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‘Allow the tragedy to do its work’

01 September 2017

In this archive piece from 5 September 1997, the former Archbishop of York, John Habgood, reflected on the outpouring of grief for the Princess of Wales


Outpouring: flowers and tributes to the Princess of Wales outside Kensington Palace, on 3 September 1997

Outpouring: flowers and tributes to the Princess of Wales outside Kensington Palace, on 3 September 1997

WHEN A NATION spontaneously pours out its grief, when individuals come in their thousands simply to ‘‘be there” and to offer their ritual flowers, when the accidental death of a young woman sends sorrowful reverberations round the world, we need to stop and ask what is happening.

Of course anyone with any sensitivity must feel immense sadness at the death of a young mother and at the consequences for those closest to her. But why is there such intensity of feeling about this woman, and this death?

Media hype has played a part in it. Few people can have been better known or more publicly exposed than Princess Diana, and publicity breeds public interest. Yet this cannot be the whole explanation, if only because her death has produced such widespread revulsion at the intrusiveness which, directly or indirectly, occasioned it.

Was it the glamour which surrounded her? Her legendary beauty has certainly been a factor, not least because most of us, very unfairly, tend to think more highly of beautiful people than of ugly ones.

The awe, the frisson, and the sense of occasion created by royalty also add to the consciousness that something precious has been lost. But glamour is nothing like the whole story, even though part of Diana’s unique gift was to make this royal specialness seem accessible and warm in the lives of millions of ordinary people.

Was it her ability to give herself, especially to those who were suffering, or were shunned by others, or had become forgotten victims? Here, I believe, we come nearer to the heart of her enormous popularity, enhanced by the fact that she was herself in some respects a victim, and not afraid to expose her own vulnerability. A combination of youthful attractiveness, a determination to live life to the full, courage bordering on recklessness, and a readiness to admit one’s faults can prove irresistible, particularly to those trying to find the courage to live their own lives.

But all that I have said so far need not, and probably would not, have inspired such a world-wide response, had she died in her bed 40 years hence. What has made her death so special is the sense of tragedy.

The events of the past few years could well have formed the substance of a tragic opera. It has all the ingredients: a young, innocent and beautiful bride thrown into a world whose demands threaten to crush her; the conflict between ideals, in which good has to struggle against good — the value inherent, say, in dignity and distance, set against the value of accessibility and warmth; a hint of dark secrets; signs that events are out of control, and a mounting sense of doom; a final glimpse of happiness, frustrated by sudden, violent and needless death.

To set out Princess Diana’s story in terms of classic tragedy may help to throw some light on its tremendous impact. Tragic events reveal an aspect of life which much of modern living conspires to hide. Tragedy is not just about suffering, nor is it just about the conflict between good and evil. Most people, and certainly this should be true of Christians, are in some measure equipped to deal with these. If we can identify the causes of suffering, discover remedies, or find someone to blame, then we know what to do.

But tragedy introduces us to a more complex world, a world in which the sources of suffering lie in qualities that, despite potential flaws, are themselves mostly good, in which the lines between good and evil are fatally blurred, and in which meaninglessness threatens to overwhelm the fragile hopes on which lives are built.

It is a world which exposes the superficiality of unthinking optimism and self-satisfied faith; a vision of life which Pascal described as hanging over an abyss, and which Beethoven expressed in his music.

There is a deep human need to come to terms with the tragic dimension of life, and to purify our emotions by exposure to it. I suspect that it is this need which is in part being met by the remarkable displays of grief during these last few days.

Ordinary Christian faith ought to have the language, the symbolism, and the rituals to cope with it. But for many people these are no longer available, and even for Christians the special characteristics of tragedy are often obscured. One of the weaknesses in much contemporary Christianity is a kind of gratuitous cheerfulness. We rush too quickly to the happy ending.

In the end, indeed, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” But for tragedy to do its work in us, the hope that lies beyond it must not be allowed to hide the real conflict between good ideas, and the real failure of noble aspirations, which are as much a part of life as the straight path against identifiable evil.

William Temple, writing about tragic drama 80 years ago, stressed the importance of not diminishing its impact by prematurely offering more than a hint of happier things to come:

“The world revealed in tragedy is a noble world, and better than any we can conceive — yet it is terrible and pitiable and sad beyond belief. We would not alter it; yet we cannot be content with it. This is the philosophy of tragedy; and if it is not the last word of human philosophy, at least we know that no philosophy can by any possibility be true which does not contain it, or which diminishes in any degree whatsoever the depths of its exalted sad solemnity.”

Let tragedy do its work. Then and only then can we begin to see that beyond it lies redemption.


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