The Writings of Frank Sheed: Here Comes Theology for Everyone
BOOKS FEATURE: The 20th-century Catholic writer used plain English to reveal to the ordinary man and woman the richness of Catholicism.
On Trinity Sunday, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, used his homily to talk about the central Christian belief of the one God being Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
He explained, as all wise priests and bishops do, the Trinity is a mystery, yet it is also the truth.
It can be glanced at, we can understand elements of it from time to time, but to fully grasp it is beyond mere mortals.
As an aside, Cardinal Collins mentioned a few of his favorite books of apologetics — works Catholics could delve into during this quiet time of pandemic to better understand their faith.
Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed was the first one he recommended. A better book or author he could not have picked.
Sheed was one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century. The author of more than a dozen books, Sheed’s genius was to employ simplicity as a gateway to crystalline clarity. He disdained jargon and arcane philosophical references that do nothing to help the questioning reader. Instead, he used plain English to reveal to the ordinary man and woman the richness of Catholicism.
Along the way he founded the publishing house Sheed and Ward in London in the 1920s and eventually moved the business to New York, publishing such writers as G.K. Chesterton.
He died in 1982 at the age of 95 in Jersey City, New Jersey.
In the introduction to Sheed’s Christ in Eclipse, newly rereleased by Ignatius Press, Peter Kreeft, a great apologist in his own right, says this:
“Frank Sheed is the Catholic C.S. Lewis. He simply cannot write a bad or boring book.”
Sheed could easily be seen as the grandfather of modern apologetics. He brought a Protestant sensibility to his new faith — Sheed had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father but found his way into his mother’s faith — by standing on a soapbox in Hyde Park in London to explain Catholicism to passersby.
When is the last time anyone saw a Catholic preaching on a street corner?
Patrick Madrid, in a 2011 article in Crisis, an online Catholic magazine, related what he was told by an observer who saw Sheed engage the crowd in Hyde Park:
“He worked on hecklers and skeptics and scoffers the way a chiropractor works on a bad back — probing, searching for the tensed-up muscle, finding it, and going to work on it with precision. He massaged the minds of his audiences, breaking down hardened prejudices against Catholicism, kneading the ‘God does not exist!’ arguments until they crumbled, and showing atheists the folly of their denials. He made countless converts on the stump.”
Like his books, his talks were approachable because he did not talk down to his audience. Simplicity in oration and writing is a gift that Sheed had in abundance. He tackled complicated topics by cutting through the chaff to get to the wheat.
That simplicity was also part of who he was as a person. Msgr. Fred Dolan, the head of Opus Dei Canada, was living in New York City in the late 1970s and working for Scepter Publishing, known for promoting the books of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei.
As Msgr. Dolan explained to the Register, he wanted to meet with Sheed to get some ideas about running a publishing house.
He had just read Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus and was greatly impressed. The book takes the reader through a ground-eye view of the Holy Land when Christ walked the Earth, imagining with the help of the Gospels, how to understand Jesus’ influence on the key biblical actors of the day — from St. John the Baptist to St. Mary Magdalene and others whose names we read in Scripture.
Rather than meet at a fancy city restaurant, Sheed suggested that Msgr. Dolan come to a bench in Grand Central Station, the great railroad hall where it seems all of humanity passes by every day.
“What I remember was he was very simple; just the fact he wanted to meet in a railway station was an indication of that,” Msgr. Dolan told the Register. “I remember a very kind, amiable and available person.”
Probably Sheed’s two most important works are Theology for Beginners and Theology and Sanity.
The first book explains the fundamentals of the faith. It is especially strong on the Trinity. The second book builds on the first to carve out an even greater depth of knowledge.
The title Theology and Sanity points to Sheed’s belief that a person is never full in his right mind without knowing the “truth.” It does not mean that those who are outside the faith are insane, but that they are living in a confusing and sinful world with no map to see them through to clarity.
Indeed, one of Sheed’s most popular books is called A Map of Life.
In a sense, he reemphasized over and over in his work that our faith is not one truth among many truths, but the one and only truth.
In his discussion on the Trinity in Theology for Beginners, he starts with a few simple questions: “What does God do with his eternity? What does he do with himself? He is not infinitely idle; what is his life-work?”
Slowly, he introduces the three Persons and explains what the function of each is, all the while reminding the reader that this does not mean three gods but three Persons in unity.
So when the Holy Spirit is at work, for example, the Father and Son are also present. And so it goes for each of the Persons of the Trinity.
Like a good teacher, Sheed asks the reader not to rush. He suggests taking time to reflect and come back and read again. He understood that what at first feels like certain understanding could be fleeting.
“The truths God has revealed to us of his innermost life are not easy for us to take hold of and make our own. They do not yield much of their meaning at a fist glance. I can only urge readers to go back over [what they have read] many times. Remember that we are making this study not to discover whether there are three persons in God … but simply to get more light on it and from it,” he writes in Theology for Beginners.
Moreover, Sheed makes his readers aware that theology is more than intellectual concepts, and simple rote learning will not suffice.
“I can only state the plain fact that without prayer there will be precious little understanding,” Sheed writes. “Our minds cannot take God’s inner life by storm; we shall see as much as he gives us light to see.”
Christ in Eclipse, originally published in 1978, reads like the culmination of Sheed’s entire body of work. Rather than explain the faith, it asks a question: How much do you love Jesus?
“For the last 10 years a feeling has been growing in me that there is something strange in the attitude of Christians towards Christ,” Sheed writes in the preface.
He began to believe that many good Christians who try to live by his teachings and engage in the sacraments and “would die rather than deny him … do not in fact find him very interesting, or his message meeting any needs they are aware of in themselves.”
Christ in Eclipse can be uncomfortable to read. Sheed puts the reader on the spot. It is one thing to grasp things intellectually and then to go through all the right motions in the Mass and pray the Rosary daily. But, Sheed wonders, are we really awake to it all? Are we in a kind of spiritual “coma?” Do we really love God? Do we understand that by being more aware we could be saving the world?
“Nothing could do more for human relations that to take for a fact of life that every man is made by God in his own image and so is of value simply as a man,” he writes. “It is not easy for us to see this because of the mess we have all made of ourselves and the mess other men have made of us by their injustices. But if we had the basic fact built into our awareness, every instinct would make us want to heal the mess — in ourselves and in others … .”
Charles Lewis writes from Toronto.
Books by Frank Sheed are available at Ignatius Press; Christ in Eclipse was reissued this year.
EWTN Religious Catalogue also carries several Sheed titles.