Chris McDonnell: Ridge Tiles

We often use the phrase about a football crowd ‘raising the roof’ with noise at a match. It is an expression of excitement and enthusiasm that all can share. But apart from that figurative use of the phrase, there are many other aspects of the roof that concern us, not the least being ‘having a roof over our heads’.

 Recently I visited a farm where the roof of a cattle barn was being renovated. Large areas of the roof had been stripped of terracotta tiles and carefully stacked in piles on the ground surrounding the barn walls. In a separate stack, the curved, ridged tiles sat, one upon another. The weathering of years, the yellowed lichen on the faded orange, protection against the skit and scurry of the wind, a familiar skyline shadow now in pieces on the earth, touchable, grounded. When the old laths are replaced, it will all be re-assembled, with some new tiles replacing broken ones, proof against the weather and a stop-over point for passing birds.

The Gospel account of a roof being used as an access point to a home and the lowering of a sick man on a stretcher to lie at the feet of the Lord, is well known. It showed practical determination on behalf of his friends, that somehow, they would get him in there and it showed that they had faith in that all the effort required would, in the end, be worthwhile.

For many others in Europe, and the Middle East a roof over their head is a sheet of plastic, hurriedly tied to make a covering for a family on the move. Having left their homes in fear they now have no permanent resting place, transient people seeking refuge, not too far from our homes.

Yet some have found a resting place, their journey over. On the Greek island of Lesbos, in an olive grove, there are the graves of those unknown men, women and children who lost their lives at sea, crossing from Turkey , brought to the beach by the tides. Numbered, photographed, washed prepared for burial by the local Imam, they lie in the ground. May they rest in peace.

There is another form of roofing tile that many carry, a head covering that is worn as protection from the weather, be it rain or cold or to create a small shadow land in summer.

Other head coverings are ceremonial.

Listening to Seamus Heaney recently, reading from his collection “Seeing Things” I came across his wonderfully descriptive poem entitled ‘The Biretta’. It brought back in an instant the ritual and ceremony of serving Mass in the 50s.

Like Gaul, the biretta was divided
Into three parts: triple-finned black serge,
A shipshape pillbox, its every slope and edge
Trimly articulated and decided.

Its insides were crimped satin; it was heavy too
But sported a light flossy tassel
That the backs of my fingers remember well,
And it left a dark red line on the priest’s brow.

I received it into my hand from the hand
Of whoever was celebrant, ……

I can still remember taking it with my outstretched hand and placing it on the altar step as the priest intoned the blessing at the start of Mass.

But such practices fade with time and changed circumstance, and in many ways, rightly so.

Still the bishop has his mitre and under it the small round skullcap, thezucchetto. Back in December 2013, when Francis was visiting the Santa Maria Medical Centre in the Vatican, he lifted a young child into his arms. Curiosity led the youngster to remove the white papal zucchetto for further examination, a long journey from the crown of thorns, but in its own way, no less significant.

So, for many, their head covering is their personal ridge tile, a precaution against poor weather, but also a significant reminder of who they are. The skull cap tradition is not of course the preserve of Christians but is found in other faiths, Muslim and Jewish. It makes a statement about who they are, it is a sign of respect in times of prayer.

Whether we wear our own small roofing tile or live in a house where the roof is secure against the weather, maybe we should reflect on the plight of those who have no roof whatsoever. One of the tracks from that classic Beatles Album, Sergeant Pepper, opens with these lines

”I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,

And stops my mind from wandering,

Where it will go”.                                                                

Maybe that is why so many of us express concern about the Church they love and is our home, cracks and all. We are just trying to fix a hole or two.

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