Stephen Trott turns to Gerard Manley Hopkins to measure and modulate the nation’s grief

THE NEWS WHICH BROKE early in the morning of Sunday 31 August had about it a disturbing air of unreality. I, for one, simply could not believe what I was reading on the first page of the Sunday Times. It had to be April Fool’s Day, or yet another article speculating along the lines of “What if…..?” It was only as the day wore on, and the news coverage of the tragedy on BBC TV remained unbroken, that it began to sink in.

It has been virtually impossible for some considerable time, to avoid the photographs, the documentaries, the fashion stories revolving around Princess Diana. She had become one of those enduring images which becomes part of the subconscious mind. We took it for granted that she was part of our lives, we even felt we knew her closely – precisely because we did know more about her than many of our acquaintances or friends. And when she died so suddenly that morning in Paris, a deep sense of bereavement took over the country, the like of which no one can remember.

England has become a country which does not know how to mourn. Partly this is because of the wonderful advances in medicine, which have stemmed the infant mortality rate and raised our expectation of a long life. Partly it is because we shield ourselves from any acquaintance with death, transferring it from home to the hospital and the mortuary. Partly it is because of the decline in church attendance, and there is no opportunity to consider the great issues of life and death as there was once for the people of a professedly Christian nation.

When our inexperience of death and grieving is then combined with a sudden tragedy such as that which befell Diana, Princess of Wales, then it does prove difficult to make sense of what has happened. We cling to the forlorn hope that it may all turn out to be some kind of mistake, or cruel hoax. How can it be possible that someone so young and beautiful, someone who enjoyed a godlike lifestyle, like a figure in some great play or novel, could suddenly be cut down like this? Despite the sad events of her recent past, did she not seem to be one of the Immortals, a beauty to rival Helen of Troy, caught up in a plot about royalty which could have been written by a latter day Homer?

And now there is emptiness. Diana is no more than a golden memory, who has paradoxically found an immortality of her own in the sadness of her passing. She has become an icon for our times, like Eva Peron or Marilyn Monroe, unforgettable for her tragically early death. Althorp will inevitably become a place of pilgrimage for generations to come, swamped by coaches as Grasmere, in the Lake District, is daily overwhelmed by the visitors to the grave of William Wordsworth.

Why did Diana’s death move so many to such grief? Was she not a fellow mortal, as are so many who are daily injured or killed on the roads, or who succumb to the diseases which continue to defy our best efforts at medicine? Was it not the fact that we felt we knew her, that we had frequently analysed her life, her actions, her emotions and motives, and so there was a real and profound experience of bereavement upon learning of her death?

I found myself returning again and again to the short but compelling poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 

Spring and Fall, To a Young Child.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Margaret is deeply moved by the sight of autumn, as the leaves fall from the trees. As yet she is too young to understand her own emotions, although she knows that she is sad. It is the poet who gently leads her on to the maturity of years spent observing such sights, to which we become accustomed, even hardened.

At some stage in our lives, as we grow older and begin to reflect on such things, we become aware of our own mortality. We too will share the fate of the falling leaves, as we go down to the dust of the earth from which we were fashioned. We must learn to cope with grieving for ourselves.

It is the particular burden of human beings, perhaps alone among this world’s creatures, to be aware of this limitation upon our lives, to know the inevitable outcome to our existence as men and women. It is also our particular privilege to know that when we were made, it was in God’s own likeness and image, and that there is meaning to our existence, as God’s own choice and creation in this world.

One of the most moving passages in the Scriptures comes at the end of Chapter 8 of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where he triumphantly concludes that there is nothing at all, in heaven above or in the earth beneath, that can separate us from the love of God, which is more powerful even than the final enemy, death. It is this knowledge, this reassurance that we are loved for all eternity, that helps to begin to make sense of the mystery of our existence. We are not some commodity, made to be used for a while, and then disposed of. We are God’s creation, the children of God, and we exist to be loved for ever.

This knowledge is established in our hearts and minds by faith in God. To have faith in God is to possess the pearl of great price, the one thing worth having above all others, for it puts our lives into their true context, and opens the mind to the reality which is God, who is eternal, in whose reality we truly share.

We are not destined simply to struggle to stay alive and to make what we can of a temporary existence. This is the perception which all too many people have of their human nature, either consciously or subconsciously. It not only makes people selfish and even ruthless, determined to get as much as they can out of life while it lasts. It also makes for a society which is not sure about the future, which does not have enduring values and ambitions for the human race, because it privately thinks all our efforts are futile and doomed to decay.

The Christian faith speaks confidently about the future. Again, quoting St Paul, ‘Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we = die unto the Lord: whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.’ The future for Diana, Princess of Wales, was not abruptly brought to an end on 31 August. Her future is in God’s safe keeping, along with the future of all His children, until the Day of Judgement.

This is why Christians can hold with such confidence to the teaching and values of the Bible, in the face of a world swept by change and uncertainty. Some things really are eternal, and speak to us of God, who set the world in motion and who will be there long after it has ceased to rotate on its axis. This life is not an end in itself, but an experience of God which draws us forward into eternity. It is the prospect of eternity which makes it possible to plan for it, and prepare for it, in the company of God. The prospect of an eternal future means that what we do with our lives here and now is important, for it gives meaning to our efforts to build up the Kingdom of God both in this world and in our inner, spiritual self.

I would invite anyone who has been troubled by the events of these recent weeks to consider these things afresh. Jesus Christ came into this world and died on a cross, to identify with our troubled hearts and minds, to share our sorrow and to bear the burden of it with us. It is his resurrection which points us to the spiritual reality that I have been describing, that life in God is for ever. Armed with this knowledge we can embrace our destiny, and look to the future with eager anticipation.

Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton, Northamptonshire and a member of General Synod