A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller JR. is a timeless and must-read classic!
Webster defines apocalypse as “…writings marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm…” The explanatory notes in my Catholic bible would add that “The Apocalypse (so it names this last book of the bible) is a Revelation of things that were, are and will be.” A Canticle for Leibowitz shares a great deal of the multi-layered nature of sacred scripture. The novel speaks of our past, present and future with symbols and pseudonyms while building throughout its far-flung narrative the expectation of an inevitable shoe-dropping of doom.
On the surface, a Canticle is the story of the cyclic nature of civilization as seen through the stained-glass windows of a monastery somewhere in the American Southwest. And a grim story it is, a tale of a bone-headed species doomed to repeat murderous mistakes to suicidal extremes again and again with ever rising body counts. Beneath that surface, A Canticle is the story of the Catholic Church and Her struggles, internal and external. And that is the glorious story of the invincible hope She holds up against all odds and every evil. Together, these tales, grim and glorious, are twined into a millennium-long saga that is at once a mirror to our own history and a glimpse of an all-too-possible future. Walter Miller unfolds the saga over three books, each set centuries apart, each book representing a different period in the Church’ history.
The first book is a sketch of the Church during the Dark Ages (476-1000 A.D.) and opens, rather appropriately, during the penitential season of Lent. The story begins several centuries after the ‘Flame Deluge’ where mankind, humbled by his own hand and hubris, is reduced to hordes of hungry illiterates trying to scratch out a living from the earth they have scorched to near lifelessness with war. And as the Earth is scoured of nearly all that makes life itself possible, humanity is all but shorn of the learning and culture that makes life beautiful. This latter condition has been brought about mostly by the ‘Simplification’ that followed the Great War. The mobs of book-burning and intellectual-lynching Simpletons responsible for this disastrous dumbing-down are the author’s playful but pointed poke at the anti-Catholic mobs of nineteenth century America whom history ignobly but accurately remembers as, ‘The Know Nothings.’
The second book is Miller’s portrait of the Catholic Church during the late Middle-Ages to the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries.) At this point in the saga, the world, thanks to the work of the Church, is begetting a new, thriving culture. This reflects our own very real history, where centuries after the Church’s founding of various schools, including the university system, hospitals for the poor and other social safety nets and playing patron to the arts and sciences, civilization reached an unparalleled high-water mark. Within this advanced culture, however, is the very seed of its destruction, pride; a pride that challenges Church authority on all fronts. It is a species of that pride with which Lucifer once challenged God’s authority in Heaven. It is pride born of ingratitude. It is manifest in the town of Sanly Bowitts (whose very name betrays their indebtedness to the order and its saintly founder) a town which is not only loath to thank the monks for the gift of literacy they have received from them, but would so like the order to furnish the town library with treasures from the precious memorabilia that the monks have to chain the books against the threat of theft. This thanklessness is personified as well by Thon Taddeo, the scholar who scoffs at the idea of putting his learning at the service of the very church that raised and educated him. This ingratitude is also displayed by the Poet who mooches off the monastery, all the while challenging the monks with all the passive aggressiveness of a petulant teenager. This sort of ingratitude will inevitably prod the pride of the world into open revolt against the Church. This is represented by Hannegan, who like Henry VIII, breaches the wall between church and state and makes himself head of the Church in Texakarna. Collectively, these three characters represent some of the more prominent types the Church was in contention with during the Reformation & Renaissance periods. These various challenges ate at the Church not unlike the ulcer that eats away at Abbot Paolo during the second book.
The closing tale is a reflection our own modern and wretched epoch. At this point in history the Church’ authority has been severely diminished. With its dismissal, beliefs in absolute morals and objective truth have all but disappeared. It is in this book that we meet the character that most resembles us. This modern man, as exemplified by Doctor Cors, is a character whose vision is so stunted by the myopia of his materialistic world view that he can’t imagine an evil greater than pain or a source of right and wrong other than society. This materialism he subscribes to is nothing less than the first wave of a new Simplification (if human senses or instruments cannot detect a thing, it must therefore not exist and can thus be dismissed) which leads inevitably to the breakdown of communications. Thus when we meet the third book’s abbot, we find Zerchi frustrated by the failure of his Autoscribe to properly translate his letter to the bishop. This breakdown in communications is so pervasive that it even plagues the Church. Latin, the one language that has united the Church across continents and centuries, has now split in two distinct tongues!
