Homily: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
I still can’t get my mind off the terrible tragic train wreck in Compostela, Spain two weeks ago, when 80 passengers were killed and over 80 more seriously injured on their way to celebrate the feast of St. James at the sacred shrine there. I have been offering my prayers for them and their families, since we, patrons of St. James, have so much in common with them.
It is tragedies such as these and all who are affected by them that really bring to the forefront how complex the plan of God is for all our lives, and how we puzzle over them with each heartrending event we hear of in the news, or what happens in the sphere of those we know and love.
Thornton Wilder, in his Pulitzer prizewinning novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, struggled with this same mystery.
It tells the story of how, on July 20, 1714, “the finest bridge in all Peru”, an Inca rope-fiber suspension bridge collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, happens to witness the tragedy, and as a result, he asks the central question of the novel: “Why did this happen to those five?” Did their lives meet a kind of natural completion-point at that place and at that time, so that one could say God had allowed them to live a complete full life, in spite of the tragedy that took time so suddenly? He sets out to explore the lives of the five victims, and to understand why, in God’s plan, each had to die at that moment.
The victims were a wealthy Marquesa who’s life was sad and lonely; Pepita, her companion, an orphan who was reared in a church orphanage; Esteban, who was mourning the death of his twin brother, and who, had contemplated suicide, but had decided to push on’ and go to sea; Uncle Pio, who had devoted his life to Perichole, ‘the most celebrated actress in Peru’. He has been an adventurer, a linguist, a teacher, and an expert on Spanish literature, especially the literature of the theater. He is traveling on the bridge that fateful day with Perichole’s little son Jaime because he is going to spend a year educating the boy.
Brother Juniper failed in his quest to justify God in this tragedy, and he spent the remainder of his life treated as one who had “made God look bad.” And, ironically, his quest lead to his own death. Philosophically, the book explores the problem of evil, or the question of why unfortunate events occur to people who seem “innocent” or “undeserving”. The book was quoted by Tony Blair during the memorial service for victims of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
How appropriate, then, are our readings today.
Our first reading, from Ecclesiastes, gets at life’s meaning and how we ought to understand the way our lives unfold. Ecclesiastes encourages us to remember that honoring, respecting, and loving God with our entire being is our only responsibility in life. If we think that we can straighten what is crooked by being wise and discerning then we’d better think again.
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, “What does all your busyness get you? You’re unhappy, stressed out, annoyed at your boss—and when was the last time you got a good night’s sleep? You’re spending your time, even if you are retired, doing stuff that doesn’t really matter when you could and should work at doing something that gives you real meaning, that allows you to embrace God’s wisdom.”
We all struggle with how we manage our time. We all wish we could have meaningful work every day. We all get impatient with ourselves for wanting what we don’t have. But how many of us are ready to accept the fact that some of the stuff we do really doesn’t matter and isn’t worth the trouble? And by being unwilling to do so, we are missing an opportunity to be converted and transformed.
In our second reading, Paul tells us to put to death the parts of ourselves that are earthly; and stop lying to one another, since we have put on the New Self.
But most compelling is the gospel story of the rich man, planning ahead on how to protect his wealth, to whom God says, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you, and what good will all your preparations do you? Then is says: “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters in God.”
The story exposes our own inner commitments as clearly as it exposes the thoughts of the rich fool. It holds up a mirror before us and asks us to take a good look at our own inner lives and listen to our own inner voices.”
One morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel was quite surprised to read his own obituary in the morning newspaper. Obviously, it was a journalistic mistake. One of his brothers had died, and a careless reporter had used a prewritten obituary that revealed that the world really thought of him simply as the dynamite king, the merchant of death, who had amassed a great fortune out of explosives.
Nobel had hoped his inventions would be useful to people and to nations. So, at that moment, Alfred Nobel resolved to show the world the true purpose of his life. He revised his will so that his fortune would be dedicated to the recognition of great creative achievements, with the highest award going to those who had done the most for world peace. Today, we all associate him with the Nobel Peace Prize.
You definitely do have work to do in order to live long enough to reach salvation. God has provided us with a “map”, but we are free to choose the route we will follow. The wise person will take note of these things; and will consider the steadfast love of the Lord.
In the Gospel, in reply to a question, Jesus gave one illustration of the way you are to go, the work you have to do. “Beware! guard against greed; those possessions do not give one life.”
But God said to the man, “You fool, this very night you must surrender your life”. Remember, you do not wander free of responsibility, unwatched. God is keeping an eye on you: where you go, what you do, what you think and say. The Lord is building a case of the way you live the Christ-risen life. And, if your case warrants, God will pronounce judgment and issue a verdict of eternal salvation.
So, Be careful! You have been saved– delivered out of slavery to sin– but you have not yet arrived at the Promised Land. So don’t be smug in your salvation, Christian; take time to repent. “The wise person will take note of these things; and will consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”
What is Essential?” Malina Elizabeth Berry; Sojourners August 2007