`Lord of the broken, mend us we pray'

MARY BRAID

They came in their thousands. When they had filled Dunblane cathedral's plain wooden pews they stood four and five abreast in the aisles.

When the cathedral had taken all it could they lined up outside. Parents with children, teenagers with friends, neighbours with neighbours hunched closely together against freezing temperatures and the fine, persistent drizzle.

In the dark, the solemn chain wound from the cathedral's rear door through the 12th century building's ancient tombstones and soon spilled in to the square outside. Eventually it reached down the high street and up the hill past St Blane's, the cathedral's small Church of Scotland sister.

An hour after the candlelit vigil began they were still coming. Families were making their way to the brightly lit church which has become such a focus for so much individual, community and national pain.

The vigil - accompanied by a request for families all over the country to light candle in their homes - was composed of 15-minute sections. There was prayer and a little music but mainly there was silence. A silence like no other - heavy, tangible and laden with grief.

There was silence because, as one cleric said, "words fail". After three days and a million words - spoken and written - the massacre of 16 children and their teacher in the local school gym was recognised at last. In the simple, even austere Presbyterian setting where the rejection of smells, bells and fancy sideshows is a matter of pride, there was some sense of comfort. Sheer weight of numbers seemed to give some strength.

It was an ecumenical event shared by all the town's clergy. No philosophical or religious critiques were offered. No cerebral discussion of evil, human freedom of choice and faith in the modern world. This was a time for feeling.

"Lord of the broken mend us we pray," struck a chord with those present.

The Reverend Maxwell Craig spoke of life's two faces. Even as the wise men were saving Jesus by lying to King Herod, the King was ordering the mass murder of all of Bethlehem's baby boys. The hard truth about the human condition was returned to in a new prayer written two days ago for the people of Dunblane. Two lines hit home the hardest.

"So great the joy since each was born.

"So long the years in which to mourn."

A group of white-robed Buddhists were among the few outsiders who travelled to pay their respects.

But the vigil was what local church leaders had always intended essentially as a community occasion. The proceedings inside took place under the 16 perfect matching arches strung out along one wall.

Most of those with red-rimmed eyes and quivering lips had some connection with the victims of the atrocity.

In the aftermath of madness the people of Dunblane have struggled to find sense. They have carpeted the paths outside the primary school with flowers and teddies. Last night was another communal outpouring for the children and their families.

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