Category Archives: quotes

A quiet light to himself.

Donald Sheehan

Some years ago Donald Sheehan’s widow Xenia shared on social media an excerpt from his book The Grace of Incorruption, a passage in which he links Robert Frost with St. Dionysius. She published it on the saint’s feast day in October, along with his icon below, but for re-posting Sheehan’s thoughts I have chosen today’s date, on which Robert Frost breathed his last, an appropriately wintry day in 1963. Xenia Sheehan: 

This day the Orthodox Church celebrates St. Dionysius the Areopagite, 1st (or possibly 5th)-century poet of “Mystical Theology,” whom Donald Sheehan uniquely compares to American poet Robert Frost in his “deliberate turning out of all the lights of false knowing . . . in order to behold — in Dionysius’ astonishing words — ‘that darkness concealed from all the light among beings.'”

Don writes in The Grace of Incorruption that,

“…in order to know the personhood of another, we must unknow both the persona and the personality: we must let these lights go out. Again and again, in his finest poems, Robert Frost accomplishes precisely this unknowing, the deliberate extinguishing of all the false light, and a welcoming-in of the darkness in which true personhood can shine forth. And true personhood is, always, genuinely beautiful.

“I think what moves us so deeply about the poem ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ is Frost’s evocation of genuine personhood in the old man. The old man in Frost’s poem is not a persona nor a personality; he is, genuinely, a person. And as the lights go out in the poem, the more beautifully and movingly his personhood emerges. One vivid detail: when the log in the stove shifts with a jolt, we, too, are jolted into a deeper intimacy with the old man, an intimacy that gains in power because of the darkness.”

-Donald Sheehan

Text and icon from Donald’s widow Xenia Sheehan in 2018

AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT

All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

-Robert Frost

Robert Frost

The honey and the harp.

St. Ephraim the Syrian, c. 306-373

One of the church book clubs I currently try to keep up with met recently to discuss our current selection, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It is an impressive compendium of material on the subject from Scripture, patristic tradition, and early Christian liturgical texts and poetry. I was intrigued by the section on liturgical poetry from the 4th-6th centuries, especially the verses of St. Ephraim (or Ephrem) the Syrian.

While St. Romanos the Melodist, who lived in the 6th century, is considered by most to be the preeminent poet of the Byzantine period, he “was familiar with Ephrem’s works and drew from them. He learned from Ephrem’s poetical artistry as well as from his handling of particular literary plots and theological themes.”

The author of Conqueror explains how Ephraim and the Syrian tradition differed from that of the Greek fathers and their Ecumenical Councils. While he also formulated dogmatic teaching for his flock, he “clothed theological truths not in the armor of precise dogmatic definitions but with the bright garments of poetic symbols and metaphors …. to theologize for Ephrem meant to glorify God rather than talk about or reflect upon God. He believed the truths of Christianity should not only be comprehended, reflected upon, defined, and established but also experienced by the faithful through prayer. This same avenue was followed by most of the writers of the liturgical texts in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.”

The subject matter of Christ the Conqueror of Hell is especially appropriate for Holy Saturday and Pascha, and maybe I will post some of the liturgical poetry in that season; at this time I wanted to mention the part about Saint Ephraim because January 28th is the day we commemorate this poet and theologian. I found an enjoyable historical video about his life, using the title that has been given to him: “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

You may be familiar with his Lenten Prayer we use daily during the Great Fast; also, hymns and meditations of St. Ephraim were collected by St. Theophan the Recluse into A Spiritual Psalter. I have this on my shelf and could stand to spend some time perusing it, especially after reading today’s entry in The Prologue of Ohrid, where there is a hymn to Ephraim by St. Nikolai opening with the words,

Ephraim’s heart burns
With love for Christ,
And Ephraim’s tongue speaks
Of the pure wisdom of the Gospel.
Ephraim, the honey-bearing bee;
Ephraim, the fruit-bearing rain!

Just as God sends the bees and the rain to work for our joy and profit, so He sends people like this man. Let me keep that image of a buzzing and busy bee in my mind a while; let me drink holy nectar and refresh others the way God uses His creatures and creation to constantly renew my spirit.

And for today, one morsel of honey from this holy bee:

The chutzpah of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord,
just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.

-Saint Ephraim the Syrian

Wrestling and striving with his heart.

