but with that overlay of sarcasm that Sheeds tend to put on everything, like those pitchers who can’t help throwing curves. My father was as busy rejecting this as he was absorbing it, and this was to be a lifetime struggle for him. At law school, he made one of those resolutions of his, akin to his leaving literature to Shakespeare. A fellow grind had just said to him that he found the law an “ungrateful mistress,” to which my father retorted, “In your case, I can’t see that a mistress would have much to be grateful for.”
This may seem harmless enough to a nonaddict—we hit harder than that in my crowd—but for a Sheed, it was the fatal glass of beer. You either practice custody of the tongue at all times, or it is down the slippery path for you, making wisecracks and enemies till there is nobody left. I cannot express my gratitude for my father’s decision that day. His tongue could be rough enough as it was, and it was best to handle him with care in certain moods. (Since he worked hard at his equanimity, he might be surprised to hear that at times he reminded me of a hard-nosed Irish monsignor.) Unbridled, his tongue would have been a deadly weapon, equipped with nuclear capacity—and he would never have made a single convert from his soapbox. (In fact, he was so alert to this problem that he counseled all his fellow speakers not to score off hecklers: which was good for the Faith, but bad for entertainment.)
Running through the list again, one sees that most of Frank’s religious predispositions were simply the healthiest responses to his life and the world around him. Anthony Burgess has more recently described how his own feeling for the British Empire, with its teeming variety, dovetailed with his Catholic upbringing, and I’m convinced the same went for my father: the one institution confirming the other. He also loved goodness for its own sake, having seen the alternative. He had learned from his mother how to pray and how to take the supernatural for granted as a plain fact of everyday life (without which peasant foundations, all the intellectual superstructure in the world will buckle sooner or later). He loved the Blessed Virgin, an emotion that I frankly still can’t fathom, and which he had unusual trouble explaining lucidly: it just went with the set. And finally, he knew how to argue. Oh, my, how he knew how to argue.
Frank had taken to filling in the cracks in his spare time with his first outdoor speaking. Something called the Catholic Evidence Guild had just come into being and my father used it to unlimber his tonsils and learn a little theology, of which he knew none at all, except for some old Methodist stuff. To pay its tiny expenses, the Guild held an occasional junk sale, and it was at one of these that Frank found himself addressed by a somewhat officious young woman with the words “Are these good scissors?” (I don’t think she called him “young man,” but she didn’t have to.) “Madam,” said Frank, looking at the merchandise for the first time, “these are the very best scissors.”
This is one version of Genesis. The deuteroversion has the young woman talking to a huge crowd which Frank promptly lost the moment he stepped on the platform. So the young woman had to come back and draw another crowd for him, and so through the long afternoon.
These and all other legends are true. Anyway Frank met Maisie.
What precisely he was meeting I’ll try to describe in the next chapter. Enough for now to say that the encounter led Frank to the vision he was looking for, the solution to the great fish and pond question and the only type of success he could live with. But not immediately: he had to go back to law school first. On the way home, he breezed through the United States on a lecture tour—anyone could give a lecture tour in the U.S. back then. You only had to ask. Henceforth, his life would somewhat resemble a pool hustler’s, as he paid his way from coast to coast playing the speaking game, but there was always something 1920s about his view of America: a very lawless country, an alcoholic country, he would say. Also poorly educated, unmodulated voices. Beautiful young people but no real faces among the middle aged. Fat. For a future apostle to this country, Frank took his sweet time about liking it, and even longer about respecting it. But then, as he might say, who knows what Saint Patrick really thought of the Irish? And there was something else. I occasionally sensed a certain colonial envy as he ticked off America’s defects against an invisible list of dinkum perfections. If only the War of Independence had gone the other way—why America might have been just like Australia!
The Wards had entered the Roman Church on a wave of ardour just two decades before and the wave was still rolling in when Maisie was born. Her father wrote Catholic biographies, and her mother wrote novels with a Catholic accent. More tellingly still, her little brothers Herbert and Leo used to play games of Mass on cardboard boxes, and later wrote funny songs on purely ecclesiastical themes of which the following is a fair sample: “The pope who is infallible/and seldom goes far wrong/has always taught/that time is short/eternity is long. . .” The next two verses dispose of the Eastern Orthodox and the timid Church of England which “thinks there is a sense/in which tis not too strong/to say that time to us seems short/eternity seems long.” And finally in comes the march of modern thought to prove the complete opposite of the above. Now I ask you—how many teenagers do you know with minds remotely like that? (Actually they were slightly older when they wrote the above, but it could have happened anytime.)
This was the particular greenhouse in which Maisie grew. It was churchy through and through. Bear in mind that for a long time there had been no place else for Catholics to go: not Oxford or Cambridge or the many corners of the Establishment which required the Oath of Supremacy, so they got to know their chapels tolerably well. Maisie’s first and strongest link with the Church was liturgical. During Holy Week, she became a dervish whirling from church to church as others whirl to theatres and casinos. What happened in church was (as Genet of all people once said about the moment of consecration) the central drama of life, and she couldn’t get enough of it. In fact, it would be fair to call her a liturgical junkie: virtue had nothing to do with it, as far as she was concerned. She once told me, in answer to an impudent question of mine, that in her case, going to Mass was indeed no better than going to the theatre. It was too much fun. So Maisie certainly wasn’t trying anxiously to pile up merit points as some church-haunters do. Virtue would have to reside for her in outside activity: Mass and Communion were purely rest and relaxation.
Mea patria mea ecclesia est (My church is my nation). That’s not Maisie speaking but her brother Leo. It was the family given; religion was simply what Wards did, as it later became what Sheeds did. The intellectual armour would arrive in due course, but it was not strictly necessary. Maisie did not have to strain herself to find proofs for the sacramental reality. Maisie knew what she knew.
The religious history of the Wards has been thoroughly written about already, by Maisie among others, so I should confess right away that it not only didn’t interest me for years, but that it struck me as a dusty old bore, a Victorian monstrosity that ought to have a cover thrown over it. It had nothing to do with my own pip-squeak religious impulses: if anything it warred with them, striking me as fetishistic and narrow, a stale family joke. Being a Catholic was fine: being a Ward, Oxford Movement, ultramontane Catholic repelled me as much as it attracted my father. The reason is simple enough. Frank came from the outdoors, his city of light and water where a man could actually grow tired of the sun, and was happy to bend down and enter the haunted house of Ward; I was trying to bust my way out.
By 1919 Maisie was really at loose ends. Her father had died in 1915, and nobody had given a thought to another career for her. Why should she be different? Even men in her class didn’t have to do much of anything, although they were encouraged to keep occupied. Good works could expand indefinitely to fill a woman’s time. And perhaps a little writing? This had become practically a family twitch by now, something that passed the morning—for which reason I swore I would never get into it.
