When I read the story of the twin brothers who had entered the Franciscan order to spend their lives in service to their fellow monks and subsequently died on the same day, I couldn’t help but think of the twin boys Esteban and Manuel, Thornton Wilder’s characters in his 1939 novella The Bridge at San Luis Rey.
Wilder writes: “They became vaguely attached to all the sacristies in town: they trimmed all the cloister hedges; they polished every possible crucifix; they passed a damp cloth once a year over most of the ecclesiastical ceilings….When the priest rushed through the streets carrying his precious burden into a sickroom either Esteban or Manuel was to be seen striding behind him, swinging a censer.”
According to the New York Times article, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian were workers, preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake — the identical Riester twins were together, always.
“As they grew older, however, they showed no desire for the clerical life. They gradually assumed the profession of the scribe.”
To dismiss the twins as blank slates would be to misjudge them; their simplicity had depth. Rarely speaking of yesterday, they lived in the God-given now.
“Because they had no family, because they were twins, and because they were brought up by women, they were silent.”
Here, then, were two shy men, surrounded by scholars, discouraged from speaking, uncertain what to say if given the chance, and yet confident that this was their calling.
“There was in them a curious shame in regard to their resemblance….From the years when they first learned to speak they invented a secret language for themselves, one that was scarcely dependent on the Spanish for its vocabulary, or even for its syntax. They resorted to it only when they were alone, or at great intervals in moments of stress whispered it in the presence of others.”
Brother Julian became the sacristan, maintaining the chapel, and Brother Adrian became the chauffeur, but they also built the bookshelves and maintained the garden and cleared the growth from the shrines in the woods — and rarely spoke unless invited.
“This language was the symbol of their profound identity with one another, for just as resignation was a word insufficient to describe the spiritual change that came over the Marquesa de Montemayor on that night in the inn at Cluxambuqua, so love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers. What relationship is it in which few words are exchanged, and those only about the details of food, clothing and occupation; in which the two persons have a curious reluctance even to glance at one another?”
If they quarreled, Brother David said, “It would be over the measurement of a piece of wood.” And even then, it would be done silently: a slight cock of Julian’s head, to suggest that he didn’t agree with Adrian’s calculations.
“And yet side by side with this there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lightning.”
The Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan who spent a restful summer at the friary, became enchanted by the guileless twins, who seemed to embrace a deeper, ego-free reality.
“All the world was remote and strange and hostile except one’s brother.”
When Manuel dies from an infected cut on his knee, Esteban takes on his identity and tries to make sense of the world. But his efforts are in vain. He can no longer exist without his soul mate. He perishes in the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey.
Brother Julian and Brother Adrian died on the same day. At 92 years of age, they died within hours of one another in keeping with a quiet life of doing most everything together at St. Bonaventure.
Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.
“We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. 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.”