The Jury Room  (Week 7)                                                                                                                                          Posted 27th May 2014

The agnostic's prayer or ... 

Let our joys never deny the griefs of others                               
From The Herald : Sat 2-May-1998


There is no flock, however watched and tended,

But one dead lamb is there.

There is no fireside, howsoe'er defended,

But has one vacant chair.


The air is full of farewells to the dying,

And mournings for the dead;

The heart of Rachel, for her children crying,

Will not be comforted.


Mary Contrary’s voice introduces the lines of poetry into the temporary silence around her as naturally as a piece of conversation. There is nothing declamatory about it. She is like someone who, suddenly, in company, is possessed by a thought quite outside the immediate context and feels compelled to utter it.

The effect is itself compelling. After all, here is someone no longer merely making conversation but saying something she so obviously means, since there is no other reason to say it. It is, in the midst of casual posturing, like hearing a heart sigh. You stop and listen.

The rest of The Jury Room recedes. The noise remains but it is muted to whispered Muzak by what we have just heard. She has made a private booth of concentration. The others don't leave, of course, but they are no longer of our number. We are just four - Gus the Guru, Greyman, myself, and predominantly Mary.

That's lovely, hen, Gus says. What is it?

Mary has no problem with the Purple Sage calling her hen or lassie or girl. Unlike some zealots of the word, she believes in context and intention, those compounded elements which are the air meaning must breathe to stay alive. She knows that Gus's usage just means that he has affection for her.

Longfellow, Mary says. Resignation. It's a poem I learned years ago. Last night, I don't know why, I though about Dunblane. The children and the teacher. And something about the poem came back to me. It's like those times when the sadness of things gets like a bogeyman you can't face on your own. You need to hear another human voice. Usually I phone somebody up. You could say I phoned up Longfellow. Didn't give the fella much choice. Speak to me, speak to me. But, I mean. Those children and that woman.

She certainly kills the conversation for a time. But shared silence has its own meaning. We may all be thinking different things but I believe the separate thoughts are part of the same mosaic.

Me, I'm thinking how the moment Mary has made is like a minute and feeble echo of what must have been constantly happening to the bereaved of Dunblane - the endless ambushes of grief. It is the suddenness of having to confront the fact again in an unexpected context that gives me a glimpse - far off in the distance - of how terrible it must have been for those parents and that husband.

There may be formal expressions of sympathy from time to time, there may be anniversary candles in the windows - and so there should be. But grief grows most stubbornly in the secret crevices of private silence, unreachable by outsiders. The smallest act of the grievers will sometimes be mocked into irrelevance by the enormity of what has happened. The simplest ordinary task will sometimes come apart in their hands, leaving them hopelessly empty. Bending to put away a pair of shoes, opening a cupboard door, they will discover the rawness of their grief again like a fresh wound.

I think of how sorrow can ramify almost infinitely from such things as one finger's action in a small place in a brief time. I remember a war poem I read in my teens, which went into my mind clean as its title, The Bullet, and stayed.

Every bullet has its billet,

Many bullets more than one.

God, perhaps I killed a mother

When I killed a mother's son.


What strikes me now about these lines, for so long stored in the memory, is how almost quaintly sensitive they seem when brought out into the harsh light of today. They remind me of Wilfred Owen's astonishing, self-critical comment - towards the end of the First World War - on what eventually happened to him when he was registering the deaths of men in his command: I no longer bother to take the cigarette out of my mouth when I write ''deceased'' across their names. These were men who, living under daily threat of death, could feel compassion for those they were obliged to kill and despaired at the inevitable callousing of their own spirits. Living in a kind of holocaust, they could feel guilt even in the fact of their own survival.

Changed times. Guilt has become unnecessary and uncool. The circumstances did it or it was the place's fault. The most casual killings come bearing social work reports. Kill a young man for fun in the street and wait for the liberal explanations to muster round you, like shady lawyers.

This won't do. I make no plea for savage implementation of the law. I have never trusted the law that much anyway. (For a start, usually its machinery can only be effectively oiled with money.) But I would like to see us stop hiding behind the sophistry of endless sociological explanations. Self-justification for whatever you've done has become a growth industry in our society.

Let's begin by remembering that all acts of unprovoked violence are the result of human choice. Circumstances may mitigate by suggesting that the choices are narrower for some than for others but they can never excuse. If all we can do is respond in kind to what we see as unfairness, society is meaningless. We might as well let the jungle regrow around us. That's why to remove individual will from the centre of human agency and replace it with pressure of circumstances or a bad childhood is not, as some sociologists and psychologists seem to suggest, a counsel of hope. It is a philosophy of total despair.

That kind of despair compounded the grief of Dunblane. All grief is partly a grieving for ourselves and no less genuine for that. After Dunblane, I think we felt sadness not just for our imagined sense of the lost individuality of those children but for what our communal nature seems to be becoming, the place towards which we are moving. We woke in the aftermath among a debris of illusions.

Horrific events like the Dunblane killings do that to us. The glib sociological double-talk evaporates like studio mist and we are obliged to confront where we are. We realise it's not enough to say it was ever thus or that our present is no different from our past and it's just that the media have made us more aware.

This is nonsense. Bad things have always been done but in our time the casual incidence of them has increased dramatically and, most importantly, the motivations that lie behind them have become appallingly trivial.

An American teenage boy, who feels disappointed in love, can decide to blow away a playground. Faced with such happenings, compounded of horror and ludicrous silliness in equal measure, we may sense that we are part of a time edging towards moral free-fall. In such awareness may be our hope. We must admit a crisis before we can deal with it.

You remember the rest of the Longfellow, Mary? Greyman asks.

Not all of it. But some.

Our silence says some will do.

She is not dead that child of our affection

But gone unto that school

Where she no longer needs our poor protection

And Christ himself doth rule.


Day after day we think what she is doing

In those bright realms of air;

Year after year, her tender steps pursuing,

Behold her grown more fair.


Thus do we walk with her and keep unbroken

The bond which nature gives,

Thinking that our remembrance, though unspoken,

May reach her where she lives.


As a devout agnostic, I couldn't share Longfellow's salving certitude. But I hope the parents of the dead children and the husband of their dead teacher may. Let grief so sheer take any harmless solace it can find - the agnostic's prayer.

In any case, for those words to be meaningful, you don't have to profess any specific religious belief. You just have to be human. For they express not just a belief in God, which all of us may take or leave as we choose, but a profound faith in the capacity of people to continue to care beyond any pragmatism in the caring, a caring that is defined by nothing but itself and, therefore, becomes definitive of us.

That for me is what the public sympathy evinced by what happened in Dunblane may finally be about - a deep, spontaneous expression of our nature, a massive human contradiction of the inhumanity that murdered those innocent people. It has been like a voice trying to raise itself above the sound of gunfire, saying to the bereaved: keep faith, if you can. This isn't the measure of our meaning. We are more.

I don't know how little or how much such condolence may have helped the bereaved. I suspect not much. For they must have been each largely alone in trying to relearn how to live, with a seemingly unmitigable grief for constant company. But such condolence is at least the expression of a need to share, however distantly, in a sadness that relates to us all, an acknowledgement of the community of sorrow that is a part of what it means to be human.


And though at times impetuous with emotion

And anguish long suppressed,

The swelling heart heaves moaning like the ocean

That cannot be at rest -


We will be patient and assuage the feeling

We may not wholly stay;

By silence sanctifying, not concealing,

The grief that must have way.


As the activity in The Jury Room reclaims our awareness, Mary's fading voice holds its still dignity among us, like a brief bowing of the head in words.