“The abode and resting-place of the Holy Spirit is humility, love, gentleness and the other holy commandments of Christ. If, therefore, a person desires to grow and to attain perfection by acquiring all these virtues, he must initially force himself to acquire and must establish himself in the first — that is to say, in prayer—wrestling and striving with his heart to make it receptive and obedient to God.”

-St. Makarios of Egypt

A new nose and backbone.

Soldier both picked me up from the Denver airport two weeks ago, and dropped me off for my return flight. He drove his truck, which seats four, so each time, in addition to me, he could accommodate two passengers. For the first trip that was Liam and Laddie, and Brodie stayed home with Clara.

Brodie therefore was automatically put on the passenger list for the drop-off yesterday, New Year’s Eve, and the other boys drew lots for second place, the lot falling to Liam. On the way up the highway we got to talking about the new year, and how it is a time when many people resolve to improve themselves in the coming year. Boys of ten and six aren’t likely to set overlarge goals for themselves, so they didn’t really need the cautionary words of their father and me, but we reminded them and ourselves that every day of the year provides the opportunity to pray, and to present ourselves to the Lord as His servants. That’s not a big resolution, but it is a powerful daily orientation.

If you do have a goal you want to work toward, Soldier explained, it must be measurable, so that you will know when you have achieved it. And it needs to be a realistic, reasonably achievable goal (Not of the sort “You can be and do anything you set your mind to!”). I added that it’s good to break such a project into small parts, and figure out what the first step is. If it’s a worthy goal, you probably won’t get it done in one day, or one week.

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year.
It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose;
new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.”

-G.K. Chesterton

I think of the command of the Lord, first spoken in Leviticus, of which the Apostle Peter reminds us, to be holy:

Christ and Peter

“Therefore prepare your minds for action. Be sober-minded. Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not conform to the passions of your former ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” –I Peter 1

Now that is a large and worthy goal, which one might feel is not in the least achievable… but since it is the will of the Lord God, we have to take it seriously. And not as a rash New Year’s resolution, like: “This year, I am turning over a new leaf, and I will be a saint by 2024!” No, it will have to be sober-mindedness every morning, and setting our hope every evening. St. Peter continues:

“Since you call on a Father who judges each one’s work impartially, conduct yourselves in reverent fear during your stay as foreigners. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life you inherited from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot. He was known before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in the last times for your sake. Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him; and so your faith and hope are in God.”

Christ praying in Gethsemane

How does “Conduct yourselves in reverent fear” fit into an outline according to our modern, systematic way of thinking? I suppose it might serve as Plan 1 under the Goal of Be Holy…. followed by those small steps I advised the boys about. But really, God doesn’t want us to come up with our own system to work toward “goals” that He has set for us. That kind of thing can be a big distraction from His true plan, that we would walk moment-by-moment with Him, and be changed by the Holy Spirit’s work. Improving ourselves by our own devices will ultimately get us nowhere; “…your faith and hope are in God.”

Today is not only New Year’s Day, but being the eighth day after Christ’s birth, it is the day we remember that his parents brought Him to be circumcised according to the law. This sermon on the feast day by Fr. Philip LeMasters on “Purifying the Heart” expresses the mind of the apostles on these same matters:

“Christ’s circumcision is a sign that He fulfilled the requirements of the law and enabled all with faith in Him to find a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because it extends to the very depths of our existence, to our hearts.

“Consequently, the only way worthily to celebrate His circumcision is for us to perfect the circumcision of our hearts.  That means purifying them, cutting off their corruption by uniting ourselves to the God-Man from the depths of our souls.  And there is no upward limit to this calling.”

“If we reduce our high calling to legalism or a simple list of deeds to perform, we will have missed the point.  For being united with Christ in holiness is not a matter of simply doing this or that by our own will power.  As St. Paul reminded the Colossians, ‘you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, Who raised Him from the dead.’  We obviously cannot conquer sin and death by even our best actions or thoughts.  As St. Paul taught, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.’ (Eph. 2.:8.)”

You can read the whole sermon: here.

Returning to the Chesterton quote above, I pray that our souls would truly be “new,” along with our eyes, etc., in these first days of 2023, by God’s ever-present gift of grace. If my spiritual “nose” is refreshed by the Lord, it will be better able to detect the sweetness of His mercies every morning, and continuing.