Jeremy Clarke will no longer be making his way to the altar for the laying on of handsby Jeremy Clarke / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in July 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
For seven years Eva Rye lived in room one of our residential home for the elderly. When she came to us, Eva was frail and ill; she steadily declined as time went on until it seemed incredible that a person could be so frail and ill, and still live. She was deaf; she was giddy and incontinent; she had hideous arthritis and a malignant cancer spreading across her forehead; and she kept falling down on the way to the commode and breaking her brittle old bones. Although constantly in pain of one sort or another, a bright, determined spirit shone out of her pale blue eyes. She smiled a lot and took an interest in other people. Several times we packed her off to hospital for yet another operation, telling each other that if she survived this one it would be a bloody miracle; but she always came back, weeks, sometimes months later, looking frailer, gaunter and smaller, and asking how everybody was. Eva occupied herself by reading her Bible and praying. When she was well enough, she liked me to take her to the Anglican healing service held once a month in the village church. Unlike the emotionally charged healing circuses conducted by charismatic power evangelists in conference halls, these unobtrusive services, held on the last Thursday of the month, are quiet, contemplative, poorly attended affairs. In the depths of winter, when a gale is howling, the sea wild, and the wind and rain lashing against the stained glass windows, the stillness inside the freezing, ill lit, medieval barn that we call our parish church, well and truly passeth all understanding. After getting us in the mood with a couple of traditional hymns and a brief sermon, Ron, the vicar, would lead us in the responses (“Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table” and so on), then motion us to make our way forward to the altar rail, where we would kneel to receive the bread and wine. After returning to our pews to contemplate our forgiveness for a moment, those of us wanting healing would go forward and kneel again at the altar rail, and two pairs of lay members would go among the bowed heads, anointing with oil and administering the laying on of hands. Because there is only enough room at the rail for four supplicants at a time, and each laying on of hands takes a minute or two, those slow to react form an unsteady queue on the foot-worn tombstones in the aisle. Eva and I would wait silently and solemnly in line, shuffling forward every now and then as vacancies arose at the altar rail and the queue shortened. When we finally made our approach, it became a habit of mine to examine the soles of the shoes of those already kneeling, for it is surprising how many farmers leave the price tags on them, and how cheap their shoes are. Eva could just about manage to totter the short distance between pew and altar when we first started going to these services. All I was required to do was keep close behind her, steer her gently by the elbows and warn her about the steps. Then even this short distance became too much for her, so I propelled her up the aisle in a wheelchair. Overtaking the queue, I would park her beside the altar, flick on the brakes, and they would come and anoint and lay hands on the both of us simultaneously. Practitioners of the Christian ministry of the laying on of hands often claim that as they are praying, God will vouchsafe them a supernatural insight into the supplicant’s spiritual and physical needs. This leads them straight to the heart of the matter and enables them to pray pertinently. (One could quibble, of course, by pointing out that it might be more efficient to cut out the middle man altogether and make a direct appeal to God through the usual channels.) It did not, however, take the prompting of a divine for anybody to recognise Eva’s infirmities. Even on her better days, she looked like Tutankhamun with the bandages off. While hands were being laid on our heads, I could hear Eva’s intercessors sternly rebuking the spirits of ill health who had taken up residence in her body. Fortunately, the spirits of sex and shopping which inhabit my own rudely healthy body are less easily discerned. Every month I knelt down and felt the hands on my head, and wondered whether I was about to be rumbled; but every month the layers on of hands would draw a complete blank. They would sigh and moan with righteous anguish, and sometimes, as a last resort, they would grip my head and vibrate it a bit, while discreetly murmuring invocations in strange tongues. But it was all to no avail, and my demons would enjoy security of tenure for at least another month. Finally, even a ride up the aisle in a wheelchair became too much for poor Eva. She had to stop going to the healing services altogether. This saddened her. We did suggest to her that we might convey her to the church on a litter and lower her in through a hole in the roof, as was done in the well known Bible story, and she laughed at that; and then she died, made one final, boxed visit to her beloved church and thereafter had no further need to attend. Thoughtful to the last, Eva left me her barometer in her will.