Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lessons from A Canticle for Leibowitz

"It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: 'Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike.  See to it, m'Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought.'  But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to nought, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy those others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.  Such was the folly of the princes, and there fellowed the Flame Deluge."

Walker Percy, in an essay discussing Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, asserted that the book contains a secret.  And if anyone figures it out, he dare not tell it.

It's been about a week since I turned the last page of A Canticle for Leibowitz.  I have my next novel already checked-out from the library and ready to be read.  But my mind is still wrestling with the questions, images, and themes from Miller's work.  It probably will be for a long time.  It's just that kind of a book.  It makes you ponder, wonder, speculate.  What did he mean?  What was he suggesting?

It is indeed a mystery.  And perhaps it's best that way.

Walter Miller was a one-book author.  A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1959.  Though written 55 years ago, some of the dialogue sounds eerily like something one could easily hear today.  It's both prophetic and apocalyptic in nature.  

Miller was an engineer and during WWII he served as a bomber pilot, participating in the controversial shelling of the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy--the site where St. Benedict established his first monastery.  Miller's experiences in the war understandably had a profound impact on him.  A convert to the Catholic faith, he lost his faith 
later in life and, tragically, committed suicide in 1997.

A Canticle of Leibowitz is set in the future and is divided into 3 sections: Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man), Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done).  They almost exist as stand-alone stories, with different tones, ideas, and characters in each.  Yet, they form a unity in the unraveling of human history, seemingly doomed to commit the same grievous errors again and again.

The focal point of each section is the monastery of the Order of Saint Leibowitz, located in the desert southwest.  The order was founded by a scientist who became disillusioned when his wife died in a nuclear fallout at the end of the 20th century.  The event is referred to as the "Flame Deluge"--the flooding of earth with the fire from nuclear explosions.  

In response to the vast nuclear destruction, the "Simpletons" emerged.  Blaming science and knowledge for the nuclear catastrophe, the simpletons sought to eradicate all literacy and learning.  They boasted of their ignorance.  Leibowitz founded his order in opposition to them, forming a community of religious who are bookleggers and memorizers, committed to the preservation of culture, books, and history.  They gather the artifacts of the earlier civilization in their "Memorabilia."  For his efforts, Leibowitz dies a martyr.

"At the beginning, in the time of Leibowitz, it had been hoped--and even anticipated as probable--that the fourth or fifth generation would begin to want its heritage back.  But the monks of the earliest days had not counted on the human ability to generate a new cultural inheritance in a couple of generations if an old one is utterly destroyed...The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world lasted ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years, for they, though born in that darkest of ages, were still the very bookleggers and memorizers of the Beatus Leibowitz..." 

In this reflection on the novel, I would like to organize my thoughts according to the three sections of the book.

Fiat Homo

Fiat Homo centers on Brother Francis, a simple, guileless religious who is seeking to take his full vows in the Order of Leibowitz...and to help advance the cause to sainthood for their founder, who is Blessed Leibowitz at this point.  

During his Lenten fast in the desert, Francis meets a mysterious pilgrim, who leads him to an underground fallout shelter, which holds treasures of the Pre-Deluge time.  With great wonder, the brothers admire and contemplate the relics of this former time...including, to the reader's humor, a grocery list.  Among the items gathered is a blueprint belonging to none other than Blessed Leibowitz himself.

It becomes Francis's life task to create a copy of the blueprint.  He and the monks have no idea what the blueprint represents.  It is meaningless to them, yet they know it contains meaning, and so they seek to preserve it for a future time when an "integrator" will come and connect the dots.  Francis labors for years to create his copy, using gold inlaid and beautifying it with scrolls and artistic embellishments.

When New Rome announces that Blessed Leibowitz is to be canonized, Francis is selected to attend the ceremony and commences his journey, the original blueprint (now a relic) and his finished masterpiece of a copy in hand.  

However, during his journey, the copy of the blueprint is stolen by some cannibals along the road--mutants due to the effects of radiation.  Francis never retrieves the work on which he spent his life laboring and dies, shot by an arrow between the eyes.

Killing the protagonist is a grim way to end the first third of the book.

It also sets the reader on an uneasy trajectory: what was the purpose of any of it?  Francis spent years creating a copy of a blueprint, of which he knew nothing save it was done by the founder of his order.  No contemporary of his, living in an illiterate world, could understand it.  The reader is left with the unsettling question: did Francis waste his life?  Was that all his life amounted to--Lenten fasts in the desert surrounded by wolves, tedious copying of texts no one understood, dying alone, unmourned in the desert with vultures overhead hungrily eying his remains?

The monks were safekeeping the keys to knowledge in their Memorabilia, but if and when society became interested in such knowledge, what would they choose to do with it?  Would they choose to destroy themselves again?

Whispers of despair begin in this first section.  I turned the final page of Homo Fiat, hoping that somehow Brother Francis--good, kind, honest, faithful Francis--would be revived and that his end wouldn't be so painfully trite.  Surely that couldn't be the conclusion of his story?

