Like most Minnesotans, I had crossed the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis countless times. So when I first heard of the bridge’s collapse, I was filled with shock, numbness and concern for the victims.
Later I realized that the disaster also raised the usual post-tragedy questions for me. Why did some people have to die while others were spared? What separated the seriously injured from the unscathed? Where is God in all of this?
You might say that, although I am a man of faith, I looked at the horror of the situation — and blinked.
If you, too, struggle to find meaning in such situations, you would do well to pick up Thornton Wilder’s 1927 Pulitzer-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It tells the story of a Franciscan missionary, Brother Juniper, who witnesses the collapse of a Peruvian bridge. Five people die. Brother Juniper sets out to answer the big “Why?” raised by the tragedy.
The book, Wilder said, grew out of an argument he’d had with his father. The elder Wilder, a Calvinist, saw God as a strict judge who carefully weighs guilt against merit. Wilder the younger felt that such a view overlooked, or sold short, the power of God’s love.
Just so, the modern tendency is to present a rather one-sided view of God, exaggerating either his justice or his mercy. There’s often a failure to recognize that, in God, the two are not in conflict but perfectly balanced.
Many Americans also cling to unrealistic expectations about the physical world around us. We’ve come to count on society to protect us from every risk to our health and safety. When some element of “the system” fails, our attorneys stand at the ready.
In a recent Sunday Gospel reading, Christ reminded us to be faithful, vigilant and prudent, for, “at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Luke 12:40).
We might call this to mind when the next tragedy strikes — as it inevitably will. It’s true that, as one of our senators said, a bridge in America just shouldn’t fall down without warning. Yet, in a world marred by sin and imperfection, bridges will fall, mines will collapse and airplanes will crash. Accidents will happen.
The good news is that, in the fullness of time, God’s love will overcome all evil.
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
In the final passage of Wilder’s book, he quotes an abbess who runs an orphanage in Peru and knew some of the people on the fated bridge.
“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten,” he writes. “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.”
God was at the I-35 bridge. He was there in the bystanders who ran to help the victims and comfort the dying. He was there in the emergency responders who risked their own lives to save the lives of strangers. And he’s there still, thanks in some mysterious way to our prayers.
Let us not fail to commend to God the victims of this tragedy and the tragedies to come. In this we will see our faith standing up to death — and not blinking.
Tim Drake, the Register’s
senior writer, lives in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.