Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

On the sunny afternoon of Friday, January 13th, we were strolling around the perpetually crowded St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. We dodged the usual tour groups dutifully trailing behind their guides with brightly colored umbrellas and flags held high. As we passed, Joe pointed out a large group of middle- and upper-aged travelers in particular whose leader hoisted a big white paddle marked with bold numbers; the small lettering below specified "Costa" and included a distinctive blue and yellow “C” logo. “That’s an Italian cruise line,” Joe, our resident expert marine engineer always interested in all things maritime just happened to mention. Walking back towards the Tiber and our apartment across the way, we passed three or four charter busses parked on the side of the Via della Conciliazione, the approach road to St. Peter’s. The front windshield of each was labeled Costa Concordia and Joe guessed that the ship was docked in the port of Rome at Civitavecchia to accommodate local excursions. Later that night we read online that the Concordia had left the port of Rome at 1900 hours Friday evening, heading north off the coast of Tuscany en route to Savona.

Over cappuccinos the next morning, Joe scanned the news on his iPad and groaned, “Oh my God...” The Costa Concordia had hit a reef, run aground overnight and was now lying on its side off Isola del Giglio in the Tyrrhenian Sea. We turned on the TV and saw that several passengers were confirmed dead and scores were missing. The tragic story took our breath away. Were some of those we’d passed in St. Peter’s Square the previous afternoon now injured? Might we have exchanged smiles with a passenger now dead? Unaccounted for? I had a Bridge of San Luis Rey moment and wondered why them? Why the specific people who died in this apparent tragedy of human stupidity? In Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Brother Juniper was steps away from being on an old Inca rope bridge in Peru that snaps, plunging five people to their deaths in the chasm below. The friar then goes about trying to answer the question: Why did the accident take those particular five individuals? Was it a case of anything more than being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it simply happenstance or part of God's cosmic plan? The missionary never successfully answers these questions (and he pays a dear price for even asking them), nor can we, I’m afraid. I found myself tearing up watching the unfolding news story on the BBC, thinking about the people we’d brushed by the day before and the unimaginable anguish of their families. Reflecting on Wilder’s somber novel and seeing the images of the grounded ship on television led me to thinking about the always-sage advice of my good Buddhist friends. Be mindful; live in the moment; simply appreciate what’s happening today. Life certainly holds no guarantees about what’s to come next year, next week or tomorrow morning.

We finished our breakfast, turned off the news and shook off our eerie melancholy. As we suited up for the day, we were keenly grateful for, and mindful of, our ability to go out and lose ourselves in the wonders of ancient Rome.

Pictures of our adventures:

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