More striking is the loss of absolute morals that has given way to such a morass of amoral relativism that a government can set up a roadside Auschwitz and call it a mercy camp. With truth and morality subject to individualism and subjectivism the only objective determinant in human affairs naturally becomes the will, which unfortunately is always all-too-ready to resort to force. Again, even the Church is affected by this malaise as is depicted by the abbot’s anger management problem. Without objective and absolute truths and morals to guide and even constrain human wills, the contests between them become clashes in short order, growing in belligerence until… kaboom!
Despite the subject matter, I found Canticle to be a hugely optimistic book. It begins with a young, hungry monk in search of God and fulfillment and ends with an old, dying monk being fed the Blessed Sacrament, the Bread of life, fulfilled with the very Blood, Body, Soul and Divinity of God! Despite Abbot Zerchi’s death and the destruction of the abbey, the Church Herself survives yet another cataclysm, taking Her mission to the stars, while on Earth, God begins again with a new Eve, the Immaculately Conceived Rachel, a sinless creature, a mutation sprung from the guileless Mrs. Grales (Grail?) like Athena from the head of Zeus.
Reading Canticle as Church history is just one layer of this great novel. There are other deeper strata to the story. Respectively, each book is also a meditation on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity as well as the three manifestations of God as Beauty, Truth and Love. At another level Canticle is a catechetical work with very deft treatments of some of the more interesting Church teachings on subjects such as ‘Invincible Ignorance’ and the ‘Problem of Evil.’ And then there is the deeper, mystical levels probed through the characters of Laz and Rachel. As literature, this book is rich and meaty for all its intellectual subtlety. The novel is quite the contrast to the horde of zombie books that presently crowd the post-apocalyptic genre with stories that, despite all the limb-gnawing, brain-munching and entrails-slurping, only serve up the emptiest of calories.
Canticle is also very funny, laugh-out-loud-funny in more than a few parts. I don’t think that it is any fluke that Canticle won the Hugo Award in 1961 (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that A Canticle was actually one of two Catholic Sci-Fi novels up for the Hugo that year. It ran against Poul Anderson’s “The High Crusade.”) Neither is there any surprise in the fact that the book has never been out of print in its 50 + years because it speaks just as eloquently today as it did half a century ago. I have every confidence that A Canticle for Leibowitz will continue to go on selling long into the future because the novel is a timeless work, made so by the author’s choice to grapple with things eternal.
I’d like to claim that reading the book was a pure pleasure but I cannot. Throughout the reading thoughts of the author’s abandonment of Catholicism and his tragic end by suicide were constantly with me, as ever-present as the vultures over the abbey’s sky. I can only conjecture that he was among the droves of Catholics who left the Church in the wake of The Second Vatican Council. This was a period where church leaders, clerical and lay, under the cover of ‘the spirit of Vatican 2’, began their crusade to modernize Catholicism (May God forgive their misguided souls!) Priests stopped wearing cassocks and nuns traded their habits for pant suits. Solemn Gregorian chant was replaced by sickly sweet Protestant hymns or worse, ‘Christian Rock’ (the crappiest music genre in human history!) Beyond these cosmetic changes, disciplines were also watered down or outright dropped; the Latin and the beauty of the traditional Liturgy were abandoned for the vernacular and the banal while dogma was rarely articulated and even undermined by these modernist Vandals.
This experiment in modernization nearly wrecked the Church. It certainly ruined the faith of many. Parishes, seminaries, convents and monasteries closed at a rate that should have been alarming but strangely enough wasn’t. Walter Miller can probably be counted among the millions who left the Church during that time. A man with a deeply wounded psyche to begin with (His friend, fellow soldier and fellow sci-fi writer, Joe Hadleman claimed that Miller suffered from PTSD for thirty years before the condition was diagnosed), cut off from the Church’ Sacramental life, he retreated into himself, became a recluse and eventually shot himself.
It was a tragic ending to his mortal life but given his mental state at the time a Catholic has reason to trust in God’s mercy to forgive him the otherwise grave sin. And then there is the sense of invincible optimism with which his book is infused which gives me hope to believe that even as he shed his tortured mortal coil and came before his Maker, Miller repented and recovered the love for the Catholic Church that is so evident in every page of A Canticle for Leibowitz. I’m sure he is looking down, cheering on the Restoration of Traditional Catholicism around the globe. I’m sure he is tickled by the new generation of Catholics who, like his beloved monks, have recovered and are reverencing the timeless treasures and traditions of the Church.
In short, A Canticle for Leibowitz is the sort of science fiction tale you don’t need to be a science fiction fan to enjoy.