This post is distinctly different from any of its predecessors. In it, I will try to sell you on a book called “The Grace of Incorruption,” written by a great man and a great friend who died in 2010.
When I tell you that the book’s subtitle is “The Selected Essays of Donald Sheehan on Orthodox Faith and Poetics,” you’ll see why I imagine a challenge to my efforts. Not all readers will share even my radical-Protestant Christian vision; still fewer, I’m sure, will share the late author’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As one who himself instinctively recoils from the very notion of “orthodoxy,” whether religious, political, or social, I myself seem an unlikely promoter of such a volume.
But Don Sheehan’s example gives me pause, and more. Anyone who knew Don, a professor at Dartmouth and elsewhere and, more significantly, for over a quarter century the director of the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, will remember highly unusual qualities in the man. He was one of those rarest of people who, upon entering a room, immediately change its atmosphere for the better. Don seemed somehow lit from within, and whether you shared his spiritual take on human existence or not, you saw that his was a spirit of all but incomparable kindness and compassion. Not that Don ever confronted you with his faith. Rather, in his manner and his thought, he exemplified the deep values it had produced in him.
Even physically, Don was a striking figure on the streets of Hanover, or anywhere: as a subdeacon in his church, he wore a magnificent, long, white beard, one to put Santa Claus’s to shame. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and dressed with what seemed an almost studied plainness. But that light I spoke of surrounded him everywhere he went.
It is thus all but unimaginable to me that this gentle soul had apparently been, in younger years before I knew him, a street gang hooligan, a motorcycle jockey, a hell-raiser, modeling himself on the James Dean of “Rebel Without a Cause.” Be that as it may, in the opening chapter of “The Grace of Incorruption,” we see that the seeds of his life after hooliganism, his later life of spiritual wisdom, were planted –and in most improbable ways– when he was a mere child.
At nine years old, Don was shot. The bullet barely missed his heart. The shooter was his best friend, and the two boys had come on a big brother’s target pistol. In his recollection of his experience in the emergency room, however, Don emphasizes the serenity he felt on looking up at the strongly built doctor who skillfully removed the bullet. That serenity would recur to him, often in unpredictable circumstances.
For example, a few weeks after the shooting accident, the Sheehan family broke apart. Don’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic, and Don vividly recalls blood on his mother’s face from the man’s brutal beatings, which were frequent and savage. In due course, his mother opted to flee her husband with the children.
Yet before that, according to the introductory essay, there was a particularly brutal episode, the father raging, breaking dishes, terrifying Don’s sister and brother. But Don recounts a miracle, which, along with the hospital episode I just mentioned, seems to me determinative not only of the spiritual tack he would later take but also of his literary views (though to separate these two dimensions is impossible in Don’s case).
“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?’...
“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 call these events determinative because Don Sheehan’s world-view depended upon penetrating to the deepest sort of darkness– from which he perceived a redemptive light.
That light suffused Don’s introductions to visiting poets at the Frost Place, which were famous for their penetration. However diverse the cast of authors in his thirty years there, Sheehan seemed somehow to find the spiritual nugget that made each what he or she was. Many of those poets –and I count myself among the many, having heard his spoken introductions and read his treatment of two of my poems in this collection– were astounded to understand their own work better by virtue of these pre-reading commentaries. With the exception of poet Nicholas Samaras, a fellow in Orthodoxy, none, I believe, would have used St. Isaac the Syrian or Dionysos the Aereopagite as the grounds of appreciation, but none, either, could deny that Don’s church fathers had produced in him a stunningly keen insight.
I think poet and director of the International Writers’ Program in Iowa City Christopher Merrill has it just right in his excellent introduction. “Humility,” Merrill writes, “is the cornerstone of (Sheehan’s) faith; the quality of attention on display in these pages, a form of prayer dedicated to revealing the sacred aspects of literature, is rooted in his belief that knowledge is limited; his observations, drawn in part from his experience of working with a range of poets at the Frost Place ..., shed light not only on the creative process but on the religious imagination. In this book the subdeacon and the professor work hand in glove.”
Perhaps the most compelling of all Christian paradoxes, in fact, shows through here: humility, the trait that Don so personified, is precisely the one that can illuminate our world– and here, our poetry. In the first half of his collection, “Reflections on Life, Literature, and Holiness,” Sheehan examines works by Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Frost, Salinger, and contemporary poets like Jane Kenyon, me, and Samaras, addressing the nature of prayer, of individual liberty, of depression, and so much more. The teaming of churchman and intellectual results, as I say, in unusual and keen readings of all these writers.
I won’t gloss Don’s religious conversion here, since it is so much more movingly recounted by the man himself in the first half of the collection. Trust me: to call it an intriguing narrative is to lack for words.
The second half of “The Grace of Incorruption” enters the majestic domain of the Psalms. (Don, who commanded classical Greek, in fact translated the Greek Orthodox Septuagint rendering of Psalms.) The psalter is no doubt one of the truly originative and influential collections of poems in the western canon. As Chris Merrill, again, once said at the Frost Place: “It is not possible to imagine poetry in any Western tongue without the imagery, insights, and ideas of the Psalms, the ground of our inheritance.” No one was more familiar with that ground than Don Sheehan.
The focus of Part Two is particularly on psalm 119 (118 in Orthodox tradition), often called the Wisdom Psalm, and one ingeniously assembled. Overall, it describes the divine plan for creation in a complex, alphabetic-acrostic format. The longest psalm, in fact the longest chapter in the Bible, each of its twenty-two stanzas (all octets) begins with a Hebrew letter and all display a wide diversity of rhetorical and musical techniques. Given the breadth of its scope, it’s small wonder that psalm 119 has so inspired poets from the virtual dawn of our literary tradition. To that extent, any poetry enthusiast, even if he or she be the most committed of atheists, will discover that attention to Donald Sheehan’s brilliant reading and interpretation will repay the considerable effort it requires.
I can’t end these remarks without expressing personal thanks, which I hope, on seeing “The Grace of Incorruption,” you will share, to its editor Xenia Sheehan, the author’s wife, without whom this striking book would not be known to us. Mrs. Sheehan faced many challenges: her husband died at 70, of what turns out to have been the effects of long-misdiagnosed Lyme Disease, and in the final months of his life he had essentially been reduced to silence by his illness, able only to write tragically terse notes. He had not imagined a volume of these essays, so Xenia Sheehan had to piece them together as well as she could without his guidance.
And as well as she could seems to have been very, very well indeed.