A Good Friday with Mr. Eliot

by Daniel Hess

The following lines come from part IV of “East Coker,” the second poem in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

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 shake 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.

What is happening in these five stanzas? Compared to the rest of the poem, this section is the most melodious, with the verses before and after being much more unfettered to form. This section is also the least abstract, yet it is riddled with enigmas and paradox. The meter and rhyme are pleasing, but the content is disturbing. All this helps to make it a powerful Good Friday poem.

Let’s unpack it, beginning with verse one: the wounded surgeon. We know who this is. Jesus is a great healer and he was wounded; Eliot must be talking about Jesus healing us, the divine operation of God. But why does he tangle the familiar language and images? If it’s about Good Friday, wouldn’t it be better to have a cross, nails, a man writhing in pain, and some reference to great love? That would be more satisfactory to our religious sensibilities, but it may well do nothing to startle us into a fresh encounter with the cross.

What we have in verse one is an operating room. We (humanity) are the singular patient and Jesus is the wounded healer. Yet these are fresh wounds, not old scars. Indeed, the surgeon is bleeding as he probes the diseased flesh, bringing resolution to the ailment. I think Eliot is creating a three-dimensional picture out of two images in the same frame. One image is the deathly ill patient (humanity) and the other image is the bleeding surgeon, enduring and executing sharp compassion. Both images must be operative if we are to reach the conclusion in the last verse: that this Friday is good.

In verse two, we locate ourselves in the poem by thoroughly identifying with the ailing patient. But there is more puzzling language. “Our only health is the disease”? What does that mean? Recall the words of Jesus: “They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” Much as we’d like to pretend that we’re fine, we will find health and wholeness only as we face our deadly disease. But who is the “dying nurse”? Maybe Eliot is still talking about the surgeon, but needs a word to rhyme with worse? I don’t think so. I’m inclined to think that the dying nurse symbolizes the church. Eliot was Catholic, and not repulsed by the idea of the church participating with God (the wounded surgeon) in the healing of diseased humans. The dying nurse here is dying in the sense that she is mortal. This is a theological statement, not crucifixion imagery. The role of the nurse is neither to perform the surgery nor to make the patient totally comfortable. The role of the nurse is to help us see ourselves (remind us of our Adamic nature) and provide a place to bring our brokenness and find healing. Before we can be restored, the surgeon must get to the bottom of our brokenness, and the dying nurse is ready to assist us in that process.

In verse three we are still lying with the patient, but we realize that the operating room is everywhere. The primary image remains in focus, but we zoom way out to a near-cosmological perspective of the situation. We also begin to more clearly transcend time. The healing of humanity is not confined to time and place. The action at Golgotha (the wounded surgeon plying the steel) is still the means of healing, but we begin to see metaphysical connections everywhere between earthly circumstances, world history, and the master healer.

Note: there are now three important agents in the operation. The wounded surgeon, the dying nurse, and the hospital (which turns out to be the whole earth). The “ruined millionaire” must be a reference to Adam, the original steward of the whole world who handed down a spoiled inheritance. Yet not spoiled beyond repair. This same spoiled inheritance (earth) can still be lived in and it can become the hospital where, if we are willing to be a patient, we meet the master healer. In fact, “if we do well, we shall / Die”! “Die,” in this usage, is not from the disease, but dying to self. If we succeed in handling our inheritance well, we will die to self, and that because of “the absolute paternal care” of God the Father’s faithfulness, “that will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.” Here, “prevents” is used in the King James sense: to precede. God is still working everywhere within our fallen lives and world to help us succeed. And the only way to succeed will be to die to self.

Verse four: death to self continues, the disease worsens, and the path to healing continues. The image seems to be changing, but in reality it is just coming into sharper and sharper focus. The process of healing is likened to the idea of purgatory, a refining process:

If to be warmed, then I must freeze,
And shake in frigid purgatorial fires,
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

This is deep soteriology, and no happy-go-lucky imputation magic. This is all-out death to self as the only solution to the fever chart. This death involves our will, but it requires the work of the wounded healer. The dual images in verse one are sliding together. The efficacious dying of the wounded healer is linked to the necessary dying of self (“the distempered part”). As Augustine said: “Let me die, lest I die.”

Verse five: The wounded surgeon reappears, and the scene becomes visceral. Blood is everywhere, but we realize that the surgeon’s wounds are not a hindrance to our healing but the very means of that healing:

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.

Actually, we don’t realize the importance of the wounds very clearly. We need to be reminded afresh, because we all too quickly and foolishly revert to thinking that we have life within ourselves, that we are at the center of reality. The body and blood of Christ too easily become pleasant little amenities with which we round out our self-assured lives, instead of remaining our only source of life. But wait! We’ve been reminded! We are jerked back to reality. “Again,” (this “again” is important) “in spite of that” (in spite of our temporary delusion) “we call this Friday good.”

This body and this blood are the only source of life we have. Every time we internalize that reality, and physically internalize the communion of the body and blood, we transcend time and experience another Good Friday.

Artwork: Antoine Vollon (1833-1900), A Still Life With a Fish, a Bottle and a Wicker Basket.

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