If the Catholic Evidence Guild was a good chance for Frank, it was a blooming miracle for Maisie. Otherwise she would have been like all those great violinists who died before the violin was invented. She was, it turned out, a great outdoor speaker, whose greatest asset was perhaps her stage fright. Even after fifty years of it, she never gave a talk without feeling nervous in advance. But she alone possessed the secret of turning the Ward nerves into pure, natural energy which grabbed passers-by by the hair on their necks.
Nervousness also put a slight throb in her voice, as felicitous in its way as Bing Crosby’s glottal stop or whatever. When Maisie got fully worked up, with all sails flying, she seemed about to cry, and people learned forward with concern: if it means so very much to her, the least we can do is listen. If Frank sounded like a revolutionary calling one to the barricades, Maisie was more like a mother pleading with her children to come home. And because her style did so much, she did not have to make emotional speeches. In fact she might be giving the exact same speech as my father. It made no difference. The impact was all her own, and it could be positively Churchillian, striking deeper chords and sympathies than Frank could ever reach; or want to reach.
“Will she boss him or will they fight?” Frank overheard a Guild member say of his engagement to Maisie. My mother must have seemed mighty imperious in this largely middle to lower class group. But never was a class misunderstanding wider of its mark than this one. Maisie never bossed anybody, although she could boil up at lazy waiters and bored shop assistants. As for fighting, not only did Maisie not fight with Frank, nobody fought with, or even around, Frank. There was something indefinable in his manner that made it seem childish and unworthy of one. The bloodiest family quarrels fizzled at his feet. “I’ll believe that a man has an uncontrollable temper when he tries to punch Joe Louis,” he used to say: and one would stop in mid-tantrum.
Frank remembered the first time he met the Wards. They were all clustered round the dining room table, talking to beat the band. His entrance made not the slightest difference to their torrent of jabber, and as my father quietly found a seat, he noticed that they didn’t even listen to each other. So Frank took a deep breath and simply began talking himself, and the Wards loved him on the spot: he was one of them.
That was the easy part. There was also a wall of Wodehouse aunts for him to wade through, and no fraternity hazing ever sounded more blood-curdling than this gamut of befuddled bluebloods. Unfortunately, the only fragment I remember concerns an especially mad aunt who stared at Frank wildly and said in a loud voice, “Am I in hell?” Assured that she hadn’t made it yet, she said craftily, “Then who is he?”
High time to call in the New World to restore the (mental) balance of the Old. Frank became a champion of mixed blood, the more mixed the better, citing as his ace Don Juan of Austria, the famous nonmoronic Hapsburg, but I think, just for once, reflecting on himself. He was pleased when I said to him once that the Sheeds were so outbred that we didn’t bleed at all.
Frank’s best pal in the family was probably his mother-in-law Josephine, by an eyelash. Josephine Ward, by now in her sixties, actually had the gumption to mount a platform herself to help make the Guild more theological and less political. Now that must have been a grand sight. But I don’t suppose she thought talking to a London street crowd was anything special. Naturally one preached the Gospel whenever one had the chance. She was much too aristocratic to feel self-conscious about it, or to see any incongruity in the setting.
This I think tips the family balance in her favour. Her child-rearing methods still puzzle me: She doesn’t seem to have prepared her young for anything at all. But I’m not sure how much of this a mother was expected to delegate to others in those days. Certainly shrewdness in selecting nannies was the crowning virtue of motherhood; all the love in the world couldn’t make up for a dud nanny. Whoever was responsible, it transpires that Maisie, by then in her midthirties, had to have the facts of life explained to her the night before her wedding (she took to them delightedly, she told my sister once), but this seems to have happened even to certain males in that buttoned-up era. Perhaps more serious was Frank’s charge that Maisie, when he met her, had the emotional development of a twelve-year-old. The English upper rungs probably teemed with great big twelve-year-olds, but Josephine Ward was a novelist and should have known better.
Maisie’s slow start is essential to her later job description. She would have had a slow start anywhere, even in a bordello, because nature had decreed for her a long leisurely parabola of a life. But the Ward world view retarded it still further, till her life threatened not to get off the ground at all. The one member of the family beckoning her upward, never mind where just yet, was, despite everything, her handsome mother standing small on the platform and fielding the same rotten fruit, in the form of questions that the mob dished up, as unflinchingly as the youngest, cockney speakers. All is possible, Josephine’s manner suggested: we’ll think of something. Maisie and Josephine and Leo, as the three upstarts who turned the Catholic Evidence Guild around in their restless search for something to do, had a magic thread running between them that I could sense even as a child. The other Wards slip away now and go about their own errands.
It was commonly understood in the Sheed household that Frank rescued Maisie. Certainly she so understood it and conveyed a life-long sense of gratitude to him, which sweetened their marriage, however cloying and childlike this might seem to modern feminists. In fact, there was gratitude on both sides, as Frank treasured his gift in endless amazement, and it gave a vibrant endurance to their love such as I have never seen, regardless of method. They were not just hanging on like marathon dancers for the sake of the record. But more of that later.
At least Josephine Ward knew a rescue when she saw one and must have practically yelped with delight; not over a husband, but over an opportunity. It was no routine case of a man saving a woman—the Wards were too proud to think they needed saving by anyone, and a lower-middle-class Aussie was a matchmaker’s disaster; it was more like a stranger turning up with the other half of the code, just when one had despaired.
The code was to be the strange world of Sheed and Ward, a Siamese twin of a vocation which neither could have pursued solo. Josephine divined one element in it right away, when she said, “Frank would be in two places at the same time if there was a night train.” The motionless Wards, who had trouble being fully present in one place at the same time, would now, in the person of Maisie, have to hit the road and stir things up a little.
It was what, without precisely knowing it, Maisie had been waiting for all her life.
Maisie’s reading of Saint Luke’s Christmas Gospel, followed by a nap and then a trudge in the snow to Midnight Mass did more to make me feel Catholic than anything so far. I think being waked up for it had something to do with this, and the bright snow (or was there really snow that year? There is now) and the hot soup afterward. One had entered a brotherhood, no doubt about it. The Church was not just a family secret after all.
This came just in time. The year one gives up Santa Claus is a year of stern decision. Although I claimed to have Voltaired the whole Saint Nick question out for myself by measuring the chimney, and so on, in fact I got it from Rosemary and her fast set. No Santa Claus, eh? So what else has to go around here? I wasn’t going to play the straight man ever again. Three Wise Men following a star? Tell it to the Marines.
I recovered from this shattering blow to faith partly because of the aforementioned Father Healy, who impressed me by saying Mass with such matter-of-fact simplicity that he might indeed have been preparing a meal. Healy was a robust, well-set-up man, in the manner of the actor Jack Hawkins, and he certainly would never have fobbed me off with a contemptible pagan fable like Santa Claus. On the same principle, I believed that if a big strapping fellow like this felt that Christ was worth giving up marriage for—I assumed that this was tough, people said so—then Christ was surely no fairy tale.