Well, it all depends on the lenses through which your read the novel and understand the world.  

That seems to be one of the overarching themes of this complex work.  Prof. Ralph Wood, in a lecture given at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture, explains that Miller attempts to show that, without the guiding light of theology and philosophy, there is no way to unify things.  Theory proceeds understanding: if one can envision using philosophy and theology, then one has the right lens to make sense of what is before you.  Believing enables understanding.

So, was Francis successful?  Perhaps not--his life work, his copy of Leibowitz's blueprint, amounted to nothing.  But was Francis faithful?  Yes, to his dying moment.  And, as history tells us, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. 

Furthermore, Francis's story isn't done with his death in Fiat Homo.  Death is not the end.  Francis is present again in the second section, when the abbot invokes his intercession (Francis is beatified at this point).  In the third section, as the world is literally crumbling around him, the final abbot reaches out his dying hand, which falls upon Francis's skull--a reminder that "the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).

Fiat Lux

If the first section of A Canticle for Leibowitz is akin to the Dark Ages, when the monks of the Church preserved culture by copying manuscripts by hand in their monasteries, then this section may be analogous for the Renaissance.

Society has advanced in the several hundred years since Francis's time.  There are professors, called "thons," who have created theories about science and technology.  Meanwhile, the still-illiterate rulers seek domination and power.

One particular thon, who plays a large role in this division of the book, is named Thon Taddeo.  Note the pun on his name: it contains the word Deo, which is the Latin word for "God."  It is a pun, of course, because Taddeo is an atheist.  

The focus, as the title of this second section suggests, is light.  What should illuminate our life?  As Prof. Wood explained, what is the lens, or light, by which we see?  The idea is hinted at in a brief exchange between Taddeo and a priest named Apollo:

"I can't accept it.  How can a great a wise civilization have destroyed itself so completely?" [Thon Taddeo]

"Perhaps," said Apollo, "by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else."  He went to light a tallow lamp, for the twilight was rapidly fading into night.  He struck steel and flint until the spark caught and he blew gently at it in the tinder.

Taddeo requests permission to visit the monastery of the Order of St. Leibowtiz and to study the documents in their Memorabilia.  Taddeo's visit, as one might imagine, creates multiple scenes of conflict and contrast.

On the one extreme, there is Brother Armbruster, the librarian of the Memorabilia.  

"Armbruster was not impressed by the fact that the secular scholar, in two days, had unraveled a bit of a puzzle that had been lying around, a complete enigma, for a dozen centuries.  To the custodian of the Memorabilia, each unsealing represented another decrease in the probable lifetime of the contents of the cask, and he made no attempt to conceal his disapproval of the entire proceeding.  To Brother Librarian, whose task in life was the preservation of books, the principal reason for the existence of books was that they might be preserved perpetually.  Usage was secondary, and to be avoided if it threatened longevity."

The monks have a tremendous treasure in their Memorabilia.  But, the question is: what should they do with such a treasure?  Brother Armbruster would have it such that the treasure is hidden away, perfectly preserved and never used.  It exists to exist--not to change, to invent, or to create.

Taddeo, on the other extreme, accuses the monks of hiding away the keys to knowledge that could advance society.  He asserts that it would be more fitting to have the Memorabilia housed in the collegium, where the scientists would have ready access to it.  Taddeo accuses the abbot, Dom Paulo:

"Keep science cloistered, don't try to apply it, don't try to do anything about it until men are holy.  Well, it won't work.  You've been doing it here in this abbey for generations...If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it."

Were the monks right in keeping claim on the Memorabilia?  Many of them did, after all, die to preserve it.  Or should they have allowed the Memorabilia to reside in the hands of the scientists who could make the most sense of it?

The questions raise an interesting dilemma about the Church in the world.   

To what degree should the Church intermingle in a pagan society?  Would the Church's presence in society corrupt their Christian mission?

In the narrative, the monks warmly welcome Taddeo into their monastery and Dom Paolo explains to Taddeo that anyone may come to visit.  But the Memorabilia stays where it is.  

The point is that Christians cannot close themselves in and exist only in the realm of purity.  We cannot be insular and leave the world to its own devices.  We must reach out, welcome in, and invite the stranger as we would Christ.  Simultaneously, however, the treasures Christ has given the Church must remain within Her.  They do not belong to the world.  

Prof. Wood, in his lecture, comments that Christians must interact with the pagan world, but in doing so, the Christian's primary mission cannot be subordinated to pagan culture.

This idea is brilliantly highlighted in a symbolic scene involving a crucifix.  

Brother Kornhoer, using the theories advanced by Taddeo, creates a generator that is capable of producing light.  Thon Taddeo is to work and study in one of the alcoves outside the Memorabilia, which happens to be one of the darkest spaces.  It is agreed that it is most fitting that the newly invented light bulb should be hung over his study space.  However, the glitch is that there is something already hanging there: a crucifix.

Dom Paolo initially agrees to remove the crucifix and install the light.  After all, why create a light and not use it?  From a pragmatic perspective, it all makes complete sense.

