Miracle by Seamus Heaney

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 ones who had known him all along.

For Father’s Day I was given a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry (100 Poems), and this is one of the (many) poems that spoke to me. This poem is inspired by a very famous miracle recorded in three of the four gospels, the healing of the paralytic. Here is the kernel of that story, from Luke’s Gospel: 

Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” – Luke 5:18-20

An important detail in this miracle story is that when Jesus looks at this paralyzed man, brought to him by his friends, what he sees is their faith. Not just the faith of the paralytic, but the faith of his friends, too. In other words, this is a story about the miracle of community and the blessing of friendship as much as it is a story of a miraculous healing. 

The title of Heaney’s poem alerts us to pay attention to the miracle in this story. But what is the miracle? Or, which miracle does he mean? Perhaps his answer 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.” They are the “miracle” to pay attention to, the friends who have known him all along. The ones who were there when no one else was, caring for their paralyzed friend, and giving him the priceless gift of friendship. And when they heard about this man from Nazareth who was healing the sick, they gave him one more gift. They carried him to Jesus. And when they couldn’t get him through the door, they even lowered him through the roof. What persistent love they showed their friend! 

One of the gifts of this poem is that the very reading of it helps us to see this story through the eyes of these faithful friends. Often when we read this story, we might see it through the eyes of the paralytic, or through the eyes of the crowd, or even through the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees. But Heaney’s poem invites us to join the paralytic’s friends, who stand with “their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked / In their backs, the stretcher handles / Slippery with sweat.” Stand with them, with the hope and the faith and the love that brought them there. Stand with them on behalf of all who hurt, and learn from them the sacrifice needed to bring this suffering world to Jesus. Feel the burn in their hands from the paid-out rope, the ache in their backs from this burden they have borne, and see the gift of this miracle, this grace, that was all gift, but that required something of them. 

There are many miracles to be found in this story, and many lessons to be learned. This poem highlights one of these. It reminds us that 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). There is a time and season for each. Which is it for you this day?

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