It was my privilege to offer a lecture on the great American writer Thornton Wilder at the Noontime Philosopher’s Club this past week. Wilder is unique among American writers not just because he received three Pulitzer Prices for his writing, but because he received them in different categories; drama (for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth) and fiction (for his novella The Bridge of San Luis Rey).
The first of Wilder’s most celebrated works, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, was written in 1927. Back in my day, it was a standard required text for my High School English class. It tells the stories of five unrelated people who happen to be on a bridge in Peru when it collapses, killing them all. Wilder uses this incident to plunge us deeply into questions of fate and providence. Why those five people? Why at that specific moment in their lives? Was this part of some divine plan or purpose? Through the character of Brother Juniper, we undertake a quest to find patterns in the tragedy that would make sense of the event. Were these victims innocent and undeserving of their fate, or had their lives come to some kind of completion making their deaths a kind of heavenly reward?
Brother Juniper’s work finds no easy answers in his search; in fact, he himself is condemned as a heretic for attempting to discern God’s patterns of providence. The end of the book finds us with the quest for answers given up. Even those closest to the victims have fading memories of the people who died on the bridge. Wilder uses the character of Madre Maria to muse on the meaning of it all:
“Even now, she thought, “almost no one remembers Estaban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon she 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; 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.”
May you be blessed with such love this Valentine’s Day!
Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides