Why do Orthodox memorial litanies melodically reiterate “memory eternal” with such feeling and such energy? And why did Orthodoxy’s greatest novelist end his last great work so triumphantly with these same words? By going very deeply into a single passage in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, “The Brothers Karamazov,” Donald Sheehan leads us not only into the the center of the novel, but into the heart of the Orthodox faith as well. Rarely does an essay combine theological reflection, literary interpretation, and personal narrative so powerfully and so seamlessly. And rarely does an essay move the reader so profoundly while providing such original and penetrating insights. Like much of the writing this journal seeks to present, this text will reward repeated readings with new and surprising layers of understanding and inspiration.
By Donald Sheehan
References to “Brothers Karamazov” pertain to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation.
Central to Eastern Orthodox Christendom is the singing, at the end of every Orthodox funeral, of the song known as “Memory Eternal” (in Church Slavonic: Vechnaya Pamyat). This song also concludes Dostoevsky’s great, final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, when, following the funeral of the boy whom Alyosha Karamazov (and the circle of schoolboys around Alyosha) had deeply loved, Alyosha speaks to the boys about the funeral and about the meaning of the resurrection, with this brief song as their steady focus.
My thesis is simply this: to know something of this song’s meaning is to comprehend both the Eastern Orthodox faith and Dostoevsky’s greatest novel.
We can best approach the meaning of this song through following the connection between the Orthodox funeral services and the crucifixion of Christ. Fr. Pavel Florensky, recently canonized by the Church in Russia, articulated the connnection by first asking, “What did the wise thief ask for on the cross?” (144) and then answering by quoting from St. Luke’s Gospel: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest in Thy kingdom” (23:42). Florensky then continues:
And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, his wish to be remembered, the Lord witnesses: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” In other words, “to be remembered” by the Lord is the same thing as “to be in Paradise.” “To be in Paradise” is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God. Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God’s remembrance of us. (144)
Florensky here articulates the essential reality of Orthodox Christianity: the relational reality of all personhood. We are persons, says the Orthodox Church, because we fulfill the three conditions of all existence. These three conditions were articulated in the third century A.D. by the Orthodox Fathers known as the Cappadocians. They are summed up in this way by J. D. Zizioulas in his wonderful essay called “The Contribution of Cappadocia to Christian Thought”:
- We are persons because we know ourselves as foundationally free, under not even the tiniest bondage to, or limitation of, either earthly history or the material world – a freedom even prior to and greater than the Church herself because (as Zizioulas says) such freedom “constitutes the ‘way of being’ of God Himself”(34).
- We are persons because we can give ourselves freely and entirely to another in self – emptying love; that is, we can voluntarily surrender all our selfhood entirely into the hands of another in the action of loving that other. Zizioulas puts it beautifully: “Love is a relationship, it is the free coming out of one’s self, the breaking of one’s will, a free submission to the will of another”(34).
- We are persons when we understand ourselves as wholly unique, as entirely unrepeatable and forever irreplaceable. As members of a species we are merely replaceable and countable individuals in a set: biological, historical, or sociopolitical. As members of a set (or sets), we can be compelled to serve extrinsic, even hostile, purposes; we can, that is, be treated as things. But as persons, we are unique and unrepeatable; hence, we cannot (as Zizioulas says) “be composed or decomposed, combined or used for any objective whatsoever”(35).
These three conditions of personhood – foundational freedom, self-emptying love, and absolute uniqueness – shed great light on what the Orthodox Church – and Dostoevsky – mean by the phrase “Memory Eternal.” It means this: in the same way that the wise thief achieves personhood by entering into loving Christ freely (and this freedom is emphasized in the crucifixion scene as everyone else mocking Christ while the thief freely and deliberately chooses to love), just so we become persons in freely surrendering our own will, in an action of love, into the hands of another.
