DOSTOEVSKY AND MEMORY ETERNAL
An Eastern Orthodox Approach to the Brothers Karamazov
by Donald Sheehan
References to Brothers Karamazov pertain to the Pevear/Volokhonsky
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
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
- 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.
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.