Donald Sheehan (d. 2010) was an American poet and academic who converted to Orthodox Christianity in the mid 1980s, and who spent much of the rest of his life, in intellectual and artistic terms, applying his poetical prowess, skill and knowledge to the holy scriptures, in particular the Psalter.
Sheehan’s widow, Xenia Sheehan, has posthumously published both his Psalter translation and a collection of his essays on various literary/religious topics. Both are well worth reading (his essays are incredibly insightful into the psalms in particular), but especially his essay on what initially brought him to the church. I will quote a bit from it here, with a few comments interspersed.
Sheehan begins by describing his early childhood, growing up with a violent and alcoholic father, and the deep trauma this caused him. Years later, as an adult, he developed a different perspective on his life, including his relationship with his by-then deceased father. In his early 40s, together with his wife and young children he visited his father’s grave in Tennessee to offer him forgiveness and to reach some degree of what we might today call “closure”.
The long journey back to New Hampshire [from Tennessee] was peaceful. But because Carol and I needed to be at work Monday morning — and David at school – we drove as straight through as we could manage. So it was near midnight of Easter Sunday, April 3rd, when we arrived home. We got our sleepy sons out of the car and into their beds, and then we unloaded the car and, too exhausted even to talk, we sank into our bed like stones dropped into water. It was around 1:00 am.
At dawn on April 4, I was all of a sudden awakened, fully and completely. What awoke me were these words sounding in my mind: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. For an instant I thought someone had spoken aloud, but then I realized that the words were in me. I sat up, fresh and alert. The words repeated themselves. And then repeated again. I looked over at the window, and the first light of dawn was coming in. The words kept on being repeated.
So I got out of bed. The words in me were calm, neither slow nor fast, level in emphasis, each word distinct yet flowing into the next, with a tiny pause after the last words and then the whole beginning again.
I got dressed and went downstairs, faintly wondering why I felt so fine after such a long journey and so brief a rest. Only faintly wondering, because the prayer now occupied every tiny fraction of mental attention I had – for, perfectly and gently, without the slightest air of even the least compulsion, the prayer simply filled all of me.
I had no idea what was happening, but I was not even slightly disturbed. As I sat in our tiny kitchen, I knew that I could completely stop the experience at any instant I chose. But I did not want to end it, so peaceful and fresh I felt as the prayer kept flowing on in me, clear, substantial and real.
So it continued for weeks, until, on a trip to the library at Dartmouth College, where he was working as a professor, he came across a certain book:
The one afternoon, I was striding through the College library, and all at once I stopped and took a book off the shelf. It was The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymous nineteenth-century Russian book.
Then I suddenly remembered. Years before I had read J.D. Salinger’s beautiful story Franny and Zooey, where Franny has a great desire to say this prayer, called the Jesus Prayer, and she carries around with her a little book with this title. I was stunned. Among other wonders, I never knew until this moment that it was a real book Franny was carrying. I’d thought Salinger had invented it for his story.
I found a chair, and I read the opening twenty or so pages of The Way of a Pilgrim. Here was this very prayer, and it was long known (so a footnote told me) in the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia. I had never even heard the name of such a church. But the book told me the essential fact that I most needed. My prayer had a home.
Several months went by, with the prayer continuing in him. About nine months later, Sheehan decided to visit a local Catholic monastery.
And I still wondered now and then what an Orthodox Church was. Were there any in this country?
Then, late in January 1984, I acted on a whim. I went to visit a tiny Benedictine monastery in Connecticut This was a place that a poet I knew and liked had visited and deeply loved. I found that the abbot, Fr. John Giuliani, was a warm and perceptive and reassuringly uncomplicated man. On the second of my three days at the monastery, I asked him after morning Mass if I could talk to him alone, my heart all at once in my mouth.
And so I told Fr. John the whole story of my now ten months of experience with the prayer. He listed to it all with a great depth of stillness, a depth that buoyed me up in this my first time of telling. I sat with my head bowed, looking down at my hands, talking for a very long time. When I finished, I looked up at him – and was startled. His eyes were bright with tears.
“You know, my dear, that your father has given you a very great gift. When you went to his grave, you found that it was open – the way Christ’s tomb always stands open – and that loving does not die but binds together all the worlds. He has given you this prayer, my dear, because such loving as this between you never ceases but keeps working on and on.”
He lifted his hand in a graceful gesture.
“You must keep going the way God is calling you. The gift of your father’s is a very precious seed.
Oh, and you know, dear one, the Orthodox Church is everywhere. Just look around.”
I returned home with something like the seed of a great understanding. And all that winter and spring, when I prayed the psalms and the prayer each morning and evening, I somehow felt the memory of my father’s presence as clear, light and essential. And I wondered what Fr. John meant by the Orthodox Church being everywhere. New York? Boston?
Then, in the middle of May 1984, I opened the phone book to look up a number I knew perfectly well, and my eyes saw a listing for Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in a nearby town to the north. It literally took my breath away.
I waited three days so I could call calmly. The phone was answered by the wonderful priest who was to become my first father in Orthodoxy, Fr. Vladimir Sovyrda. I knew I was coming home.
By the time of my baptism as an Orthodox Christian on September 8, 1984, the prayer in me had entirely ceased. My little spiritual drama was over and the seed had vanished. But before me now stood open the immense and unending fruitfulness of the Orthodox way. And I knew at that moment what I know to this day: my father goes before me on that way.
God works indeed in various and mysterious ways, and differently in each of us. And He calls us to Him differently as well. But in reading through this story, even as regrettably hardened and even at times cynical as I have become in certain areas of my life, I felt at once chastened and renewed. And perhaps have regained some of that sense of wonder and awe that is appropriate for such things.