Xenia Sheehan lives at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery in Pennsylvania, where she works as resident advisor to the women’s dorm. Xenia has been a book editor for much of her life and has done graduate study in English at the University of Wisconsin, in Counseling at Norwich University in Vermont, and in Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. She was propelled into doing a bit of writing by her husband's repose in 2010 because he left a number of papers that needed to be made into books. Raised in an atheist family, Xenia found her way to Orthodoxy following her husband and younger son in 1989. She says she is now working on "making it to the finish line by keeping in mind that, there where ascetic life is lived mindfully and humbly is where souls are being purified and bodies are being made into temples of the Holy Spirit."
As I chanted, the fifth verse struck me like a blow: “Weeping shall endure for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Although my eyes were brimming with tears, I felt a great joy fill my soul, and I was once more overcome by God’s purpose—by us being placed there, then, to witness Don’s beautiful death, and by the reading of that line moments after I had stopped weeping.
—From Lydia Carr’s Epilogue to The Grace of Incorruption
The Grace of Incorruption is a tribute to my husband’s discovery, early in life, of a grace that transfigures and redeems the disaster of evil. From the doctor, “his great arms and torso coming down to me, his face silent in concentrated stillness bending over me, his hands intimate and strong and exact and delicate . . . undoing the death my hapless friend had almost dealt me”; to the nine-year-old whose daring—“something that still takes my breath away”— leads him to sit down beside his drunken and raging father to point out a picture in a magazine; to an Army officer’s gift of his love of poetry to a troubled teenage soldier-in-training who would much later affirm that “the ruining oppositions of actual experience are held within the musical disciplines of lyric art”; to the Orthodox Prayer of the Heart that descends on him, “perfectly and gently, without the slightest air of even the least compulsion”—“the prayer simply filled all of me”—for most of a year following his visit of forgiveness to his father’s grave, departing only after leading him to the Orthodox Church; to the sweet gathering of friends around him at his own parting, where “joy and sorrow mingled into something painfully beautiful, and the love in the room was tangible”—the corruptions Don Sheehan encountered in life were touched by Grace and made whole.
In this book of his selected essays, I have gathered much of what he wrote after the Prayer came to him in 1983 and radically changed both his life and mine. In doing this, I hoped to share with others the great beauty of this man’s soul and perhaps bring some completion and fulfillment to the work he had begun. But the project has served me, too. I have gotten to know him better and value him even more; and I’ve been able to continue hearing his voice (so richly present in this work!) long after it was silenced by illness and death. By God’s grace, I have now been given more than half a century in the company of this best friend I love, and now miss, so much.
Only late in the process have I become able to articulate the theme that weaves this work together and makes it more of a synaxis than merely a selection. In everything Don writes about—his pilgrimages, his faith, Psalms, poetics, Shakespeare, Salinger, Dostoevsky, modern poets he loved, the Saints and holy Fathers of the Church, personhood, violence, depression, and always love—he tenderly, thoughtfully, and with his usual quiet intelligence, leads us to an encounter with the saving presence of that “supreme grace of genuine relation,” especially between the human and the divine, that lifts all things out of corruption and “confers something of grace on the natural world in actions of sovereign ascetic love.” Everywhere in this book, we see “the psychic agony of corruption” yielding before and opening the way to the experience of incorruption, which is the experience of joy.
This theme is summed up in the last, brief, unfinished, chapter of his handwritten manuscript entitled “The Incarnation of Love in Psalm 118.” Here he inserted (more deliberately than I first understood) a long letter he’d read at his twin brother’s funeral. In it, he tells his brother, “You were my leader, my ‘point man,’ the one who blazed the trail . . . When Nora called to tell me you’d died, I cried out and yelled in pain, fell to the floor and began to weep and weep. And all my illness of two or more years coalesced into this moment of your death: coalesced and focused, the way a knife is solid and sharp: and somehow clearer. And the days since that moment have made the clarity somehow (but how?) more bearable, more capable of being healed.”
He goes on in the two following, and final, paragraphs, to speak of Psalm 118’s fourth stanza and its ascetic, “Athonite tone” as witnessing to “the movement of love’s incarnation.” He says, “the movement from lying prostrate on the earth to running the way of God’s commandments is the active incarnation of love, by means of God’s enlargement of the heart”:
My soul lies prostrate on the earth,
Quicken me according to thy word . . .
My soul has fainted from depression,
Strengthen me with thy words . . .
I have run the way of thy commandments
When thou didst enlarge my heart.
—(Ps 118:25, 28, 32; Psalms of David, trans. Donald Sheehan)
And the book ends: “My experience of visiting Mount Athos was an experience of my heart being made larger.”
What he is saying here is what he has been saying throughout the book: In St. Isaac’s words, “the man who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection” (Homily 46). But this path is always the way of Christ’s Cross, the ascetic way, the Athonite way, which is the very way of our personhood. For the Cross, Don says, enables our personhood; indeed, it is our very personhood. Again he quotes St. Isaac: “the more our participation in its sufferings, the greater the perception we gain through the cross” (Homily 74).
Fr. Thomas Moore, quoting Hebrews (4:12), describes the “ascetic struggle” that he witnessed in Don’s life and finds now in his book as, like the word of God, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow.” He names Don a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” who reveals to us in this book “the ‘drama of intimacy’ we sadly so often distractedly miss.”
Paraclete Press is now taking advance orders for The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics at:
The Grace of Incorruption: The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics
Edited by Xenia Sheehan,
Foreword by Christopher Merrill
Paraclete Press 2015
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