The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a book worth reading. It is the story of a monk, Brother Juniper, who having witnessed a rope-bridge in Peru snapping and sending five people to their deaths at the bottom of a gorge, asks the question: “Why them?” Having been only moments away from crossing the bridge himself, he determines he must discover the reason for it.
He reflects, “Why did this happen to those five? If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and we die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”
So he decides go back into the lives of these five people to discover some kind of trend, some kind of explanation. Do these things just happen, all a question of fate – being at the wrong place at the wrong moment? Or perhaps there is a divine justice which punishes the bad and lets the good triumph? Or perhaps God wants the just to go quickly to heaven and the bad to stay longer here on earth?
Why do things happen? Why do I have this marriage breakdown, this sickness, this rebellious child, all these money problems, these fits of anger, this alcohol addiction? This is the kind of question that we cannot keep running away from. It will hit us one day or another.
John the Baptist is a help. He is the child of the impossible; he should never have been born. His father was Zachariah, a temple priest and his mother was Elizabeth, a cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was not only ‘barren’ but also well advanced in age. Jesus Christ called him ‘the greatest of all those born of women’.
John is the result of a divine intervention. We also. One element in the jigsaw puzzle of life is the simple truth that none of us is here simply because mom and dad one day had a relationship. We are not simply the result of a decision our parents took. Neither are we here by chance. There is a bigger mind and a bigger heart behind our existence. The prophet Isaiah is so adamant about it: “The Lord formed me in the womb…”. Whatever the circumstances surrounding our birth were, God was there. God wanted us. God made us.
And if God made us, then He must have made us for a good purpose. He is a Father, a good father. When I joined Carmel, we had a very beautiful custom. At the end of each day after the Night prayers, we would all kneel down at the entrance of our room, and the superior, an icon of God the Father, would approach and bless us individually, touching slightly our heads as a sign of acceptance, forgiveness and love.
It was just a reminder, an important and constant reminder, that we have a Father in heaven – someone who cares, someone who nurtures and esteems us. Someone who accepts our weakness and helps us to rise to lofty heights.
Perhaps the problem for some of us is that we are living as if we are fatherless. We feel too much alone. We face our struggles and problems all alone. There is no one to tell us what is right and what is wrong, no one to tell us that we matter, that we are forgiven and cherished, no one to tell us that we are loved.
John the Baptist grew up to be so fearless because he knew that his life was enveloped in the love of a Father in heaven. Later on in life, he denounced the incestuous relationship of the governor Herod Antipas with his niece and brother’s wife, Herodias. He was beheaded for his guts. His courage cost him dearly but it made his life significant. Because, yes, what makes life meaningful is love.
Because he was connected with God, he could connect with others. The book The Bridge of San Luis, finishes with this forceful sentence, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
We are loved. We have a Father. So we are never alone. We can love. So others can never be alone. This is what life is all about.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.