By Jean Fitzpatrick
"All the candles burn. Miss F. has worked day and night on the flower arrangements....We raise our voices in some tuneless doggerel about life everlasting," wrote John Cheever in his journal in 1964. "These are earnest people, mostly old, making an organized response to the mysteriousness of life. What point would there be in going to church at daybreak to ridicule the priest? But he does draw a breathtaking parallel between the Resurrection and the invention of television." I was curious to read Cheever, Blake Bailey's new biography, because I love Cheever's stories and because I knew Miss F.
I live in Ossining, New York, Cheever's home for most of his adult life, where many of us saw him around town now and then and where he would grace us occasionally with elegant readings from his work. It wasn't until I'd attended All Saints' Church in neighboring Briarcliff Manor for several years that I learned that "the Chekhov of the suburbs" had been a parishioner and confirmand there. By the time I arrived Cheever was dead, but Miss F. -- Catherine Figart, by then an elderly, soft-spoken woman who had once been an artist -- still reigned over the Altar Guild.
Cheever's plain yet soaring sentences run through my mind every time I drive past his first house on my way to the Scarborough commuter train: "We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat," says Johnny Hake in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," "and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina's dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in Heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life."
"He was a transcendentalist, wasn't he?" I said to Bailey, who visited the Ossining Public Library recently for a talk and book-signing that drew Cheever's wife, Mary, son Ben, and a tribe of local friends, acquaintances and admirers.
"Yes," Bailey said, hesitating. Then he frowned. "But he also descended to complete and utter gloom."
In his book, Bailey notes that Cheever attended church for many years, often explaining that he'd regained his faith "as a result of falling in love for the first time, or, as he sometimes put it, 'because of an experience of sexual ecstasy so great that I felt impelled to respond through liturgical gesture.'" Cheever wasn't one to proselytize, Bailey writes, rarely mentioning his faith "except at odd moments when visited by the same happiness that had moved him to become a communicant in the first place: 'There has to be someone you thank for the party.'" But since the contrast between lyrical heights and despair was nowhere more evident than in Cheever's religious journey, which occupies surprisingly little space in Bailey's otherwise comprehensive tome, I decided to take another look at his published journals.
"To church this morning. I think I will be confirmed," he wrote in 1954. "The idea that I take this morning, is that there is some love in our conception; that we were not made by a ruttish pair in a commercial hotel." Page after page reveals Cheever's struggle to reconcile body and spirit, one that is often as startlingly fresh to the reader as it was surely agonizing for him: "To church; the second Sunday in Lent. From the bank president's wife behind me drifted the smell of camphor from her furs, and the stales of her breath, as she sang, 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.'"
Not surprisingly, as he sits in the pew he reflects on his bisexual longings: "Easter morning sunny and cool," he writes in 1959. "....The church for once is full. I am delighted to hear that Christ is risen. I think that it is not against God's will to have my generative powers refreshed by the face of a pretty woman in a forward pew or to wonder about the hairy and somehow limpid young man on my left. It is the combination of hairiness and wistful grace that seems to mark him."
In the same entry, he expresses his doubts, moving through them to embrace the religious imagination without ever letting go of unbelief: "When I hear that Mary found at the tomb a man in white raiment I am incredulous. It is hard for me to believe that God expressed His will, His intent in such a specific image. But when I go to the altar I am deeply moved. The chancel is full of lilies and their fragrance seems as fresh as it is heavy; a sign of good cheer. And that this message should have been revealed to us and that we should cherish it seems to be our finest triumph. Here in the chancel we glimpse some vision of transcendent love, some willing triumph over death and all of its lewd guises. And if it is no more than willingness, how wonderful that is in itself."
And eight years later: "I believe that there was a Christ, that he spoke the Beatitudes, cured the sick, and died on the Cross, and it seems marvellous to me that men should, for two thousand years, have repeated this story as a means of expressing their deepest feelings and intuitions about life."
As always, in church Cheever could feel like an outsider: "The church is meant to evoke rural England. The summoning bells, the late-winter sunlight, the lancet windows, the hand-cut stone," he wrote in 1952. "....World without end, I murmur, shutting my eyes, Amen. But I seem to stand outside the realm of God's mercy." He struggled to know what to do with the ancient stories, to understand them in the context of the human heart: "Palm Sunday. Ten above zero. .... What am I doing here on my knees, shaking with alcohol and the cold?" And over a decade later, "When we say, 'Christ, have mercy upon us,' we don't ask for a literal blessing, I think. We express how merciless we are to ourselves."
Cheever had an up-and-down relationship with his rector, the Rev. William Arnold, whom Bailey describes as "an affable, tippling bachelor." "With this man at least somewhat in mind," Bailey writes, "Cheever once told his son Ben that it didn't matter if the minister was a jackass -- though there were times, plainly, when it did. 'I will not go to church,' Cheever recorded on Good Friday, 'because B[ill] will insist upon giving a sermon and I will not have the latitude or the intelligence to overlook its repetitiousness, grammatical errors and stupidity.'
"Cheever stuck with All Saints," Bailey writes, "because it met his basic requirements: it used the Cranmer prayer book and was less than ten minutes away, and (as Susan Cheever pointed out) its altar was 'sufficiently simple so that it [didn't] remind him of a gift shop.' Also, the eight o'clock service was sermon-free, so he could have at least twenty-three minutes of relative peace each week ('a level of introspection that's granted to me at no other time')."
He did love the 1928 prayer book and the early service: "The language has the sumptuous magnificence of an Elizabethan procession," he wrote in his journal. "The penultimate clauses spread out behind their predicates in breadth and glory, and the muttered responses are emblazoned in crimson and gold. On it moves through the Lamb of God, the Gloria, and the Benediction until the last amen shuts like a door on this verbal pomp; and the drunken priest puts out his lights and hurries back to his gin bottle, hidden among the vestments." It was All Saints' switch to the 1979 prayer book that sent Cheever north to Trinity, Ossining -- one more Episcopalian who took a stand on liturgical grounds. Trinity he described as "a homely building of common granite...Now impoverished and in debt, barely kept together by the hands of the faithful...The carpet is, of course, worn; the colored windows are flashy and vulgar....But to me this is the climax of the week."
Trinity's rector at the time, the Rev. George Arndt, was the one Susan Cheever called to her father's deathbed, Bailey recounts. "'I don't think your father wants me,' said Arndt, who'd been sent away once before, angrily, since Cheever wasn't ready yet and despised the man besides. Sure enough, he began thrashing when he noticed Arndt standing there in his white robe." But Arndt made the sign of the cross on Cheever's forehead and Mary, Ben and Susan joined hands around the bed and recited the Lord's Prayer.
Those were words Cheever himself had spoken without irony, it seems, at AA meetings, where his inner critic was otherwise as sharp as ever. Pain and the longing for love were, as always, intertwined: "I do observe how loudly and with what feeling we say the Lord's Prayer in these unordained gatherings," he'd written five years earlier. "The walls of churches have not for centuries heard prayers said with such feeling. Deep."
Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.