Subdeacon Donatos (Donald) Sheehan
“That sliver of the Divine that obviously everyone has, Don has pouring out his ears, radiating like you wouldn’t believe.” That’s how one student described him. Another has written: “His voice, inconsistent with his ‘prophet in the wilderness’ appearance, neither echoes nor resounds but speaks with comfortable meekness.” —Glen MacPherson, “A Life History of Donald Sheehan,” Dartmouth College, 1992
Don Sheehan spent much of his life pondering a question: How do we overcome the gaps between our experience of life and our desire for—what? Fulfillment, love, wholeness, peace, happiness, God? Specifically, how was this possible for him in a life that began with his mother being driven to the hospital by a neighbor the day after April Fool’s in 1940 to give birth to surprise twins while his father was out somewhere getting drunk?
We have images: Don, age 9, sitting on a porch swing, teaching his best friend to read so they could act out the stories in the comic books he loved . . . His father’s car lurching to a sudden stop in the driveway, twin brother, big sister, and mother freezing as Rage slams shut the car door and walks fiercely up the porch steps . . . The sound of things breaking punctuating long stretches of terrified silence . . . His mother standing at the stove where nothing is cooking . . . Don sitting down on the couch beside his father, whose eyes are sad, clear, and exhausted, picking up a magazine from the table and turning the pages: “Look at this, Dad, look at that,” pointing to one picture, then another and another, his father’s warm voice sounding in his ear: “You’re the only one not afraid of me.” And it’s almost a soft song . . . His father reading to his children: his “rich and varied” voice intoning The Wind in the Willows to convey “Badger’s deep, warm growl,” Toady’s “imaginatively obsessive urgencies,” or “Ratty’s clear intelligence.”
As for Don’s twinship, a Dartmouth student, Glen MacPherson, once interviewed him for a sociology project and gives us this: Don spoke of his twinship as “something twins have to work out—places where they don’t compete.” As a result, he and his brother David—whom he deeply loved and admired, and seemed entirely content to play second-fiddle to —“divided school all the way up to high school, where I was marginal to failing and he was a triumphant success . . . Overall, school was bad.” Yet he wrote much later that, “My strongest bond is with my brother—no matter how different our styles, a simple unshakeable love remains.” It was his brother’s death from cancer that precipitated Don’s own final illness, in which it was thought that a long-dormant Lyme disease finally took over and he hadn’t the resources to fight it. Neither did the doctors at that time.
Looking back, Don felt his high school years to have been dominated and inspired by a movie that became for many teens a cultural icon: James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause. He joined a street gang, but toward the end of his last year he realized he couldn’t fight any more. He didn’t want to go to college “because my brother did that,” so he joined the army. He wrote of “the tonic of the sustained fury and bitter conditions of army bootcamp” at 17, which “drove me out of my mind where I did not want to be, out of my rage and despair at a childhood where I had seen my mother gripped by terror as blood flowed on her face.” But despite the bouts of drinking with his older tent-mates in the Indianapolis bars—he described these as his “being about my father’s business of alcohol and violence”—he still wasn’t able to make himself fight, simply walking away from the fights staged for them by their officers. A sergeant once told him, “Sheehan, I thought you were going to soldier for me,” and he responded, “So did I.”
Then, one early morning, walking up a long hill that separated the camp and the motorpool, an idea broke through his long intellectual blackout, “as if carried on the very light itself of the newly arriving sun [which he might later have described as a “noetic ray”]: all this agony I could end in a moment, by my own hand, with the pistol in the holster on my belt, a matter of the merest seconds. I didn’t have to endure this; therefore I could endure it.” Choice is possible: “to be on this hill—and not dead—and to be walking where I was walking and to know that I and no one else was doing this. I was alone in my life, fully and strongly alone in the light of this sudden extraordinary clarity, listening and listening for my very life.”
We have this fragment of a long poem he wrote in college:
to voices not broken
by our inner accents
—to regain the whole rhythm of motion and change—
that (had we but listened) were deeply singing, and are.
Much later, he would write in his journal: “The man who is pure in mind is not he who has no knowledge of evil, nor again he who never takes up human affairs—nor yet is purity of mind that we should not beseech men for any created thing. No, says St. Isaac, purity of mind is rather engaging these things without submitting to them; it is to make a beginning to struggle with them.” This is how Don Sheehan lived his life.
