The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics
From start to finish, this beautiful book is a spiritual “powerhouse,” a grace-filled stream, a gift of joy – from the tender, perceptive heart and mind of the author, the lay poet-theologian Donald Sheehan (1940 – 2010), into our own hearts and minds! And it’s a double labor of love: first, Don’s very careful crafting of the articles, writing as a true wordsmith; and second, the superb editing work done by his beloved wife, Xenia, after his repose in the LORD. I use their first names, because I knew Don personally (though not real well), and Xenia is now part of our community at St. Tikhon’s.
In the first half of the book, entitled “Reflections on Life, Literature, and Holiness,” Don begins with a profoundly touching autobiographical sketch. Then he takes us through fascinating studies of various aspects of the deep spiritual wisdom of Saints Ephrem and Isaac of Syria, St. Dionysios the Areopagite, St. Herman of Alaska, Feodor Dostoevsky (through Alyosha, Dmitri, and Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov), and even in William Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and Robert Frost’s “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” In these reflections, he interweaves his deep knowledge of these sources with his keen spiritual sensibilities to open many spiritual vistas for the reader.
In the second half of the book, entitled “Orthodox Poetics and the Great Psalm (LXX 118),” Don uses his extensive knowledge of poetical syntax, and of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, to magnificently explicate many fascinating nuances in the construction and content of the Septuagint version of Psalm 118, which he describes as an extended “drama of intimacy” (p. 189) between the Divine “Thou” and the human “I” (p. 187). He helped me much by explaining that this psalm’s repeated use of nine words for God’s law, and the ten-fold inclusion of the phrase “Teach me Thy statutes,” are by no means part of an exercise in monotony, but rather a majestic crescendo of intensification in the psalmist’s ever-deepening relationship with the LORD. And not just ever-deepening through moments of joy, but also through periods of depression and despair – which the psalmist comes to see as gifts from the LORD (“It is good that thou hast humbled me/ That I might learn thy statutes” – v. 71; in Don’s words, “the experience of His fury and terror utterly unmakes you” – p. 123) to convince the psalmist of his utter desolation without GOD’s ongoing love and support (“I have gone astray like a lost sheep/ Seek out thy servant” – v. 176).
In an earlier chapter, in intensifying the dynamism of the imagery used to describe one’s growing relationship with God, Don calls it a “dance” (p. 109) – indeed, “a dance of blessedness” (p. 111). This dance transforms our entire being; as he writes, for instance,
In the same way, our depression can move into the dance with God’s wisdom. Whenever we can turn our tears of depression toward God – or our anger or fear or even our joy; indeed, all that we do or think or feel or say – then we meet Him coming toward us in mercy, in teaching, in opening our eyes, in gracious judgment, in quickening, in strengthening, in enlarging our hearts, in bestowing wisdom and hope and genuine stillness” (p. 113).
Don’s many vivid insights about various aspects of the life in Christ ring so true because they flow out of his own ongoing powerful, mystical experience of the living GOD, even as he bases his descriptions in the Scriptures – especially the Psalms, and in particular Psalm 118 – and in the Church Fathers, especially St. Isaac the Syrian. It all combines to compellingly invite, and indeed, draw the reader into the same dance of blessedness with our Creator and Savior. As Don writes, referring to Psalm 118,
Now, as we move through the 176 lines of this poem, we see affirmed the truth that God never has and never will utterly abandon anyone, never. He is always moving toward us in every way possible. What is necessary is that we move also and always toward Him (p. 111; his emphasis).
And what is also necessary is for us to come, as the Psalmist David did, to the vivid realization that we are indeed helpless without our LORD to guide and strengthen us. As Don writes,
God reveals Himself as wholly beyond us at the very moment He wills us wholly into Himself. And the single – indeed, the one and only – capacity we possess to respond rightly to God’s infinity and calling-forth is our capacity for humility: our capacity, that is, to be nothing before God, and therefore deeply responsive to Him (p. 224).
This includes putting aside, through “holy ascesis” and “sovereign ascetical love” (p. 58), our own “endless desirings”; as the Psalmist says in Psalm 118, “Incline my heart to thy testimonies/ And not to endless desirings” (v. 36). And as Don says of Dmitri Karamazov, “The result in Dmitri is the rush of understanding that, as the false freedom of self-willed autonomy vanishes, genuine joy arrives” (p. 26).
The book is also graced with Don’s own magnificent, powerful translation of the Septuagint version of Psalm 118 (with the original Greek provided), which, along with his translation of the entire Psalter (published by Wipf and Stock; 2013), is enriched greatly by his intimate and intense knowledge of the Psalms, gained in large part through his practice for years of reading through and meditating upon the entire Psalter every week.
Throughout the book, the author interweaves brief accounts of particularly moving personal spiritual experiences, such as when he visited St. Herman’s Spruce Island, and when he venerated the incorrupt relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh at his Holy Trinity Monastery in Russia. Glimpses into Don’s last years fighting the depression that came with suffering from Lyme Disease are poignantly revealed through entries from his diary, and his final days and funeral are vividly described by his young goddaughter’s mother.
Acute pain, acute joy, moments of darkness, and moments of radiant, triumphant light all suffuse this truly remarkable book by a truly remarkable man – mystic, poet, teacher, translator, sage, and ardent lover of Christ. He is one who has already deeply touched the lives of many through his own unforgettable life. Now he lives on in a very real way in this book – through which, I’m sure, he will touch the lives of many more, by the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ.
The Grace of Incorruption –
The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan
on Orthodox Faith and Poetics
by Donald Sheehan
(Brewster, MA: Paraklete Press, 2015)
Reviewed by Dr. David C. Ford
St. Tikhon’s Seminary
South Canaan, PA
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