Father Healy was, in short, my good priest, without whom it is impossible to get a toehold on Peter’s rock: a man of such archaic integrity that younger readers will just have to take my word for it. He taught Sunday school pretty much by the book, as he had to. He didn’t weasel about hell or purgatory or the terrifying risks of mortal sin: if the Lord ordered up brimstone, brimstone it was. But his manner completely undercut this part of the message. He could deliver the most hair-raising information in such a kind, it’s-going-to-be-all-right voice that is still seemed like a religion of love.
Of course, it was all geared for eight-year-olds, for whom eternal fire means, conceptually, no longer than five minutes; but I gather that it makes a difference whether your teacher rather likes the idea or not. Some kids who get their views about hell from priests who seem ready to light the first faggot themselves never recover from it. In an atmosphere of love, you can swallow anything. “Do you think there are many people in hell?” I asked Frank one day. “I go up and down on that,” he said, “but at this particular moment I tend to think there are rather a lot.”
Maisie could be more outspoken than Frank partly because it meant less. There was a license for fiery women in those days: they could attack politicians and businessmen and such to their faces in ways their husbands were better advised not to. “Isn’t she something? Wow!” Perhaps it was considered good for breeding to match these wildcats up with assorted shrew-tamers, of whom, now that I think of it, my poor father must have been considered quite a champion.
It was all very exasperating for Maisie, who was cursed, in the quaint language of the day, with a masculine mind trapped in a female temperament, so that she would literally sob with vexation after a particularly dense set-to. All she wanted was a fair fight, while all Frank wanted was to avoid one, fair or otherwise. But Maisie’s life was strewn with nolo-contenderes: it was safer to admire her than to run the risk of ‘Father Says’ being routed by a woman. Her passionate conviction at times made it seem almost bad taste to oppose her. “Do you really mean that,” she once said to me, “or are you just arguing?” By her standards, I seldom meant anything at all.
Delbarton was a weekly boarding school, connected to our house by a grisly sequence of train rides. But if my luck was good, I would sometimes find Frank smiling at me as his train pulled into Newark station. My heart leaped at the sight; it even leaped at the thought of the sight. He was simply the best company in the world, especially after Delbarton.
Prised from his various special settings, Frank gave you his complete attention, something you so seldom encounter from anyone that it’s like a dream at first. Whatever you said became at once his dominant interest in life and he would comment on it, not in a teachy way, but reflectively as if you had just put him onto something fascinating. Since his death I have received countless letters from people who had experienced this same thing and fancied themselves special, and for a twinkling I remembered the five-year-old’s irritation: “Why should I share him with all those others?” But I knew the answer by now. I wasn’t sharing him with anybody. Like the God he taught about, he gave his full measure to everybody, shortchanging nobody. The imitation of Christ was his guide and he followed it with Australian abandon.
Did he begin at this point to step up the injections of religion, to get the brain-washing in gear? Not that I can remember (though that may be the art of it). On the ship, of all places, he had told me about the Trinity: of how the Father’s self-contemplation being infinite generates the Son, and their love for each other generates the Holy Ghost, and I was excited by the neatness of it, although I still don’t know what the second idea to have about it might be.
Anyway, on dry land, he dropped some of that in favour of the gang wars in Chicago, and the significant part played by the Irishman Dion O’Banion; or it might be the comparative merits of baseball and cricket (How can grown men play in those funny trousers?) And whether a blind chap swinging through the right groove couldn’t hit as well as those other chaps, or whether a man of genius could ever be more than five ten (he himself was five nine, but this was beside the point, he said). His interests seemed inexhaustible, though they didn’t include plants and vegetables; and we later agreed that neither of us was much drawn to anything you couldn’t read about in the newspapers.
The summers in Torresdale were endless, and I got to know the troubling mysteries of boredom. I had at the age of eleven a suicidal spasm somewhat like the one described in Pennsylvania Gothic, very much based on this matter of endlessness. If I didn’t like eternity now, I would like it even less in the next world. The American summer vacation was a grim forewarning of long afternoons under a clock stopped and broken. Inside the house, the pages turned and turned again; every face was hidden by a book. Maisie would walk into a room talking about a book, only to discover that the room was empty. She would read right through meals and leave the table reading. “Anyone want to play a game or something?” If ever I was in favour of book burning, of capering round a great pyre of print, it was in that dry rustling house.
Outside there were the old bat and the old ball and an ever-fresh supply of time to be killed. And that was suddenly what had to be done with it, all right. Zlit, cut it out, remove it. For one whole night and bits of several others, I knew it would happen, it was out of my hands. I would go downstairs and kill myself. Why? I don’t know. Devils like that sometimes leave a clean house behind. Maybe my huge gulps of raw religion had backed up on me, because words like God and heaven made their rounds in my fantasies. But what I wanted to end, felt I had to end, was life itself, the lawn, the trees, the still air. God was simply someone who threatened to prevent me from doing this with his fiendish threat of an afterlife. Heaven or hell, I didn’t care anymore—I wanted out.
Either I was very tactful or the family was even more than usually preoccupied, because nobody noticed that there was anything wrong with me at all, while I nursed myself slyly back to health. It was like an addict drying out on his own. Suicide of this kind is a compulsion, not a choice, and you have to be terribly lucky and careful to edge away from it.
I couldn’t think about it comfortably until my twenties. I couldn’t mention it to anyone: it was more embarrassing to talk about it than to do it. But I remember a chat I had with Frank in the first phase of that lifelong summer when I raised the problem of eternity quite abstractly. I said, in words proper to an eleven-year-old, that I was inclined to be frightened of existence as such because it either ended or it didn’t—intolerable either way. I wasn’t frightened yet, but I was getting ready, and I guess we decided that there was clearly no answer to eternity but to trust God not to hurt us too much. He couldn’t have created us just to drive us crazy, although he did so often enough to make one wonder.
Of course I believed I would be cured [of polio]. Hadn’t Nurse Kenny come up with something just recently? And then there was the power of prayer, as sturdy as the British Navy. For several years I made three wishes in new churches and did everything but wear a goat’s foot over my heart, until I came to my senses, age seventeen, in the icy waters of Lourdes. If sheer concentration could have done it, I’d have been cured that day as they flipped me in and out of the magic spring like a beach ball. After that I felt I’d given it my best shot, and the prayers trickled off to nothing.
I’m foreshortening this to put it in its right perspective. The disease had been finessed. I expected a cure for just long enough to go on about my business, as serene as at least the next teenager. The score on this is hard to keep. I was spoiled rotten, a necessary evil I think (one needed the cushion), but I got to read a lot. I still dreamed of baseball more than ever, planning my annual comeback and hobbling to games as soon as I could—in fact, I thought of a cure entirely in terms of sports: nothing else one did with the legs seemed that enviable—but there were a lot of hours to kill now, and I turned reluctantly to literature. And when the smoke had cleared, I was just handicapped enough to be considered an expert on that, but not to miss anything important in life.
