Recrossing The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder successfully fictionalized some ages-old core existential questions that have haunted humanity since its inception in his short novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  Why do bad things happen to good people indiscriminately, while bad people prosper?  Is there a plan or purpose behind the bad happenings?  A reason?  Are seemingly senseless accidents such as the one depicted in the novel -- the collapse of a bridge, a "ladder of thin slats swung out over a gorge, with handrails of dried vine" -- or other bad happenings such as natural disasters, poverty or war, "acts of God" or acts of fate?  Or neither or something else?  Are they meaningful or meaningless?  If those who fell to their deaths in Wilder's novel died because God willed them to die, as Brother Juniper's order believes, is it then a capital offense to seek proof to that effect through non-Catholic means? Complicated, convoluted questions, even for skeptics, raised by this slim, but intense, and beautifully written novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

First Printing
Wilder, of course, doesn't explicitly answer these universal questions, though by novel's end, our narrator, Brother Juniper, eyewitness to the collapse: "He saw the bridge divide and fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below..." certainly, in part, has answered some of them.   In some socks-you-in-the-gut, brutal irony, Brother Juniper, after he's dared ask why -- why did these people die?, why did the bridge collapse for them instead of others? -- and then travelled by foot great distances to probe the lives and personal histories of those who fell for possible clues to answer these deeper questions that are only natural for an inquisitive mind's pursuit, ultimately becomes the sixth and final victim of the bridge of San Luis Rey's collapse.

Brother Juniper lacked the foresight in recognizing how dangerous his questions were in a culture whose pious insularity accepted nothing less than rote avowals of faith in God's sovereign will.  Moreover, and to the practical point, Brother Juniper was stealing time from his ascetic duties to solitude and prayer in order to play detective.  In the least he was egregiously undisciplined; at worst, a heretic.  But his fellow monks had it wrong. Brother Juniper wasn't looking to discredit God, but rather sought in his investigations a way to prove God's sovereignty, to affirm his faith in God not just by faith but facts.

Brother Juniper's decision to mix his intellect with his faith, instead of abiding strictly by faith alone; which he denied the second he began his investigation into why those five unfortunate travelers may have perished when, where, and how they perished, was not surprisingly condemned on the spot as insubordination and blatant blasphemy, an unforgivable rejection of faith in God and the most holy and sacred tenets of Catholicism.  How dare a middling monk not take God automatically on faith! Who did this insignificant little man, Brother Juniper, think he was, embarrassing the Church like that with his foolish questions?  And so for the supposed unpardonable sin of suggesting God's will -- God's very mind -- could be accessed through an investigation, through the woefully finite human insight of what amounted to empiricism, Brother Juniper, a devout Catholic, became essentially a martyr for science.

If there are any answers in this indifferent universe that can even partially explain how Evil and Human Suffering can comfortably coexist alongside a purported All-good and Omnipotent God, an All-wise Deity to be trusted and praised by His adherents even when disasters on a scale more monstrous than the collapse of a flimsy, make-believe bridge in Peru occur ... say the collapse of the Twin Towers, the collapse of the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, or the unending collapse that has been Genocide throughout the godless ages, continuing still today in Syria ... then it's clear to me that Brother Juniper (one of my favorite catholics real or fictitious ever!) was at least partly successful in his heroic -- and in my opinion faithful -- quest for truth.


  1. Catches the spirit of the book. It's sch a beautifully written book. I only read it a couple of years back but this pushes me towards a re read.

  2. Thanks, Seamus! Wilder really captured something special.


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