I logged on to Fr. Stephen Freeman’s Glory to God For all Things late, late last night as I hadn’t been on there in awhile and I noticed a short post regarding the passing away of a professor Donald Sheehan (here). Out of curiosity I clicked on the link to a lecture he gave entitled Dostoevsky and Memory Eternal. Skimming through it I came to a bit of his personal history he included in the talk. It was about his conversion to Orthodoxy. Although there are so many amazing ways people come to find Orthodoxy I don’t think I’ve ever heard something similar to this. I don’t usually have long posts on here but I think you’ll excuse me this one time for including the rather lengthy part of the lecture in which he speaks of his discovery of Orthodoxy.
I was thinking of this story earlier today. I went back on Fr. Stephen’s blog and read some of the comments. Among them was one by his son which amazed me even more since there appeared to be a connection (a very, very small one mind you) between me and the late professor +Donald. Namely, he was buried at the Greek Monastery in Troy, North Carolina. You see, in my post about our visit there a few weeks ago, I didn’t mention that I commented to one of the sisters, half jokingly, how our visit happen to be on a historic day of the monastery – they were having their first burial. All I knew is that it was someone from South Carolina. And now I know the rest of the story.
May God grant him Memory Eternal!
By way of conclusion, I want to explore the Orthodox significance of Memory Eternal in the light of my own experience in becoming Orthodox. I do this not because I think my own experience is especially illuminating (it isn’t); nor because I understand it very deeply (I don’t). I am using my own experience simply because it is mine.
I was raised in a violent home, where, until I was nine years old, my father’s alcohol addiction fueled his open or just barely contained violence, a home where my mother was beaten over and over (I remember her face covered with blood). Alcohol broke apart my home in a violent paroxysm the night of July 4th, 1949, the summer I was nine. The police were in our living room in the small hours of July 5th. I remember all of this very clearly.
Some three weeks earlier, in June, I was shot in the chest with a pistol, the bullet entering two inches below my heart. The gunman was my best friend, also age nine, and we had found his big brother’s target pistol while we were playing at his house.
What I remember most vividly about the shooting – I remember viscerally, without having to make any conscious effort at all to remember – is lying on the operating table and seeing the doctor over me, his hands at the wound very skillfully and tenderly probing for the bullet – 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.
And I remember, too, my father and mother coming into the operating room, my father hastily dressed as he fought through a thick hangover to put clothes on, both their faces made into vivid masks of desperate panic. But I remember feeling absolutely serene in the hands of this doctor; my parents’ terror did not touch me as I attended peacefully to these hands that were giving my life back to me, hands that were undoing the death that my hapless friend had almost dealt me. Some three weeks later my home would break apart, and my mother would take the three of us children (my sister, brother, and me) to her brother’s home. But the terror of the July 4th catastrophe would not grip me the way it would have a month before; it would not shake me the way a dog shakes a tiny animal it has seized, to break its neck. By the time of the breaking, I had had other hands at my heart, I had had my life given back to me.
That summer of 1949, my family’s home slowly but surely moved to the July 4th catastrophe. By the last week of June, I had almost fully recuperated from my gunshot wound, but my father’s drinking had grown worse. He would come home every afternoon those days fairly drunk, and then throughout the evening he would get very drunk. And as he got drunker, he would begin a pattern of outbursts of rage and smashing of things, followed by periods of eerie calm. After each outburst, the four of us – my mother, sister, brother, and I – would tiptoe around, speaking only in soft whispers, so as not to trigger the next round of rage.
But on this particular evening in late June, the bouts of raging had grown longer, and the calm spells meant only that he was regathering his will for the next round of violence. The second round that evening had been about twenty minutes of raging at all of us in the kitchen – and breaking some dishes – and then he stormed out of the kitchen and through the dining room and into the living room: and all was suddenly quiet. Making my way on tiptoe across the dining room, I peeked around the living room door. He was sitting on the couch, staring at his hands.
Then I did something that still takes my breath away. I walked across the living room and sat down on the couch right next to him. I picked up a magazine from the coffee table and opened to the first pictures I came to, and I pointed to one. “Look, Dad, isn’t that interesting?” I didn’t dare look at him.
No answer. After a moment, I looked up at him, and I found that he was looking down at me. Over fifty years later I can still see my father’s eyes. They were sad eyes, yet peaceful, warm, and profoundly young, with all the wildness gone out and, in place of it, something like stillness. And I felt all at once peaceful, the way I’d felt on the operating table at the hospital three weeks before.
He looked at me for a long, long minute, and then he spoke. “You’re the only one not afraid of me.”
I was just old enough to know what gratitude sounded like in my father’s voice. And so to this day and hour, I know what the person my father is sounds like when he speaks.
The moment was quickly swept away, for that summer of our family’s life was wholly in the violent hands of Satan. But that moment was – beyond every logic I know – a seed.
