02 April 2022

The miracle of healing
and the miracle of
friendship and love

The healing of the paralytic man … a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am grateful for getting out of hospital yesterday after my stroke two weeks ago. I am grateful for the caring and attentive treatment I received in Milton Keynes University Hospital and in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. And I am even more grateful for the way Charlotte Hunter recognised I was having a stroke, brought me to hospital, ensured I received the attention I needed, visited me every day, and brought me back to Stony Stratford today.

Some years ago, at an event in Saint Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square, when people were asked to bring along their favourite poems, Charlotte brought Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Miracle’, from his collection Human Chain (2010).

In these poems, written after his stroke in 2005, Seamus Heaney speaks of suffering and mortality. This poem ‘Miracle’ retells the story of the miraculous healing of the man variously described as a paralytic man and a man with palsy. The story is told in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 9: 2-8; Mark 2: 1-22; Luke 5: 17-26), and – like Seamus Heaney, I suppose – my situation makes me wonder whether this man was also suffering after a stroke.

It is interesting how Heaney tells the story of healing and this man from the perspective of the man’s friends. In this way, his poem becomes an expression of gratitude by the poet to all who helped his recovery after his stroke.

Charlotte and I enjoyed the Seamus Heaney exhibition in the Bank of Ireland in Dublin, ‘Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again’, a few weeks ago (11 March 2022); now, a few weeks later, I can only imagine how she tells of her experience of caring for me during my stroke.

When Jesus looks at the paralysed man brought to him by his friends, he sees not just the faith of the man, but the faith of his friends too. In other words, this is a story of the blessing of friendship and the miracle of community as much as it is a story of miraculous healing.

Heaney’s focus is on neither Christ as the healer nor the invalid, but on the friends who helped this sick man to reach Jesus by lowering him through a skylight in the roof. The title of the poem refers to the miracle in the Gospel story, but for the poet the miracle is found in the opening lines:

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

The friends of this man love him and seek his healing, no matter what it takes for them to do, and so they become the true miracle at this moment. They are there when no one else is, they care for their friend, and they give him the priceless gift of friendship.

When they hear in Capernaum that Jesus is healing the sick, they give their friend one more gift. They carry him to Jesus. And when they cannot get him through the door, they then lower him through the roof. What persistent love they show their friend, like the persistent love of a true friend who calls a taxi, packs all my bags, brings me to the A&E unit, stays with me while I am admitted, transferred to the Emergency unit, and then, late at night, when I am moved to a ward.

This poem sees the Gospel story through the eyes of this man’s faithful friends. So often, I read this story through the eyes of the paralysed man, through the eyes of the crowd, or even through the eyes of the Pharisees and teachers. But Seamus Heaney invites me to join the man’s friends, who stand with

their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat

We are invited to stand with those friends, with the hope and the faith and the love that brings them there, to stand with them on behalf of all who hurt, to feel the burn in their hands from the paid-out rope, the ache in their backs from the burden they have carried, to see the gift of this miracle, this grace, that was all gift, but that required something extra of them.

There are many miracles in this story and many lessons. This poem reminds us how sometimes we need to be carried by our friends, while at other times we are the ones who need to help ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6: 2).

Miracle, by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

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 lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those who had known him all along.

The magnolia tree in a courtyard in the hospital in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Lent:
2 April 2022 (Psalm 53)

Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 53: 1) … ‘The Ship of Fools,’ by Hieronymus Bosch (ca 1450–1516)

Patrick Comerford

Two weeks after my minor stroke, I left John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford yesterday, and had my first dinner out in a fortnight last night in Ask in George Street last night. I am on my way to Stony Stratford in Milton Keynes later this morning. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (2 April 2022) for prayer, reflection and reading.

During Lent this year, in this Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 53:

Psalm 53, in the view of most modern interpreters, is a lament.

This psalm is one of the Elohistic Psalms (Psalm 42-83). It is the Elohistic Psalter’s version of Psalm 14, and is almost identical to it. The mediaeval rabbinical scholar known as Rashi understood Psalm 14 referred to the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE), and that Psalm 53 referred to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE).

There are two differences between Psalm 14 and Psalm 53. The first difference is the name of God used in these psalms. Psalm 14 uses the covenant name of God, YHWH, typical of the Psalms in Book 1 (Psalm 1 to Psalm 41). Psalm 53, on the other hand, uses Elohim, typical of the Psalms in Book 2 (Psalm 42 to Psalm 72). The second difference is the reference to ‘a refuge for the poor’ in Psalm 14: 6 that is missing from Psalm 53.

Both Psalm 14: 1 and Psalm 53: 1 say, Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ Some take these verses to mean that atheists are stupid or lacking intelligence. However, this is not the only meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘fool.’

In Psalm 53, the Hebrew word is nabal, which often refers to an impious person who has no perception of ethical or religious truth. The meaning of the text is not ‘unintelligent people do not believe in God.’ Rather, the meaning of the text is ‘sinful people do not believe in God.’

In other words, it is a wicked thing to deny God, and a denial of God is often accompanied by a wicked lifestyle. The verse goes on to list some other characteristics of the irreligious: ‘They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts; there is no one who does good’ (Psalm 53: 1).

Many atheists are very intelligent. It is not intelligence, or a lack of intelligence, that leads someone to reject belief in God. Some are shocked by the apparent moral contradictions in the lifestyle of people who claim to be religious. Ohers do not object to the idea of a Creator, but want a Creator does not in the affairs of the creation. Others, in their struggle against a guilty conscience, come to reject the idea of God altogether, and this is the sort of person described in Psalm 53: 1 as a fool.

Aldous Huxley, in Ends and Means, admitted that a desire to avoid moral restraints was a motivation for disbelief, offering a ‘liberation from a certain system of morality.’

Belief in a divine being is accompanied by a sense of accountability to that being. So, to escape the condemnation of conscience, created by God, some simply deny the existence of God. But we can never claim that science either proves or disproves the existence of God.

Some of the ambiguity found in the Psalms is created by the lack of capital pronouns in Hebrew. A great example is found in Psalm 53: 4: ‘Have they no knowledge, those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?’

Translations differ as to whether this is God talking or the psalmist. If it is God, then the Psalmist is engaging in biblio-drama.

Psalm 53: 1-3 is quoted by Saint Paul in Romans 3: 10-12, where he argues that Jews and Gentiles are equally in need of God's grace. However, since Psalm 53 and Psalm 14 are almost identical, it is difficult to tell which one is quoted.

‘ Have they no knowledge, those evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon God?’ (Psalm 53: 4) … bread in a shop window in St Ives in Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 53 (NRSVA):

To the leader: according to Mahalath. A Maskil of David.

1 Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.

2 God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

3 They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

4 Have they no knowledge, those evildoers,
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?

5 There they shall be in great terror,
in terror such as has not been.
For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly;
they will be put to shame, for God has rejected them.

6 O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When God restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Today’s Prayer:

The USPG Prayer Diary this week, under the heading ‘Let my people go,’ focuses on the approximately 230 million Dalits living in India. Considered outcasts, these communities suffer systematic exclusion and discrimination under the caste system, a system of social stratification. This theme in the USPG Prayer Diary concludes this morning (2 April 2022), inviting us to pray:

We pray for the Church of South India and the role they play in making Indian society a fairer place.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘For God will scatter the bones of the ungodly; they will be put to shame’ (Psalm 53: 5) … a sand sculpture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org