A deep encounter with poems in the army post library inspired him to go on to college at the University of Florida. There, in his second semester, he met his first real teacher, Gary Scrimgeour, and learned from him “enough to know that here was my real work: to turn the full light of sympathetic intelligence into the depths of hope and terror and beauty that was—and is—true art. . . . The whole of the art lay in the act of listening.” He became a teacher.
He met his wife, Carol, in April 1963. The best information available about this meeting is in his book In the House of My Pilgrimage: Violence, Noetic Healing, and Personhood (2023). For in the month of their meeting he wrote a poem that begins: “Like a shouting, fraudulent drunk, / Tough on hoped-for courage / I roared love at you, love and love. / And it was hope.” And ends: “You gave, teaching me to take of you / And thereby to take / The voice of my need and speak / Love. And it was myself, still and certain, / Honest in the knowing of you./ It was shouting and fraud. Then it was love.” It was a good place to begin a forty-seven-year partnership.
In 1969—teaching English and classical studies at the University of Chicago; his dissertation on Dante and T.S. Eliot just completed and accepted with honors; his friends downtown protesting the Vietnam War before a phalanx of baby-blue-helmeted police with truncheons; his first son, David, about to be born, to make him a father himself—in the midst of all this, Don received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin. By the end of his first five-year teaching contract, however, he realized he could not live a life committed to a success driven and achieved by stepping over, certainly not upon, the heads of others. He spoke of, and rejected, “the myth of the great career . . . that marginalized even teaching and learning.” So he moved on to a position he came to love at an alternative liberal-arts college in Franconia, New Hampshire. It had no tenure system, offered no great careers, and focused on teaching and learning. Don liked to think of his life as downwardly mobile. Dostoevsky, after all, writing about a family not unlike his own in The Brothers Karamazov, had embraced St. John’s teaching (12:24) that “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
Don’s father died in Memphis in 1976. Two years later, Franconia College went bankrupt and closed its doors, owing its teachers several months’ back pay. Later that year Don was hired by the Town of Franconia, New Hampshire, to help establish The Frost Place as a Center for Poetry and the Arts. Once home to poet Robert Frost’s family, the farm was purchased by the Town to be an historic site, museum, and summer home for a resident poet. Guided by Don for the next twenty-seven years, it became host to acclaimed writing workshops for poets of all ages. He would open its annual Festival of Poetry by saying, “Your work at this conference is to make the art of at least one other person better and stronger by giving—in love—all your art to them.” Miraculously, under Don’s tutelage, most of the participants did just that. During those years, to make ends meet, he taught also for Plymouth State College and for the University of New Hampshire’s adult degree program.
But his father’s passing had begun in him a struggle to accomplish the forgiveness to which he had not been able to persuade his heart before. Thus, in 1983, he piled his family into the car to make the journey to Tennessee to locate and visit his father’s grave. Once there, he read aloud to his father the story of Abraham and Isaac, assuring him that, like Abraham’s son at the brink of sacrifice, he had not died. He asked his father’s forgiveness and offered him his own. On the third day, home again, he was awakened in the morning by a prayer, spoken by a voice he almost recognized that kept on speaking the prayer in him for most of the next year, waking him each morning: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” over and over.
Browsing the college library one day, he happened upon a book, The Way of a Pilgrim. He opened it, and there was his prayer; it was the ancient prayer of the Orthodox Church (of which he knew almost nothing). Then, by accident or Grace, he learned of an Orthodox church just an hour from where he and his family lived. He was home. He was chrismated at Holy Resurrection in Berlin, New Hampshire, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, 1984, writing afterward that:
The convert’s joy is ephemeral and perfect. Ephemeral: for this blush of love can happen only once and very briefly, before the full weight of the Church’s immense life has filled every tiny corner and cell of one’s life—some slender quicklight of loving, and not the full, rich, universal conflagration that is God’s love in the Holy Church. Perfect: because all our lives we try to recapture—or grasp once—that bright first intensity, when for the tiniest instant at that intensity’s heart the Kingdom of Heaven opens perfectly and fully.