Even among the minutiae, the balance is eerily even: I got out of some orthodontic treatments, which was as neat as getting out of Bulwer-Lytton, but which left my mouth full of abandoned construction work. The give-and-take was as fussily precise as a good horse race, with the pluses and minuses probably totaling close to zero.
But as a staunch Catholic, I decided everything was actually for the best, and my faith wasn’t affected in the least by its many rebuffs. I was like a spurned lover who doesn’t know when to quit. A brain-washed sap, you might suppose; but in a way, I had already had my miracle. I had sailed through polio without noticing. And I was ready even then to attribute this to God. In this rose-window glow, the problem of why God allows pain at all was no problem to me. Human life without it would be superficial beyond endurance: people would just lie around and sunbathe. No great thoughts and certainly no art would come of that. Besides, the Problem of Pain was matched by the even more towering conundrum: “Why is good news so boring?”
Nor did I ever ask, “Why me?” which from the start struck me as a weirdly selfish way to look at things. “Why not me? Who else would you suggest?” I felt I’d been pretty well favoured by life so far and perhaps was due for a kick in the slats. But I wonder now how I would have reacted to a real disaster. My Catholic symmetry might have been badly shaken by a full-scale, all-out, no-prisoners-taken crippling. I once put my “you can get used to anything” theory to a friend who was nearly totaled by polio, and he said, “No you can’t.” That is obviously the great divide, and I had landed on the sunny side of it.
Five years before I’d been surprised at how at home Frank and Maisie felt in America; now I was even more surprised to find them at home in England—a really weird country.
I suppose if you do enough of your living in your head, travel is just an incident. Anyway, cultural differences that shook me like bomb blasts were, to Frank, simply new conventions to be mastered, and to Maisie, fascinating oddities of no particular eternal substance. The very difficult doctrine of the brotherhood of man was almost too easy for them to swallow: being equally at home, and not at home, everywhere, they found a world thinly covered in a rind of inessentials. Language, custom, things like that: nothing to be afraid of. There was nothing “out there,” to compete with, or stand up to, the Good News of the Gospel.
For this reason, they were able to dump me with a clear heart, not just into the strange land of England, but into an English Catholic school remote even from the rest of England, and whole oceans and centuries distant from the Roxy or Yankee Stadium. I felt as if I’d moved back into the world of the Wards, somehow gone rancid. I can’t say, with adolescent laziness, that I hated the place; or even, with adult ditto, that I didn’t understand it. Part of me understood it all too well. I just didn’t want it.
You can’t grow up in several directions at once. Many refugees emerged from similar wrenchings and twistings with somewhat weak, indeterminate identities as if they’d been bent once too often in a greenhouse. My horror of Downside, my new Benedictine school, says little about the objective merits of the place (although even other English boys found it spooky) but much about my blind instinct not to be bent again...
All this must have been trying for Frank and Maisie, but I still think they asked for it. It is important, by the way, here as elsewhere, not to confuse the two of them. Maisie was, as noted, completely at sea with culture shock. Just couldn’t grasp the concept. English Catholics, American Catholics—surely they had so much in common, in contrast to the rest of the world, that they should be friends practically on sight (on the same principle, she even expected us to like our relatives).
Frank knew better. He’d gone up against England himself and won, and he expected me to do likewise. He stressed to me the wonderful gains to character in such conquests, as if “conquering” America at nine hadn’t been enough. How many more of these would I have to do? What I couldn’t say then, because I hadn’t yet thought it into words, was that I didn’t want any more character if I had to lose the little bit I had to get it. Frank was clearly disappointed, and I thought at the time that he considered me a weakling, which in the circumstances I certainly was. Downside had routed me.
But Frank had another problem, more interesting than any worries about my flabby character. He really thought that Downside, as he understood it, represented something finer than America, finer than anywhere. The Catholic England that he had dreamed and willed into reality for himself was the best thing he could give me; and it turned out that I couldn’t stand it. I was rejecting his vision. What else was there?
The funny thing was that on the couple of occasions when he visited me at Downside, he seemed as out of place as I did. But that wouldn’t have bothered him even if he’d noticed. “So you really want to become an American?” he said at last, bravely, and I could almost see him ransacking the New World for virtues—James Thurber, Melville, Jack London (his hero), Thoreau, Ogden Nash, Groucho; it might not be altogether hopeless. “All right. We’ll see what we can do about it.”
Maisie had no such difficulties. If a child of hers didn’t like Downside, so much the worse for Downside. A Sheed’s judgment was the best information you were likely to get on any subject—an indulgence that had us bending over backward to be fair. On her own judgment, she had begun to give up on England altogether in a way that Frank, the English convert, could not. She simply felt that it had lost vitality, which she worshipped as Frank worshipped intelligence. She knew England had suffered—her emotional little book, This Burning Heat, written during the blitz, was all about that—but she couldn’t see any circumstances that entitled you just to lie down and give up. There was a sourness in the queues and shops, “Nah, we dun’ ‘ave it, nah, we dun expec’ it,” which may have tapped the snob in her, the sense of where have all those wonderful people who love their work gone? And a critic might have added that it was easy for her to talk after six plush years in America.
But our life hadn’t been plush, and nothing was easy for Maisie. This may be as good a time as any to mention one of the lingering effects of those grueling illnesses that surrounded her childbearing. Her loss of hair around the time of my birth proved permanent and she was condemned to live out her life wearing a wig. I was mindful of this in 1945-46, because while I had been grunting away at my leg exercises, she had taken advantage of our combined incarceration to go wigless around the apartment, massaging and vibrating her scalp with a view to bringing back the old hair. So I felt we were recovering together.
And so we were, and we each got just about as far. I got down to one cane, and she looked like Benjamin Franklin. This wasn’t quite enough for the lecture platform, so she clamped the wig back on resignedly, cutting off any further chance of growth up there. Thus disguised, she had to weather compliments about how nice her hair looked—Was she doing something different with it?—and also to make sure that she kept it up-to-date, so that it aged gracefully along with her.
If I throw in the scar tissue on her lungs, the phlebitis that racked her legs and the pain in her feet, it will sound as if I’m entering her for “Queen for a Day” (an old TV show which scoured the country for the most miserable specimens to shower gifts on). But to Maisie these things were just nuisances, “bothers,” and not to be carried on about. Even having to pretend one had hair was no worse than a nuisance, if she thought about it at all. What for most women would have been a wound (men are expected to grow bald, but people can hardly stand the sight of a bald woman) was reduced to an embarrassment as her wig occasionally tilted or threatened to come off with her hat.
