Centuries ago a bridge suspended high above an Andean valley collapsed. As a handful of travellers fell to their deaths, a Franciscan Friar approaching the bridge witnessed the event. Hundreds crossed that bridge every day. He never doubted God had decided to end those lives for a reason. Certain those lives had reached their completeness, Friar Juniper set out to investigate, to prove meaning in the seeming randomness. The author Thornton Wilder wrote a short, intense account of the monk’s quest in his book ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey.’
Thirty years ago I made the winding climb from the valley floor to Marysville’s lovely Steavensons Falls. Half way up, nearing a bend in the cool and green, I encountered a plaque that read:
IT WAS AN ACT OF GOD ON A WINDLESS MORNING
FOR THAT PARTICULAR TREE TO FALL
AT THAT PARTICULAR PLACE AND TIME
PETER JOHN SYMONS AGED 19 YEARS
MAXWELL JAY HUTTY AGED 18 YEARS
DOROTHY PATRICIA MCNALLY AGED 15 YEARS
JANINE CLARK AGED 13 YEARS
The plaque had aged, its sheen lost. The text begged the Great Question. A smaller question lay buried in the ordering of names, listed – not alphabetically but by age. The fact of ordering betrayed the human need that pressed upon the text’s composer, the need to overcome chaos, to quell the fear of existential meaninglessness.
On an idyllic summer day in the heart of Melbourne, streets milled with innocents in their hundreds, in their thousands. They were schoolchildren, adults, workers, lovers. They were foreigners and out-of-towners here for the tennis, they were suited business people and bewigged barristers. They were in the liveable city where life was blessed by a gentle sun, a sweet torpor, a Friday feeling. One of those thousands was a baby boy whose life was about to end at the age of three months; one a twenty-two year old woman who bubbled with laughter; two were men, aged 25 and 33 years. A fifth was ten years old, a school girl.
On Patriots Day, 2013, thirty thousand of us set off to run from the village of Hopkinton to Boston, 26 miles and 185 yards away. The marathon started at 10.00 in the morning. One million Bostonians lined the route, standing outside until all had passed, cheering us on. Boston loved us all, from the elite to the aging plodders. Celebrating this, their ceremony of innocence, the spectators offered us oranges, bananas, sausages, beer. They held up signs: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS. At 2.46 pm the first bomb exploded at the Finish Line, followed moments later by the second. Of the many hundreds shouting and cheering in Boylston Street, three were killed, 264 injured. One of those killed was a boy aged eight. Sixteen survivors lost limbs.
In Wilder’s classic novel, the Friar spends years seeking the proof of divine design in the chaos and cruelty of life. His researches culminate in a book in which simple faith is upheld by simplistic conclusions. Wilder writes:
I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations. They are always with us. He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to heaven…
The book being done fell under the eyes of some judges and was pronounced heretical. It was ordered to be burned in the Square with its author. Brother Juniper submitted to the decision that the devil had made use of him…The little Friar was given to the congenial flames… he called twice upon St Francis, and leaning upon a flame he smiled and died.
In the final few pages Wilder makes clear his rejection of The Friar’s ‘generalizations.’ Instead he writes of those who loved and lost and lamented and never healed. All these live out their days numbed, unable to find solace or meaning. One by one, they cross the lonely years and confess their grief, their self-blame, to an aged Abbess, herself bereaved of the two who used to be orphans in her care. All the bereaved live out their days waiting for death.
For the present generations, living in our scientific age, reared as we are with data to slake our thirst for the rational, attempts to rationalise last week’s experiences fail to satisfy. Instead explanations are felt as an affront. The image of a pram, upended, empty, upon the bloodied street; a child lying face down, entirely alone in death, torn from her mother and sister who struggle for life elsewhere, in Intensive Care Units; the Japanese stranger – still unidentified – who dies alone and unknown, far from his home – who, in the face of these, can find comfort in pious nostrums?
Ultimately Wilder’s Abbess finds, not explanation, not meaning, but reconciliation: Even now – she thought – almost no-one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself… soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
As in Boston after the bombs, once the fatal car had passed, the people of Melbourne beheld those injured, those lost in wild surmise, those stunned. The cabbie who leaped from his car, the citizens who took travel brochures, garments – whatever they found to hand – to bind wounds, all became sudden trauma nurses and paramedics. So too the shop attendants who streamed from department stores with towels to stanch haemorrhage, with a board torn from a wooden pallet to splint a broken leg.
A terrible beauty born.