The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood -
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
I have just typed by hand these famous words from T.S. Eliot's poem East Coker, the second of his series Four Quartets. I took the words from my yellowing copy of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems. The page on which these words are printed has virtually fallen out of the book; evidence of repeated re-visits to the text, to be read and re-read as different layers of meaning are peeled off and revealed to me.
Why go to the effort of typing it out by hand, when I could just as easily have cut-and-pasted it from one of the numerous websites that contain the text of Four Quartets?
It is because it is fitting on this day not to take the easy way out. Matthew 26:38-39: Let this cup pass from my lips; yet not my will but thine be done reminds us just how tempting it is to take the easy way out, and how, on our behalf, Christ chose the difficult path; the path of suffering, and in doing so, becomes a wounded surgeon who is able to heal us of the brokenness that ruins each and every one of us.
Nor did I just copy-type out the words; I typed them slowly, seeing the key words, many of them uncomfortable ones, form letter by letter on the screen. The last verse I started typing at my normal touch-typist's speed, and saw a couple of lines on the screen before I realised. So I wiped them and re-typed, forcing my fingers to slow down from their natural rhythm, and re-experienced the hammer blows of the words one by one. Sometimes this exercise can lead to unexpected new meanings; that perhaps were not intended by the author, or maybe only in his subconscious. I slowed down to a crawl of typing on the last line so e a c h l e t t e r c a m e u p d i s c r e t e l y a s a s e p a r a t e e v e n t i n t i m e .
I stopped for some thirty seconds at We call this Friday go and for a long while the letter d formed itself invisibly on the screen. Is it a deliberate word-play by Eliot? I do not know. In Christian hymns the words good and blood are a common enough half rhyme that is employed, and so are god and blood.
And it seems fitting that on this Good Friday we should call on God. Our whole world, it seems just now is falling apart. If Eliot's "ruined millionaire" is a reference to Adam, then it seems doubly appropriate in these days of world financial crisis. Was Adam a banker, I wonder?
I cannot let today pass without a word about my gay Christian brothers and sisters across the world. Many, after horrific struggles, despair and depression, have become healed, in the sense of being reconciled to their sexuality. They are able to move on and get on with their spiritual lives. But there are many others, I am sure, who this Friday will approach the foot of the Cross, and seek earnestly an operation from the wounded surgeon that He may well not perform: to cut out an essential part of themselves. The flaming rose, in Eliot's poem, is a symbol of love, the briars a symbol of punishment, and perhaps of repression. Who is to say that the homophobic attitudes of many who are otherwise delightful Christians, are not briars that prevent the blossoming of true love?
We call this Friday God; we call on him to act, but we should not presume the answers.
In the meantime, I wish a joyous Easter time to any who read this. If you're looking for a suitable spiritual path to follow, appropriate for a Good Friday, then I invite you to do what I just did; print off Eliot's words and re-type them slowly, or better still, write them down on a piece of paper, digesting each word as it flows out from the pen. Maybe other insights will occur to you.
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