But losing one’s vitality was on a different order of things from losing one’s hair. This was a sin against the Spirit and it made her angrily unhappy. Her immediate and absolutely original response to it was to hire more Poles. Nobody else would have thought of that. For the purpose Maisie bought herself a small farm in Essex and manned it with Polish refugees, who had fought the Germans for at least as long as the English had and didn’t even have a country to show for it; yet they hadn’t given up, but were as usual planning a comeback. Now there was vitality for you—in fact, almost too much of it for her at first.
I hopped a Number 5 bus around Fourteenth Street and passed the whole slow trip uptown in a delirium close to mystical. As we swung onto Riverside Drive at Seventy-second Street, I was fairly frothing. The Gershwins lived over there, and Babe Ruth in his straw hat took a cab to the park along here and nothing, down to the last cornice, had changed...
Sheed and Ward seemed exciting too, if only as part of the general excitement, a thrum in the air that I can no longer feel or hear, but which was everywhere then, drifting through office windows, car windows and those special Sheed hotel windows which almost rattled with it: a compound of buses, voices, river breezes, everything that can fill air. It was as if the city had forgotten to stop celebrating the end of the war, but had composed a “Symphony for Five Senses” in its honour. Blindfolded on a quiet street, a man could tell he was in New York a hundred ways: no one smell, or one sound, but the residue of the lot. It was a hell of a long way from Stratton-on-Fosse.
I only marveled that everyone else seemed to take it so calmly. Finding myself being driven over the swirling Triboro Bridge, I thought, “Hot damn. This is incredible,” but everyone else seemed to take it for granted. One hugs these loves to oneself out of necessity, because everyone else thinks you’re nuts, or feverish. Except for other foreigners. Nowadays when I hear a late arrival babbling about the wonders of New York I listen patiently, trying to remember. But nothing comes. We’ve been married too long.
Long before the 1960s, this kind of open-throated America-worship put one at odds with the more vital side of the Church, the Left to which I thought I belonged. My comrades weren’t just unimpressed by the Triboro Bridge, they were sickened by it and all it stood for. The late forties was for Catholics an age of movements: family movements, pacifist movements, interracial movements—you could always pick one that matched your temperament, but they were all against the country I’d dreamed about in England.
Friendship House still flourished, especially in Chicago, which was a blast furnace of movements; the Catholic Worker would soon be staging public sit-ins against fake civil defense drills, but at the moment what it was doing predominantly and quietly was attracting talent... And the talent all ran the same way. These people were already fed up with the feast of plenty—and I’d only just got here. Finding themselves safely parked in the world’s only winner, all they could talk about was poverty and injustice. Spoilsports. After austerity England, voluntary poverty was just too damn much. I hadn’t come to America for more anti-Americanism.
It was a tricky position for a young Socialist to find himself in. I clucked with the gang over the amount of steak that Americans threw away—but my eyes lingered on the steak... My dream America was as far away as the Catholic Worker’s. However, we foreign-born America-fanciers (if I may invent a group to stuff some generalizations into) occasionally ran to a taste for vulgarity and a craving for streamlined trash: we would not have liked an America as pure as the native radicals wanted. The worst of us were not even embarrassed by salesmen called “Elmer,” although we could do without historians named Chauncey Truslow Adams, Jr. The authentic tended to put us to sleep, but swing and bastard country music revived us. We liked, when it slunk onto the scene, Las Vegas much better than Williamsburg. Americans believed we were putting them on, or down.
The fact is, though, that after the war, a perverse quest for the un-European seized a few of us, and there was nothing condescending about it. Europe could once again be left to handle the business of being Europe, while America must be itself, though our notion of that might be quite unreal. I remember a cultured French landlady of mine installing a super-duper pressure cooker that would have turned civilized Americans pale. Labour-saving devices, gadgets, gizmos—after six years of hell, America couldn’t seem silly enough.
Or even after one year of England. It was while still there mulling on my Spam that I first read the purest of all new movement publications, a magazine called Integrity which positively scourged labour-saving devices, and which even denounced people who wore pretty clothes to church of a Sunday. After kneeling amidst the English in their mustard overcoats and faded bandanas and frocks weary from scrubbing, I yearned for pretty clothes, with pretty women inside them.
However, Integrity was not easy to dismiss, because, among other things, it became one of the noticeable strands in Sheed and Ward’s postwar thinking. Of course, everybody was beating up on the piggy materialists right then, especially European lecturers who found a gold mine in it. (For every America-fancier, there were two professional deplorers taking their turn at the whip, flailing the fat nation until the guilt ran.) So there was nothing sensational about that. Even Bishop Sheen in his twinkling robes gave the back of his hand to Godless materialism and conspicuous consumption. It was a terrible time to be a hedonist.
There were other, more theological and churchy reasons for Frank’s relative eclipse in the seventies, but for the moment, I am haunted by a phrase from his last years, “I should have known all along that America was my country.” All along. This means that my 1940s apprehensions were not just projections of my own bafflement with England, but a blind sense of something wrong, of a picture hung microscopically askew. There was finally this something, impossible to name, unrequited about Frank’s love for England. He was simply not a clubman in any sense, he wanted no part of inner circles, and England is made up of inner circles.
But little or none of this met the naked eye in 1947, even mine when I chose to use one. I can still picture him lunching at the Café Royal with such blithe friends as J. B. Morton (the great “Beachcomber”) and D. B. (the Good) Wyndham Lewis, who had a tendency to get thrown out of the better places in tandem for bellowing Provençal folk songs; then the pair of us descending to Regent Street and taking a squint at the latest cricket scores on the hoardings, and deciding on the spot to hop a cab to Lords to check out the South Africans or the Pakistanis and to hell with publishing for the day—I have never seen such hastily generated happiness. London on my own already seemed gray and unprofitable; but sitting with him at the Nursery End of Lords, munching on cherries and taking turns with the crossword, it seemed like a garden of wonders. Merely watching him sprint onto or away from a moving bus quickened the scene. I learned on sundry trips with him that Frank could do the same thing for Dublin, Paris or Rome, but London seemed the greater achievement.
There are enough witnesses to his electricity to establish that this was not some private circuit between him and me. “I loved his hat and his hug,” wrote my splendid cousin Hester after Frank’s death—and the hat was certainly part of his secret. He was always arriving from somewhere or about to leave: one must make the most of him. And he in turn acted as if God had granted him just these few minutes with you. So he always left you tingling.
England, perhaps even more than other countries, becomes an entirely different place in the right company and Lincoln [one of the colleges at Oxford] was it for me. Austerity was only a little less severe than in 1947, and the beer was watery, and the cafés had always just run out of eggs, so superficially England was the same old dump. But in my little Catholic corner of it, I hadn’t seen how many ways there were to tackle the country. It may not have been precisely what Frank had in mind when he steered me away from Notre Dame, but meeting non-Catholic, non-Establishment England was probably the most magical single thing about Oxford.