Dostoevsky gives beautiful expression to this Orthodox understanding of personhood early in The Brothers Karamazov when he describes the relation between Alyosha Karamazov and his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima. “What, then,” asks the narrator, “is an elder?” He answers:
An elder is one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it under total obedience and with total self-renunciation. A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life’s obedience, attain to perfect freedom – that is, freedom from himself – and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves. (27-28)
This perfectly expresses the Orthodox understanding of the relational reality of personhood. And the whole of The Brothers Karamazov can usefully be read as a vast commentary on this single passage. At age 19, Alyosha Karamazov struggles to achieve the “perfect freedom” found only in loving obedience to his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima. At age 28, Dmitri at first rejects the Orthodox way of personhood by plunging into a life of entirely autonomous desires and their endlessly self-willed fulfillment. But then, in the course of the novel, he discovers a profounder and more directly Orthodox experience when he discovers the relational reality of personhood through his love of Grushenka. The middle brother, Ivan, age 24, rejects the ways of both his brothers in the name of a still more terrifying autonomy: not the passional autonomy his older brother Dmitri attempts but a spiritual autonomy, one wherein he asserts his own will as more perfective than God’s will in creating the world. Ivan’s spiritual and psychic agony in the novel’s final 100 pages stands as Dostoevsky’s revelation of what inevitably happens to those who attempt to deny or unmake the Orthodox reality of relational personhood. It is the attempt to unmake Memory Eternal through self-willed oblivion.
In this light, then, I want to consider that astonishing moment in the novel when Dmitri, having been falsely arrested and imprisoned for two months for the murder of his father (and about to be wrongly convicted of it), says this to his brother Alyosha who visits him in prison:
“Rakitin wouldn’t understand this,” he began, all in a sort of rapture, as it were, “but you, you will understand everything. That’s why I’ve been thirsting for you. . . . Brother, in these past two months I’ve sensed a new man in me, a new man has arisen in me! He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he never would have appeared. Frightening! What do I care if I spend twenty years pounding out iron ore in the mines, I’m not afraid of that at all, but I’m afraid of something else now: that this risen man not depart from me! Even there, in the mines, underground, you can find a human heart in the convict and murderer standing next to you, and you can be close to him, because there, too, it’s possible to live, and love, and suffer! You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict, you can look after him for years, and finally bring up from the cave into the light a soul that is lofty now, a suffering consciousness. You can revive an angel, resurrect a hero! And there are many of them, there are hundreds, and we’re all guilty for them! Why did I have a dream about a ‘wee one’ at such a moment? ‘Why is the wee one poor?’ It was a prophecy to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go. Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. For all the ‘wee ones,’ because there are little children and big children. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them. I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept! All of this came to me here . . . Within these peeling walls. And there are many, there are hundreds of them, underground, with hammers in their hands. Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be, for God gives joy, it’s his prerogative, a great one. . . .” (591-92)
I want to pull three strands from this complex and revelatory speech. The first strand occurs when Dmitri says: “A new man has arisen in me! He was shut up inside me, but if it weren’t for this thunderbolt, he would never have appeared.” This newly risen (or resurrected) self is, above all, a remembered self; that is, it is a self that was always “shut up inside” him but that could only be made manifest – i.e., be remembered – by the “thunderbolt” of relationality let loose by his father’s death. Hence, the second strand: “I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept!” The walls of autonomy are here fully breached as Dmitri voluntarily accepts the Orthodox reality wherein “everyone is guilty for everyone else” because each person possesses personhood only relationally. The result in Dmitri is the rush of understanding that, as the false freedom of self-willed autonomy vanishes, genuine joy arrives. Here is the third strand: “Oh, yes, we’ll be in chains, and there will be no freedom, but then, in our great grief, we will arise once more into joy, without which it’s not possible for man to live, or for God to be. . . .” This third strand explicitly links the arrival of real joy to the ending of false freedom, a joy that is essential, Dmitri says, to both human life and divine being. Together, these three strands – the resurrected self; the relational self; and the joyful self – are the three defining aspects of personhood in The Brothers Karamazov. And all three aspects can be best understood – in Dostoevsky and in Orthodox Christendom – as aspects of the meaning of Memory Eternal.
Florensky opens yet another dimension of this meaning when he says: “‘My eternal memory’ means both God’s ‘eternal memory’ of me and my ‘eternal memory’ of God. In other words, it is the eternal memory of the Church, in which God and man converge”(144). This convergence of God and man, a convergence wherein the human person is understood to become like God, is practically unknown in Western Christianity (except in those very rare experiences called ‘mystical’) but is everywhere operative in Eastern Christendom, where the term given it is the Greek word theosis. In Orthodoxy, theosis is considered to be the normative goal of every person on earth – and not the rare experience of a spiritual elite called ‘mystics.’ What propels the person toward achieving theosis is, very simply, obeying what Christ, in the gospels, calls the first and great commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Mt. 22:37). In this scene we are examining, Dmitri perfectly illustrates this love when he ends his speech to Alyosha by saying: “And then from the depth of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!”(592). Here, then, is the engine that moves the process of theosis: the power of loving God. Furthermore, this is also the engine that moves what Christ (in the same passage in St. Matthew) calls the second of the two great commandments: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mt. 22:39). In loving the neighbor – that is, loving the one who is always right now before you, ‘nigh’ or near you – in the same way in which you love God, you are directly experiencing the way wherein the Other is always oneself. These two great commandments are, to the Orthodox heart, Christ’s direct injunctions to each of us to enter into the way of theosis.
