Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Saint Joseph and The Great Circular Stairway Built With Only Three Nails

‘“I have cellars in my house here with passages into the Ocean,” Laughter-Lynn said when they were at breakfast. “Row-boats come into them all the time and ship-boats often. The name of one of my cellars is Drowned Ghost Cellar, and all of the ghosts of my house are drowned-man ghosts. I do not have such impressive visitors to my house as my mother has to her Castle. No Angels come here, except one sometimes. No Giants, except one very small one. No Sioga, except Ocean-Goblins. The three ghosts of my house I love the most are my three drowned husbands.”

‘“I want seaweed to eat for breakfast,” the Jane said. “I don’t want this other stuff.”

‘“I’ll get you some,” said the child servant. “I’m Katie.”

‘“Will these sea-castings further our Quest for Reality?” Hieronymous Talking-Crow asked.

‘“Oh, I think so,” Laughter-Lynn said. “Judgment Day Morning, when we shall all of us understand every secret and every reality, comes when the land shall give up its dead. But the sea gives up its dead every morning in my big cellars, and there are a lot of secrets revealed and shocking realities come to port. Oh, here’s one of my house ghosts now. He is my second drowned husband, Ship Captain Cornelius.”

‘“Charmed,” said the ghostly SeaCaptain in his ghostly SeaCaptain’s weeds, and he bowed to all of them. “Have you seen our Great Circular Stairway that possibly was not built by living hands? It is one of the Three Wonders of our house and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It runs from the Monsters’ Den which is two levels below the booming ocean itself to the Sky Studio that is unsupported save by the winding stairway.”

‘“The Stairway was built during the tenure-in-life of SeaCaptain Cornelius here,” Laughter-Lynn said proudly. “He was at-land for a month then and was in the house. I came home one evening and there was the beautiful Circular Stairway completed. And there was the Sky Studio new in the sky like a large head on the end of a long corkscrew neck. The whole thing would have taken a crew of five carpenters five weeks to do, except for the portions of it that would have been quite impossible to do at all.”

‘“It was Saint Joseph who did it,” said SeaCaptain Cornelius. “I knew him by the pipe that he had in his mouth. It was made with a Gouging Tool out of the very tag-end of a board. Those Galilean carpenters will not waste a thing. I also knew him by the tobacco that he was smoking in his pipe. Those frugal Galilean carpenters smoke a mixture of nine parts aromatic redwood sawdust and one part of strong shag tobacco. It has a pleasant smell. ‘I will work for a noon meal,’ he said (he was a tall-straight man), ‘ I can repair anything, anything.’ ‘There is a step on the stairway that needs fixing,’ I said, ‘but I don’t have a board at hand to repair it or I’d do it myself.’ ‘I have everything I’ll need,’ he said, and he opened a very small package that he had. It contained a small saw, a small hammer, three nails, a very small board of wood, and two little panes of glass, one of them clear and one of them clouded. I noticed the name on his small package, Joseph Jacobson, so then I knew for sure that he was Saint Joseph; for the father of Saint Joseph was named Jacob. I gave him a noon meal of Dutch bread and ewe-milk cheese and codfish, and a cup of light medlar wine. Then I went to take my afternoon nap which I always take whether on sea or on land, whether in life or in death. And in my sleep I heard a hammer with a melodious ring to it, very pleasant. But even in my sleep I wondered ‘He has only three nails, and how can he be doing so much melodious hammering with them?’ Then when my nap was finished (it’s always finished within half an hour) I found the Galilean carpenter Joseph Jacobson. ‘The step is fixed,’ he said. ‘Really I did a little bit more than fix the step. I built a new stairway. That was the least I could do for you when the codfish and the medlar wine were so good. And now I will give you a gift of a new pipe already filled and lighted.’ I took the pipe from him and puffed it. It was wonderful. There is nothing like that mixture of aromatic redwood sawdust and strong shag tobacco. It is the same pipe that I am smoking right now. It has never needed to be refilled nor relit. I saw the Circular Stairway then and was delighted almost out of my skin. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I went up to the floor above me and I went down to the floor below me. I did not notice then that it went very much further up and down. ‘I believe that you are the best carpenter who ever lived,’ I said. ‘No,’ he told me, ‘my son was a much better carpenter’.”

-R. A. Lafferty, East of Laughter (1989), pp.77-79



Kevin Cheek said...

I grew up (or perhaps failed to grow up) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One attraction there is the Lorreto Chapel and its Miraculous staircase. I have seen it, it is truly a marvel of construction and dazzlingly beautiful. This quote is from the history posted on the official web site of Lorreto Chapel (http://www.lorettochapel.com/staircase.html):

"When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft twenty-two feet above. Carpenters were called in to address the problem, but they all concluded access to the loft would have to be via ladder as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small Chapel.

Legend says that to find a solution to the seating problem, the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters' prayers.

The stairway's carpenter, whoever he was, built a magnificent structure. The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today.

The staircase has two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support. Also, it is said that the staircase was built without nails—only wooden pegs. Questions also surround the number of stair risers relative to the height of the choir loft and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway's construction."

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, what an amazing connection! I knew nothing about this. I've added the link into the post itself and added 'Loretto Chapel' as a label. Cheers for this!

Presumably Lafferty was aware of and drawing on this legend?

Kevin Cheek said...

I would imagine he was very aware of it. His first published story was in The New Mexico Quarterly in 1959, "The Wagons" (which I have never read). He also was very aware of church legend and minutiae, and the Loretto stairs are famous. On top of that, aside from the compressed time frame (a standard Lafferty trope) the stories are remarkably similar. Is St. Joseph associated with spiral staircases anywhere else?

It's funny; I did some looking last night, and found lots of sites on the web spending energy "debunking" the myth of the stairs. To my mind, the fact that the stair is physically possible in no way diminishes the accomplishment. It is still remarkable from both a craft and engineering standpoint as well as from an aesthetic one. Understanding the physics of it just makes it more fascinating.

Kevin Cheek said...

And this gets me onto a personal theological point. I often encounter people who are offended by the notion that something they consider miraculous actually obeys the laws of physics. I fail to see a conflict. Why shouldn't a miracle obey the laws of physics. The basic structure of the universe can be viewed as pretty miraculous to start with.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, on both points. C. S. Lewis in his book Miracles talks about (as I remember it) how nature quickly 'takes over' from supernature once a miracle has occurred - e.g. the miraculously conceived life in Mary's womb goes through the natural nine months of pregnancy, then labour and delivery. And I was going to say from your first comment that, indeed, the very existence of the 'laws' of physics themselves are a miracle to begin with. (Certainly from a Christian revelatory perspective - but I think logic demands this conclusion also - or at least makes it 'rationally permissible' or, what seems more likely to me, a positively *better* explanation than its contenders.)

As St. Lafferty said: 'it is unnatural or supernatural that we should exist at all' (Aurelia, p. 115).

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)