The bridge of life and death

The first edition cover of“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”

The first edition cover of“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”

Reading about the dead and the wounded in the terrorist attack on London’s Westminster Bridge – from 10 nations and all walks of life – put me in mind once more of Thornton Wilder’s beloved novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”

It tells the story of five people in 18th-century Peru who die while crossing a footbridge that collapses. A witness who was about to cross, a Franciscan monk named Brother Juniper, is assigned to investigate the tragedy.

Why these five?, he wonders. They are interrelated in the novel but that doesn’t seem to be reason enough to answer the question that Wilder posed for himself and that we, too, might ask, particularly after an event such as this: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?

“As I said earlier,” Wilder wrote, “we can only pose the question correctly and clearly, and have faith one will ask the question in the right way."

I believe we are all strands in the universe with patterns to fulfill. For whatever reason, the strands of those dearly departed and wounded came together in a terrifying pattern on Westminster Bridge. But I take comfort in the last, oft-quoted lines of Wilder’s novel, which I myself read at the funeral of my adored Aunt Mary. I quote them now, hoping you will find comfort in them anew:

“We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. 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.”