Not that I became less Catholic myself, far from it. Having at last engaged the ancient enemy, I could finally drag out all the old halberds and crossbows of argument that every Catholic keeps in his cupboard, and I found myself set up in a small way of business as an apologist, in the old family trade. I suppose that talking to a papist must have been part of the Oxford experience for some, like joining the Socialist Club. Unsurprisingly the chief difficulty my new friends had with Catholicism—outside of sex, which made the whole thing academic—was that it seemed kind of preposterous: an objection old enough for even my ancient weapons. One lapsed Catholic told me that I obviously belonged to some special Church which sounded quite sensible, but which wasn’t the one they taught in Manchester. So much for Sheed/Ward’s attempts to raise all the boats.
Anyway, my special Church seem quite intellectually respectable, especially since the reigning school of Oxford philosophy, linguistic analysis or whatever the phrase for it that year, had so tied its disciples’ tongues that, at least as practiced by freshmen, one could only quibble, not assert. “Do you really mean to say. . . I take it that what you’re saying. . . Aren’t you making a category mistake?” (this last in naked appeal. Please tell me you’re making a category mistake).
Fortunately for the Faith, all this tortured jargon was filtered to me through beginners, who were grappling with it themselves and were even more cautious than their masters as to what could or could not be properly said. The result was almost an embargo on discussion. “That’s a synthetic a priori proposition,” they would say; and to this day I don’t know a better conversation-stopper. Yet Catholics reading philosophy quite often left the Church in their first term, so the dons must have packed some secret weapon which I was spared. So I simply leaped into a callow neo-Wittgensteinian a posteriori posture and decided that if philosophy couldn’t talk about certain things, then we’d just have to get along without it for now.
Actually, I read quite a lot of philosophy at Oxford on my own and found that the stolid linguistic sentries out there made metaphysics all the more exotic (the name “positivist” still conjures up heavy footsteps). Oxford is a good place to be a Catholic, as Frank must have known, because, among other things, you don’t meet too many dumb ones. At a Catholic college I might well have cracked—as Frank also might have known. But when the secular mind is on top and sure of itself, it says the silly things, and you can sit back and think of other matters.
Frank and Maisie were much too civilized to use social occasions to convert people. Yet they lived in—dread is too strong a word—mild apprehension that something silly would be said at a mixed gathering which would require a Catholic answer. Frank believed (and in this Maisie was a rubber stamp) that Catholics live in the real world and the rest don’t and that this has implications far beyond the religious. So every conversation was a mine field. And the danger faced both ways. Outsiders might admire Sheed/Ward from afar, but if they got too close to it or went too deep, they would have had to find it insane (as they would Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa). Those crazy claims must be symbolic, aren’t they? Virgin births? Resurrections? No, I’m afraid they’re not. If Rome was the true Church, and there was no if about it, Catholics were right and the others wrong, except insofar as they agreed with Catholics. Discussion is difficult on these terms.
Of course any truth has these implications of exclusion, but the wishy-washy seculars seemed to want everybody’s truth to be as good as everybody else’s, even the pope’s if he liked; and they only bridled when told that the pope’s truth couldn’t be like that. This was the heyday of the word “relative,” and Catholics preened themselves on despising it, and indeed of being out of the swim altogether. I remember once hearing my mother debate on radio with the famous critic John Mason Brown. The subject was divorce and for once the fluent Brown was tongue-tied, because he had never heard such arguments before, at once primitive and morally subtle, and completely off his daily tack. Here was a bright, possibly even sane woman showing him a world as bizarre as Dante’s, which apparently carried on full blast right behind America’s (and England’s) back.
There were several things wrong with Maisie, and she might have died of any of them. But the root of the matter seemed to be mortal weariness. For years she had perennially had something wrong with her—scar tissue on the lungs, or phlebitis, or some damn thing—but she had fought them all back with sheer vitality. Now when she reached for it, it just wasn’t there.
One afternoon she raised her head sharply and said, “I still have enthusiasm.” Her eyes glittered with challenge for a moment. Then the head plopped back. “But what use is enthusiasm without energy?”... On the hastily booked flight back, I was tormented by Noël Coward’s song “The Party’s Over Now.” The world of Sheed/Ward was no more. It didn’t help reminding myself that my mother was eighty-six and due to go. I didn’t give a damn how old she was. That force should not have been stilled, now or any time. My grief stunned me with surprise: we’d had so much time to prepare for this moment and resign ourselves to it, yet this period of grace was suddenly obliterated. She might as well have been hit by a truck.
Frank had called the New York chancery first thing to make sure that Maisie’s funeral would take place in St. Patrick’s, where it belonged, but he was given the bureaucratic runaround. “Maisie who? No, the cardinal can’t be reached,” and so on. He slammed down the phone and said, “To hell with them,” and proceeded to arrange the funeral himself in a smaller and kinder church.
Frank’s outer attitude was one of joy. Maisie is now with God. Inside, I think he felt “Then what the devil am I still doing here?” He insisted on an open coffin at the wake, as he had for his mother’s, so we got a last look at Maisie, draped in a Dominican habit that an old friend had promised her, and serene in death. Frank’s jubilation seemed to me to be slightly and touchingly overdone, as if he were still trying to teach us something. This was how a Christian should look at death, and not necessarily how one did. But at least it gave him something to do.
The funeral itself was rather stark, because Frank had asked for no music, and the ritual words seemed harsher in English than they used to in Latin. There seemed to be an awful lot of talk about the remission of Maisie’s sins, which made me laugh. I couldn’t think of a single one, unless perhaps she had omitted to say her morning prayers as a child. Anyway, it wasn’t stark to Frank. “I can hear trumpets,” he told editor Alice Mayhew, at the back of the church. So someone heard music...
Maisie was driven back to Jersey City one last time, and buried in a plot dominated by a large anonymous apartment building... Frank lingered a moment. After all, he was looking at his own grave too, right next to Maisie’s. I suspect that right then, and at other moments to come, he couldn’t wait to get into it.
Leftover Life to Kill, as Dylan Thomas’ widow, Caitlin, called her book. But Frank, being Frank, could never just kill time—waste it cheerfully perhaps, but not kill it. In fact, though he couldn’t have guessed it that day, he walked out of the dingy cemetery into some pretty good years.
He would be on his own now, a solo, for the first time in fifty years (the golden anniversary had been just a breath away when Maisie died). He would have to travel even more lightly, which suited him fine. His lodgings seemed more than ever just the place he happened to be at the moment, identified only by the contents of his briefcase: the London papers, the scrawled-over legal pads. I never felt depressed visiting him in Jersey City, as I’d felt when he shared the dump with Maisie, partly because of his lordly transcendence of circumstance—and also because he was always just about to head off for somewhere else anyway. Now that Maisie was on her brief leave of absence, Frank had all the freedom that even an Australian could want, and he used it. He could still pay his way lecturing, anywhere he wanted to go, and where he wanted to go was where his friends were. Everywhere, that is. (Once when he and Maisie had just circled the globe one more time, someone asked them what hotels they’d stayed in. “Hotels?” said Frank in mock shock. “Hotels?”)