Then Dostoevsky gives us the fullness of theosis when Dmitri says, on the eve of his trial, to Alyosha what Christ Himself says to His disciples on the eve of His arrest and crucifixion: “I am.” Dmitri says:
And it seems to me there’s so much strength in me now that I can overcome everything, all sufferings, only in order to say and tell myself every moment: I am! In a thousand torments – I am; writhing under torture – but I am. Locked up in a tower, but still I exist, I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, still I know it is. And the whole of life is there – in knowing that the sun is. . . . (592)
This speech, if you will, pure ontological song, one wherein the singer’s affirmation of being (“I am!”) communicates ontological ecstasy to every living thing in such a way that each created thing remains entirely and perfectly itself at the very same moment each thing becomes a single note in the singer’s vast song. In other words, the singer’s love for God converges fully with the love flowing from God to the singer. Thus, the result of entering into ontological song is what can be termed the unceasing aliveness of the state of theosis. For this is an aliveness in which the human person comes to participate through love directly in God’s eternal aliveness. This participation in divine being is what Florensky terms “the eternal memory of the Church in which God and man converge”(144). “And,” Florensky adds, “this eternal memory is a victory over death”(ibid.).
In the “Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima,” assembled by Alyosha Karamazov after his beloved Elder’s death, there occurs this extraordinary passage:
Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and saved them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think. (320)
This passage is, as Victor Terras rightly says, “the master key to the philosophic interpretation, as well as to the structure,” of the entire Brothers Karamazov (quoted in BK, p. 788, fn. 10). For this passage elucidates two powerful and connected ideas: (1) that we can strongly (albeit obscurely) intuit the way wherein this empirical world of our actual lives is, in fact, rooted in the higher heavenly world of God; and (2) that what bears fruit in this world does so only when we nurture in our lives those three seeds that God has directly sowed in us, a nurturing that occurs when we fall to the ground and die so that these seeds may begin first to bud and then to bear fruit. These two ideas, then, help us to understand why Dostoevsky chose as the epigraph to his novel this saying of Christ’s: “Truly, truly I say to you, Unless the seed of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). What Florensky calls the victory over death is what Christ here describes as the way the seed bears fruit. This way of fruitfulness is the way of Memory Eternal.
Thus, we can see how both the artistic structure and the philosophic significance of the novel are held in these two ideas. We can see the three brothers, throughout the novel, drawing near to enacting these two ideas – or else missing them altogether or (with Ivan) deliberately turning away from them. And what connects these two ideas is, again, Memory Eternal, here understood as the way the seed genetically ‘remembers’ the fruit it springs from and will, if conditions are right, soon become. True remembering is therefore directly connected to – indeed, hardwired into – the process wherein we die so as to enter into fruitfulness. And this process is the one of remembering God and of being remembered by Him.
We are now able to see something of the lovely shapeliness of the final scene in the novel. In this scene, Alyosha talks to the dozen boys with whom he has just attended the funeral of Ilyusha, the boy they all had come to love in his final days of life. Toward the end of his speech to the boys, Alyosha says this:
Let us first of all and before all be kind, then honest, and then – let us never forget one another. I say it again. I give you my word, gentlemen, that for my part I will never forget any one of you; each face that is looking at me now, I will remember, be it even after thirty years.(775)
This shape is, of course, the Orthodox shape of Memory Eternal: the present seed of actual love is already becoming the unceasing fruitfulness of memory. And this fruitfulness of memory is – in Florensky’s great phrase – “a victory over death,” not at all because we erase the dead in our mind’s oblivion (what secular culture calls ‘getting over it’) but precisely because we keep them so strongly, indeed so brightly present in our love. And Dostoevsky is luminously clear in his Orthodox understanding of Alyosha’s speech. By holding another in our love, we are becoming like God in that we are remembering the seed of God in ourselves at the very instant we are seeing the fully ripened fruitfulness of the other in God. In this way, the other begins to become our very self. Alyosha concludes this way:
You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages and ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages! (Ibid.)