His patron saint was to be the fourth-century Donatos, Bishop of Euroea, much loved by his people even now, but best known for slaying a water-poisoning dragon by making the sign of the cross over it with his riding whip. Not for another twenty years would he finally visit St. Donatos’s home church in Paramythia, Greece, and see for the first time his icon.
Don and his family continued living in Franconia and attending church in Berlin for a decade after the college closed. His son Rowan Benedict, born in 1980, was also chrismated in 1984 under the patronage of the great St. Benedict of Nursia. In 1987, Don was ordained Subdeacon. In 1989, Carol was baptized, at the same church on Lazarus Saturday and given the name Xenia (after St. Xenia of Petersburg).
Soon afterward, the family moved to the Upper Valley to build a house in the woods of Sharon, Vermont. For the next fifteen years, Don taught as Senior Lecturer at Dartmouth, continued to serve as Executive Director of The Frost Place, and to teach the UNH adult learners, whose dedication to learning he loved! He also published, with Olga Andrejev, a translation into English of Russian priest-martyr Pavel Florensky’s Iconostasis (St. Vladimir’s, 1996). And he regularly kept journals (more literary than personal), delivered lectures, and published a few papers—leaving a treasure trove of unpublished writing for Xenia to sift through and publish after his passing in 2010: The Psalms of David: Translated from the LXX Greek (2013); The Grace of Incorruption: Selected Essays on Orthodox Faith and Poetics (2015); The Shield of Psalmic Prayer: Reflections on Translating, Interpreting, and Praying the Psalter (2019); and In the House of My Pilgrimage: Violence, Noetic Healing, and Personhood (2023).
During their twenty years in the Upper Valley, the Sheehans first attended Holy Trinity in Springfield, Vermont. There, on February 3, 1991, Don and Xenia’s civil marriage was formally blessed by the Church. In 1992, they became parishioners of Holy Resurrection in Claremont, New Hampshire, where they became active in the Parish Council, the parish’s youth work, the publication of the journal In Our Midst, and a series of theological institutes. In 1999 or 2000 Don was asked by Fr. Mark Sherman to assist as Subdeacon in establishing the St. Jacob of Alaska Mission, first in Montpelier, then in Northfield Falls, Vermont. After a few years and the stable establishment of that mission, the family returned to Holy Resurrection in Claremont until, in 2008, they left the area to accompany Rowan Benedict and his growing family to Charleston, South Carolina.
At this point, Don was already suffering from the illness that would, less than two years later, end his life. Six weeks before that end, with the aid of a wheelchair and a tank of oxygen, he was able to attend with joy his last earthly Pascha, at Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. He died at home on May 26, 2010. Members of the parish had established a hotline by which people were notified in the middle of the night of the imminence of his passing, and the room began to fill up with Psalm-readers and others simply wanting to be present to say good-bye or to assist in preparing Don’s body for burial. This work was guided by Dn Mark Barna, whose writing on A Christian Ending our own deanery follows. Subdn Donatos is buried at Panagia Prousiotissa Greek Orthodox Monastery in Troy, North Carolina.
Lydia Carr, mother of Don’s youngest god-daughter, Lucia, concludes her epilogue to The Grace of Incorruption by saying: “Weeping shall endure for the night, but Joy cometh in the morning. As we all came together to mourn Don’s passing, to remember his life, and to pray for his salvation, we were in right relation to each other and were thus able to give birth to a real joy. I will be ever grateful that I was able to be present for that ‘relational joy,’ and that Don’s life and death so clearly revealed themselves to me as a witness to Christ.”
Donald George Sheehan was born April 2, 1940, in Kingston, New York, to George Francis Sheehan of Lockport, New York, and Josephine Innes of Monticello, Iowa. His twin brother, David Reynolds Sheehan, died March 17, 2007, in New York City.
Donald is survived by his wife, Xenia; two sons, David Andersen with his son Riley; Rowan Benedict with his seven daughters—Miriam, Irene, Cassia, Edith, Seraphima, Agnes, and Caroline; his brother David’s daughters, Eve and Natasha; his sister Nora Wilson with her three daughters—Kathryn, Amy, and Rebecca; and his half-brother, Jeffrey Press, with his daughters, Holly Press Priore and Julie, and son Benjamin.
Grant rest eternal in blessed repose, O Lord, to Thy servant, the Subdeacon Donatos, who has fallen asleep, and make his memory to be eternal!