He was also lighter by one publishing house, and this was an unalloyed pleasure. A different sort of man might have found it heart-breaking to let S & W go: but Frank, who sometimes referred to himself as doing “my famous imitation of a businessman,” was profoundly happy to pack up his swag bag and hit the road where he belonged.
Among the many families that nudged Frank out into the open sea I suppose I would have to list my own, but this takes us back in time, to the days when Maisie was flourishing and Frank was not. In the late sixties, my wife and I decided to liquidate a fruitful [in the form of three children], but in the end impossibly turbulent marriage, and suddenly the plague was in his own house. The dreamy advice that was perfectly good enough for great-nephews-once-removed turned to cinders in his own heart.
A Sheed could do no wrong. So there must be something to this that he couldn’t see. He turned to Rosemary—what did she think? Rosemary, living in and around the battlefield of modern marriage, said that separations were sometimes better than the alternative. Maisie, for her part, muttered her immortal line, “I’m at such a disadvantage when faced with reality.” But faced with this most brutal of choices, she voted dejectedly for the happiness of her children over Church law. I felt monstrous putting them through all this and would have turned back a dozen times if I could have; yet in retrospect I suppose that somebody had to put them through it, if they were going to go on teaching anyone at all under fifty.
Frank’s first reaction was flinty. “What about the kid’s religion?” he snapped.
I wasn’t in much of a position to dictate that, and hadn’t been for some time. This was the sixties and the most tyrannical parents could no longer answer for their children’s thoughts. Besides, my wife had given up on the Church herself and I was about to be severed from it smartly, unless I took a vow of celibacy. So—no answer to that one.
“You know this will break your mother’s heart.” I record this hesitantly as perhaps the only unworthy thing he ever said in a serious moment (I remember the other six; but they weren’t serious). I rallied slightly against what I took to be emotional blackmail. Why not talk about his own heart for a change? Was he too grand to have one? Or was it only other people, who suffered and needed help?
Actually, his heart, acknowledged or otherwise, was probably hurting worse than Maisie’s. For his whole life he had reflexively sided with the woman in these matters; but now he didn’t know enough to take sides. Perhaps he hadn’t in other cases. His sense of justice, love of family, love of God must have been in terrible tension. Hence, his desperate remark. For her part, and after the first round of tears, Maisie’s heart held up very well and she seemed quite pleased that I’d found another companion. In her still impenetrable innocence, she asked if I couldn’t find a nice man to live with instead. Well, no, not in New York right now, I explained.
Remarriage, of course, was the sticking point. Couldn’t I just live with a woman, and let it go at that? asked Maisie—casually proposing to me the kind of bohemianism that had caused lifelong ostracism in the world of her youth. She wouldn’t have blinked over that. She had seen worlds undreamed of in the old family parsonage, and she never felt entitled to less distress in life than other people. She just thought I’d be happier in reach of the sacraments. “Do you still consider yourself a Catholic?” she asked me in a labouriously offhand way. “As long as they’ll have me,” I said, looking out an imaginary window. And we never directly addressed the question again.
Frank had never appeared to judge people, and had been privy to a million secrets in consequence. But somewhere in his seventies, and the century’s, he really stopped judging them, and they must have sensed it. Because he began confiding the dark doings of old friends as if they were things that might happen to either of us: drugs, promiscuity, despair—things extremely unlikely to happen to him, but he had been brushed by them, had felt their breath. The old monsignor in him still might rise up over a silly sermon, but seldom again on a matter of personal morals. He knew that even the House of Sheed offered no sanctuary.
I sensed a certain relief in him. His policeman chores had never sat well, and the great fund of worldly wisdom he’d accumulated could now be brought into play without constant reference to the rule book. He didn’t, of course, become a moral relativist, or spineless twit, but he did let out his hair shirt and ours a notch or two, and just in time, because Rosemary’s marriage proceeded to hit the rocks not long after mine did and then suddenly the rocks were strewn with Catholic marriages. In my own crowd of journalists and deep thinkers, a few who had seemed to disapprove of my divorce at first were now in the same cracked boat. O pioneer! By chance, and a few minutes, I was the first of what we once called laughingly the Catholic Literary Establishment to lead us out into the barren land of alimony and child support.
Frank was braced for it now. He no longer asked about anyone’s kids’ religion: he saw that it was up to him to do something about it, if anyone was going to—and not to convert or reconvert them, but to keep lines open and listen. And this is where his second childhood came from, in the most benign sense. Like many entertainers he’d been gradually growing old with his material. Now he had a whole new room to work. Not that he addressed himself, like some old Pantaloon, or Danny Kaye, exclusively to children. But he had them in mind. And he knew that stale fights with Scripture scholars didn’t quite make it with the Jesus Christ Superstar generation.
In his later work he took to exploring and celebrating the Bible rather than defending it (let it look after itself, if he could just get people to read it). With this in mind he took up Greek in his late seventies, at once buoyed and irritated by the fact that Cato had allegedly learned it at ninety. I was reminded of the new lease on life that Edmund Wilson had received from the Dead Sea Scrolls: a change is as good as a rest, as Minny Maloney used to say, even in intellectual pursuits. So Frank ceased spluttering over people with names like Bultmann and commenced to bubble over different shadings of the word “spirit.” His fighting days were over.
Since he could only hear people one at a time [because of his growing deafness], this became more and more his angle on life. In the last years, “I knew your father” became a much more precious phrase than “I heard your father speak.” His private self was more nuanced and sophisticated than the old Orator. Shouting into a crowd, he could still resort to the old simplicities. Head to head, he spoke precisely to your interests. “Aren’t you really saying such-and-such?” is usually a maddening locution, a crass attempt to change the other fellow’s terms into yours. But when Frank said it, it had a diamond-cutter’s precision. His concentration remained like a lawyer’s in this respect: he was totally wrapped up in your words and responded on precisely your level of sophistication. People like to muddy their thoughts about religion, so that they can have it and not have it at the same time, and Frank could clear this up for you if you really wanted. But whereas he used to wind up this exercise with a glum reading of the prisoner’s rights, he now added all the liberal good news he could think of: to wit, that all it now took to qualify for Holy Communion was a desire to have it.
This and later developments he had gleaned from the same Continental theologians he might once have accused of making religion too easy. Likewise, when Rome began the avant-garde experiment of granting marriage nullities on purely psychological grounds, he leaped at the chance to get one for me. Never mind that the phrase was almost Protestant in its vagueness: perhaps religion should be made easier in this screamingly difficult world. At least his own flesh and blood should not be excommunicated; and if not his, whose? So he became full time his own better half, a purveyor of good tidings for anyone who still had the faith to want them. “Rule the obedient with a rod of iron,” he used to say of old Church policy; but sometimes he had swung the rod himself. No more.