In late March of 1983, I was moved to visit my father’s grave. He had died seven years before, and I had not yet fully taken in the irrevocable fact. It was for me, I think, as if his death had happened so often and so deeply and for so many years that, when he actually died in 1976, I somehow couldn’t face the fact of such a long, steady, and deep loss. But now, that March, I knew I had to go to his grave.
Carol, my wife, gladly and lovingly joined me on the 1300-mile journey from the New Hampshire mountains to Memphis, Tennessee, and our two sons, David (age 14) and Rowan (age 3), came along with us.
The night before we went to the cemetery, we stayed in a Memphis motel, and I spent two or more hours writing my father a long letter. Here, in part, is what I wrote that night to my father:
Where were you? In the years – long, long lost years – of my little-boyhood, when I was frightened, or mean, or crazy, or tired: did you hold me? Did you tell me I was all right, that everything was all right? Or were you always too frightened or crazy or mean or exhausted yourself? When Mom was cold or contemptuous, were you there to get her through it? Or did her contempt frighten you too much?
And can I give up – freely and fully – my attachment to the pain of our past: not give up our past – just being attached, needing so much, to the pain of our past? The wounds to our bodies heal quickest: just flesh wounds. But I can still see bright as day, and ghastly, the cut on Mom’s temple, the blood down her face, you pulling us downstairs, Mom against a white wall, her face a mask of terror: you are saying, “There’s your Mother, look at her.”
Today I see all this – and I surrender my clinging to the pain of it. It indeed hurts – but I open my hands, see: it slides away. The pain is a thing, a substanc e- green, viscous, malleable, semi-solid – and IT IS NOT ME.
Are we ever (any of us) through accusing our Fathers? Are we ever through loving them? Will we ever love without mercilessness? Is ruthlessness our first response?
I say now: you are free now of love-ruthlessness. For the heavenly untwisting continues for you, in me because for you; it must so act, that what you do now, after death, changes what I am now, in life. . . .
Thus I’ve come, Dad, to bury forever my needing to be in pain through you. And to let begin to grow from this seed of today a deeper, fuller loving between us.
I love you. You love me. Do not forget this.
Your son in loving,
After I finished writing this letter, I found a Bible in the motel room. It took me a while but I finally found the passage in Genesis I was looking for – when Abraham raises the knife over his son Isaac, but the angel stays his hand.
The next morning was Friday, and the warm Tennessee spring sunlight was shining everywhere as we came to my father’s grave. While Rowan scampered away to look at the exotic southern flowers, the three of us knelt down at the grave. I then read my letter aloud to him, my voice sometimes quavering but carrying forward to the end where I asked for forgiveness.
Then I read to him from Genesis, and when I came to the verse – “Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took up the knife to slay his son” (22:10) – I could not go on, for I was too shaken by sobbing. But then I did go on and after I finished reading I waited a long minute, and then I found myself saying the thing I’d come all this long way to say: “I didn’t die, Dad, you didn’t kill me, we’re fine now, we’re really fine.”
The long journey back to New Hampshire 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 4th, 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 a.m.
At dawn on April 5, 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 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. And 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.
About an hour of this beauty in silence went by, and then I had to awaken the family. To my surprise, I found I could talk with them and do things without the prayer at all diminishing. After breakfast I got myself out to the car and down the highway to the school where I was then teaching. The prayer kept on, steadily unceasing yet wholly uninsistent.
I negotiated the whole day, teaching classes and speaking with people, with the prayer never once skipping a beat. By late afternoon, heading home, I couldn’t remember a single thing I’d said all day, but apparently no one had noticed anything odd about me, so probably, like most days, I’d said nothing in particular (what teacher does?).
The prayer continued all evening and awoke me the next morning. And all the next day, it kept on as before. I spoke of it to no one, not even to Carol, to whom I told everything important and most of what wasn’t. For I had no idea what was happening.
So the days followed one another that April of 1983, and three weeks went by in this way. Then 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 the 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 the 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 I most needed. My prayer had a home.
That night I spoke with Carol – but only very tentatively. I didn’t speak at all of my continuing experience in this prayer, because I didn’t know any words that seemed even remotely true. So I spoke about the book and the Pilgrim’s beautiful love for Christ. She was surprised, a bit baffled, but kind and loving.
During the next months, I began something different, something more deliberate. The prayer was beginning to ebb now, so when I got up just after dawn (when I now always awake, regardless of when I went to bed), I read psalms aloud from an old copy of The Book of Common Prayer, slowly and softly. When I said the prayer now, I seemed to be saying it deliberately, saying it the way I was now saying the psalms. During the day, the prayer would come and go, but it was still active in me.
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 often 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 listened 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 on going the way God is calling you. This gift of your father’s is a very precious seed.” I felt awed and grateful for what he had told me.
As we went to the door, he turned back to me. “Oh, you know, dear one, the Orthodox Church is everywhere. Just look around.”
This was January 28, 1984. 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 the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in a nearby town just 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 chrismation as an Orthodox 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 this way.
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