The Perennial Pupil

By Marvin Barrett

In one of the five books I refer to each morning to lift my spirits and clarify my own prayers is a cream-colored card with the following death announcement engraved upon it:

Henry Fitzgerald Heard
6 October 1889 London
14 August 1971 Santa Monica

Not only does the card serve as a bookmark, it is a daily reminder of the man who — along with being my reluctant spiritual director for a half-dozen years in my youth — stood as one of the truly remarkable souls and intellects of his time. A man called Gerald Heard who, although far from perfect himself, left a legacy of persuasive books recommending the most strenuous possible life of the spirit. Perhaps from the very strictness of his instruction he has been all but forgotten.

Not by me. Others may have found Heard an eloquent apologist for a way of life too arduous to consider. Although after several demanding years I abandoned his stricter recommendations, I did not succeed in escaping. He has remained my primary teacher and I his permanent pupil, perpetually in his tuition and debt. The conviction remains, although the instructor is long silent and the student far separated from the scene and moment of his conversion.

At twenty-two I was either too worldly or too innocent if innocence is ignorance and worldliness four years in an Ivy League college and a month as a provisional ensign in the U.S. Navy. At any rate, in the spring of 1942 the world was very much with everyone. Perhaps I was just needful, in a tight corner with a paralyzing tragedy in my past, confusion in my present, certain disaster — if the war bulletins were to be taken seriously — ahead. In a word, I was ripe.

As for Heard, he was no more the ideal teacher than I the pupil. A Cambridge Apostle and marginal member of Bloomsbury before the war, a writer, editor, pontificator in intellectual London after. With brilliant, unbelieving friends and colleagues, and a clergyman father hateful enough to put him off religion for life, he had experienced a triple displacement which had brought him not to a mountain top, desert, or ivory tower, but to a luxurious seaside villa on a cliff in Southern California.

Perhaps it was because he had fought so hard for his belief in God, against family, the received wisdom of the academy and the laboratory, and his brilliant smart-aleck chums, that he was so singularly convincing. The layers left by the struggle made a firm foundation for his conviction and my conversion; I had had similar, if lower, hurdles to clear.

We had little time for mutual criticism or sparring. I was on a weekend pass before being dispatched to the wars. He had another book to write, another congregation to address, other inquirers to entertain. However, as it always must be, the time was adequate, the place appropriate, the lesson simple and overwhelming. He was God-intoxicated, and I became tipsy myself. And so, with a few interruptions and detours along the way, I became the perennial pupil and he my always-present master. He remains so although thirty years dead and me, still struggling, approaching my ninth decade. There is indeed no chance nor accident [Ed. — one of Heard’s favorite maxims], nor forgetting that primordial lesson, nor release from the responsibility of delivering it. Nor, I am convinced, would either of us wish to forget or to be released.

This article first appeared in Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, Vol.XXV, No.3 (Fall 2000) and is reprinted by their kind permission and that of Marvin Barrett.

Marvin Barrett (1920-2006) authored 14 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He held degrees from Harvard and Drake universities. A former editor of Show and Atlas magazines, he had served as the radio and television editor of Newsweek and a contributing editor of Time magazine. For 16 years he was a senior lecturer at the Columbia University School of Journalism, and he was Founding Director of its Alfred I. DuPont Survey and Awards in Broadcast Journalism. There are significant mentions of Gerald Heard in two of Mr. Barrett's books, Spare Days and Second Chance.

"Perhaps it was because he had fought so hard for his belief in God, against family, the received wisdom of the academy and the laboratory, and his brilliant smart-aleck chums, that he was so singularly convincing."