Since, maddeningly, I can only remember bits and scraps of what Frank said, what follows is more a mood than a conversation.
Mooching around the English countryside, Frank says apropos of nothing, or maybe of some cow he doesn’t like the look of, “Of course, conscience is simply the moral judgment of the intellect.”
Of course. Just what I was about to say. Actually the thought is important to him. Frank is forever so busy putting down mumbo jumbo, like a brushfire that won’t stay out, that he can’t allow any “small voices” (the popular notion of conscience) into the soul. Conscience is an activity, not a thing.
“Ah but in that case,” pipe I (oh, maybe ten years later on Forty-second Street), “why do you put so much stress on the distinction between intellect and will? Aren’t they also just activities of the soul and not separate things?”
He allowed that this was so, but that he still found the distinction useful. “And I shall go on using it, damnit.” Although he believed totally in the unitary soul, indestructible because it has no parts, his imagination was always merrily splitting it anyway. For instance, “The writer and the man are of course quite different people,” he said (in the South of Spain this time). Life had sent him enough cranky little men who wrote like angels and large slow nuns with minds like razors to justify the superstition. But just to keep things going, I said, “That’s like saying that the man at breakfast is different from the man playing poker” or whatever. You can’t divide your precious subatom by giving it a typewriter or a full house.
He gave me a wait-till-you’re-older smile (I was only about thirty by now). He knew that writers were monsters quite unlike any other, and he was dashed if he was going to subject this certainty to scholastic hairsplitting about being and essence. In getting Frank’s proportions right, it is crucial to remember how often the theologian in him took the day off, allowing his cheerful partner to skylark. The theologian and the man are not the same thing.
In fact, what kept all our strands of conversation going from roughly my twelfth year to the end of his life was his playfulness as we chased each other’s sticks around the yard. I could tell if he was having a bad day when he refused to play. One time I told him that I secretly expected God, at the Last Judgment, to say, “To begin with, I want to apologize to all of you for this particularly cruel and pointless joke I’ve just played on you.” “So,” said Frank, beetling, “you imagine God stepping out of eternity to say that?” He was serious—not about my little blasphemy, but about the theology of divine communication. Too much for me, sir.
He always considered himself a simple man whose psyche had not changed materially since his first memory. But I found him most agreeably divided. Despite our above argument (and we had a hundred like it), I could accept such concepts as Man the Croquet Player, not to say Man the Father and the Son, more easily than he could, with his essentialist metaphysics, and I was glad to have as many of him as possible.
Through thick and thin and frayed ear nerves [Frank was going deaf], the conversation went on. Unfortunately, I was no Boswell, and a million great lines have gone to rest.
Here at least are his verdicts on the three-and-a-half countries that had made him what he was. Of the Irish, he liked to say, “They have wit but no humour,” chiefly because of the gratifying (and confirming) howl this always provoked in Dublin. Of the Scots, he said, there were two vitally important things to remember, “One, that they love philosophy, and two, that they’re no good at it,” a remark I was often tempted to throw back at him when he had me in a corner. As for England, “The unmixed English are horrors.” And finally, of Irish-America, his half country, “The Irish are just no good at being rich.” (Concerning Australia, he could find nothing even faintly critical to say. There had to be a perfect country somewhere—else where would the concept have come from? “I’m sure Saint Anselm would bear me out on this.”)
Well, these were just some of his verdicts. His best stuff was more free-floating than that, pure humour in fact, but I find these specimens interesting because they sound cynical, but aren’t: they’re too buoyant. His mighty heritage of sarcasm had been distilled into this lighter affair, a sort of tap dance between asperity and charity that delighted me all my days, not to mention several hundred other people’s.
Not that he was always dancing. But unlike so many people who can’t shift from funny to serious and back without a mighty grinding and stripping of gears, Frank made the change almost imperceptibly. Here are just a couple of his reasonably serious “fatherisms” plucked from memory: One of us is worried about somebody else’s good opinion. Frank: “Would you ask that person’s advice about anything truly important to you?” [A splutter of “no’s.”] “Then why do you give a damn what she thinks about you?” Another time one of us complains that the people at a party seemed empty and superficial. Frank: “Do you mean that they wouldn’t pay attention to you?” [Damn right.] But always, and especially for me after I took to reviewing, his favourite Latin motto: “Eagles do not kill flies.” If we weren’t exactly eagles, at least we could act like ones. He always did.
My thoughts of Maisie are altogether different. She was a speaker, not a conversationalist, and when she wanted to say something quotable, she simply quoted someone—Newman, Chesterton, Austen, one of her old reliables. I think of her more characteristically in situations, with her Polish beekeeper and her strange farmers and the whole wild menagerie that such a life recruits. I remember her also on the platform, looking so fragile and vulnerable until somebody crossed her, at which point she turned, just like that, into Churchill. Her mind when aroused was incredibly swift and sharp, and I was every bit as cautious about arguing with her as I was with Frank—if the argument was serious. Frank had no peer at the Silly Argument.
When Maisie was absentminded, she was awesomely absentminded. She would walk into empty rooms talking, or full ones reading, and proceed to eat her lunch reading and leave again reading—pausing only to howl, “That ass Ullathorne?” or “What on earth did Froude think he was doing?” Blessedly, Frank always knew what she was talking about and would drop whatever he was doing to cluck over the asinine Ullathorne or the pig-headed Froude.
But Maisie was not an absentminded mother. No one ever concentrated more on the details, the galoshes and indeed dental appointments of life. If Rosemary or I stayed out all night, she worried mightily—not about our morals, which were cast-iron by definition, but our safety.... Of course fussiness without love usually only makes things worse with mothers. Maisie, contrariwise, fairly brimmed with love. If she hadn’t seen you for a while, she would give a little bob to her head as if she wanted it to convey more pleasure than was humanly possible. “It’s wonderful to have you all together,” she would exclaim in the middle of lunch, her face giddy with happiness. Her love was as naked as the rest of her mind and she counted it a miracle that she’d found a man who could return it. They would both go on about each other’s excellences at what seemed wearisome length when we were young; but this mutual star-struck quality was the dynamo that made the whole thing work, family, publishing house and all.
“Your mother is a very great woman.” “Your father is a remarkable man.” In this book, I have only hinted at their achievements and scarcely mentioned their books, which I leave to some better scholar than they were able to produce themselves. But I would like to mention just one title, Frank Sheed’s The Instructed Heart, one of the last things he wrote. It is a sort of spiritual meditation on Maisie, and its title celebrates the highest human attainment he could conceive of. It’s a private, somewhat inaccessible essay, based on his latest linguistic adventures: the sense of the word “heart” in the Scriptures, and their languages. This is Frank, in his eighties, presenting his latest gift to his bride. Then, after waiting around patiently, fruitfully, he goes with absolute certainty to join her. Consummatum est.
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