The point is magnificently clear. The fruitfulness of Memory Eternal arises always and solely from an actual person – here, Ilyusha – who unites in love all the Orthodox believers who sing his passing and have taken him into their hearts. Thus, what begins in isolative grief concludes in relational joy. Such is the shape of Memory Eternal in Orthodoxy and in Dostoevsky.
And thus emerges still another significance: through the action of Memory Eternal, the person who has died continues to act back into the lives of those who continue to love him or her. In the middle of the novel, in the chapter called “Cana of Galilee,” Alyosha kneels by the coffin of his spiritual father, the Elder Zosima, while the episode in St. John’s Gospel telling of Jesus’ changing water into wine is being read aloud. As the episode is read, Alyosha prays silently, and then he dozes slightly – and then he instantly enters into a vision wherein he sees Father Zosima sitting at the wedding table in Cana where Jesus Himself is sitting. As the Elder catches sight of Alyosha and rises and walks toward him, smiling in beautiful welcome, Alyosha registers perfectly the Orthodox comprehension of what is now occurring: “Why, he is in the coffin. . . . But here, too” (361). That is, Alyosha fully sees how his spiritual father lies dead in the coffin and yet – simultaneously – is standing alive before him. In the actions of Memory Eternal, death on earth is defeated by unceasing aliveness in God.
The scene continues with Alyosha listening to his beloved teacher speaking words of wisdom to him. And then Alyosha, the vision ended, goes out under the immense night sky where, the narrator tells us, “the silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the majesty of the earth touched the majesty of the stars”(362). Then Alyosha suddenly falls to earth, weeping in joy and kissing the earth; and the Elder’s voice rings again in Alyosha’s soul: “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears . . .”(ibid.). The narrator then says: “It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, ‘touching other worlds’”(ibid.). This last phrase is, of course, the Elder Zosima’s phrase, here remembered by Alyosha, yes, but above all directly given by the Elder to Alyosha in this moment, directly shaping and indeed directly creating this moment. “Never, never in all his life,” the narrator says, “would Alyosha forget that moment”(363). This moment is, for Alyosha, a moment of theosis, one in which he participates fully in divine aliveness, a moment, that is, of Memory Eternal. And this moment, Dostoevsky makes abundantly clear in the chapter, is a moment that is entirely given by the dead to the living in an action of love. The chapter ends this way: “‘Someone visited my soul in that hour,’ Alyosha would say afterward, with firm belief in his word”(ibid.). In Memory Eternal, the beloved dead act in love directly in the lives of the living.
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.
I have told you all of this simply to make this point. As the Orthodox Fathers long ago said, we are persons because we are wholly unique, entirely unrepeatable, and forever irreplaceable. As a member of a biological species, or as a socioeconomic entity, or even as an Orthodox parishioner and subdeacon, I am entirely repeatable, and, in every conceivable way, replaceable. But as a person to whom these things happened and these consequences followed, I can only echo Dmitri’s ontological song: I am!
After Fr. Zosima dies, Alyosha composes a biography of the Elder from (in the title Alyosha gives it) “His Own Words.” In the early pages of this biography, Fr. Zosima says this:
From my parental home I brought only precious memories, for no memories are more precious to a man than those of his earliest childhood in his parental home, and that is almost always so, as long as there is even a little bit of love and unity in the family. But from a very bad family, too, one can keep precious memories, if only one’s soul knows how to seek out what is precious.
Here, perhaps, is the most beautiful understanding of Memory Eternal both in Eastern Orthodoxy and in Dostoevsky. It is the soul’s seeking out what is precious – that is, what is unceasingly alive – even in the darkest, most afflicted of circumstances. And the crucial point, in the novels and in the Church, is that such seeking can succeed most fully and directly through what Dostoevsky calls “a whole life’s obedience” to the historical Orthodox Church and Her long traditions of fasting and prayer. For in this obedience, we avoid the terrible fate of those who (like Ivan Karamazov) seek to find themselves in themselves. Instead, like Alyosha and (in the end) Dmitri, we come to understand that we are precious not in our self-assertion but only in our self-emptying.
About the Author
Donald Sheehan received a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He began his long and active teaching career at the University of Chicago in 1967 and concluded it at Dartmouth College, from which he retired in 2004.
Received into the Orthodox Church in 1984, he was ordained a Subdeacon in the Orthodox Church in America and turned much of his attention to praying, teaching, and writing about Psalms, until his repose on May 26, 2010.