Sunday, 10 October 2010


Opening the ground to lower in a coffin is a similar act of faith to opening a roof to lower someone on a stretcher. The link was made a few years ago by the priest conducting a burial of a friend. I had not thought of it before. It prompted me to write something printed in the Methodist Epworth Review in July 2005:

All they can do is
to unturf the turf
and break through the ground
to make enough room
to bury this man
who is beyond help

as others once worked
to unroof a roof
and break through dry mud
to make enough space
to lower a man
who they could not help

in desperate hope
he’ll undoubt their doubt
to break through their dust,
discern enough faith
to tell him to rise
beyond need of help.

The phrase around which the poem developed is taken straight from Mark 2.4 where the technical term for breaking through a mud roof is used: ‘un-roof-ing the roof’ or ‘ape-stegas-an ten stegon’.

I have just been reminded of this by a poem in Seamus Heaney’s new award winning volume Human Chain. Miracle grows from his own experience following a stroke of being carried up and down stairs by others.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in -

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

The tiled roof appears in Luke 5.19 where the story is retold for those in another culture and place who perhaps assumed all houses were roofed this way and knew nothing of the flat mud roofs of the Holy Land; a much more precarious place on which to stand and seek to manipulate a man on a stretcher.

The Gospel accounts are consistent in attributing the miracle to Jesus seeing how much faith the men had. I am struck for the first time as I type the two poems side by side by our shared contemporary assumption of the limited or tentative nature of that faith. In the one case, hope which is desperate, which is limited by nature of the human condition, and which mixes elements of doubt and faith. In the other, familiarity with the human condition and incredulity at what is pulled off by their action. In both cases, it is enough.

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