Yet, as said above, the Christian's primary mission is not to be subordinated to a pagan culture.  As the first book emphasized, what is the lens--or the light--by which we see the world?  Knowledge gleaned without the guiding light of Christ may be knowledge that only leads to one's perdition.  And so, Dom Paolo changes his mind.
Brother Kornhoer slipped into the room again.  He was carrying the heavy crucifix which had been displaced from the head of the archway to make room for the novel lamp.  He handed the cross to Dom Paulo.

"How did you know I wanted this?"

"I just decided it was about time, Domne."  He shrugged.

The old man climbed the ladder and replaced the rood on its iron hook.  The corpus glittered with gold by candlelight.  The abbot turned and called down to his monks.  

"Who reads in this alcove henceforth, let him read ad Lumina Christi!" 

Without the lumina Christi, one walks in darkness.  So it is that Taddeo, brilliant though he is, is still blind.  He pursues the advance of knowledge, regardless of the repercussions it may cause.  For you see, Taddeo's cousin, Hannegan, is the present ruler and seeks to dominate the entire continent.  He will inevitably call upon Taddeo and use the scientist's knowledge to his gain...a destructive, deadly gain.  Taddeo has no light to guide his conscience and, thus, simply and conveniently avoids it.

Thon Taddeo knew the military ambitions of his monarch.  He had a choice: to approve of them, to disapprove of them, or to regard them as impersonal phenomena beyond his control like a flood, famine, or whirlwind.  Evidently, then, he accepted them as inevitable--to avoid having to make a moral judgment...How could such a man thus evade his own conscience and disavow his responsibility--and so easily! the abbot stormed to himself. 

So the whisper of despair that begins in first section grows louder. Are men, walking in darkness, doomed to make the same grievous errors over and over again?  Will they remain in the darkness?  Dom Paulo asserts:

"It never was any better, it never will be any better.  It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day." 

Is Dom Paulo right that things will never be better?  Perhaps he is.  Satan is, after all, the prince of this world.  Each and every human person enters the world with original sin.  Concupiscence is part of who we are.  "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19). 

Listen, are we helpless?  Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?  Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk.  Ground to dust and plowed with salt.  Spain, France, Britain, America--burned into the oblivion of the centuries.  And again and again and again.  Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?

And if that is the reality--that human kind will destroy itself over and over again in perpetuity--is that cause for despair?  Was that the demon that drove Miller to take his own life?

Fiat Voluntas Tua

A different light emerges in the third and final section of A Canticle for Leibowitz.  It is the light of nuclear weapons.  The codename for the dropping of a nuclear bomb is: "Lucifer has fallen."  

The Evil One has many names, but it was fitting for Miller to select "Lucifer," as the word itself means "bringer of light."

Yet, what a radically different light from that of Christ!  This light brings death, not life.

It is the final nuclear war.  Pagan scientists, using the information preserved by the Christians, but without the guiding moral principles of Christianity, create a new civilization.  History repeats: this new civilization will destroy itself.

Coinciding with the nuclear battle is the ideological battle between the abbot, Zerchi, and Dr. Cors over the proper treatment for the victims of radiation poisoning.  Many of the injured seek refuge within the walls of the monastery.  Dr. Cors enters to provide assistance.  He works for the "Green Star."  Prof. Wood notes the illustrative change from the Red Cross (a symbol of Christ's blood poured out for us) to the Green Star (green for the environment, a star for false hope).  

And it is false hope that Dr. Cors offers.  He is a "mercy" killer.  Again, note the fitting name for the doctor: cor in Latin means "heart."  

Following the theme of the previous two sections, what is the lens or light through which you view things?  How do you make sense of the pieces put before you?

Dr. Cors sees great suffering and what appears to be inevitable death and offers euthanasia.  In a line that could be quoted from a politician, doctor, or scientist today, Dr. Cors argues that someone who isn't a Christian shouldn't be bound by Abbot Zerchi's Christian principles.

Abbot Zerchi sees suffering and offers prayer and death with dignity.  He orders the brothers to carry signs in front of the euthanasia tent bearing the message: "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here."  The light of Christ tells us that suffering is redemptive, that pain in this life is no match for the glory that await us in heaven.  And, in response to Dr. Cors, Abbot Zerchi asserts that, even if someone isn't Christian, that doesn't negate what is true.  

The doctor hesitated.  "I think it would be proper to make such a promise with respect to patients who belong to your Faith...Others are not bound by your principles.  If a man is not of your religion, why should you refuse to allow--"

..."Because if a man is ignorant of the fact that something is wrong, and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong.  But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself.  If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong.  It really is that painfully simple."

The Christian case isn't the easy one and Miller brilliantly presents both sides of the argument.  Dr. Cors' position is compelling.  But it isn't true.  The fear of pain drove their culture; it drives ours as well and, as a result, we have the Culture of Death.

Really, Doctors Cors, the evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering.  Metus doloris.  Take it together with its positive equivalent, the craving for worldly security, for Eden, and you might have your 'root of evil,' Doctor Cors.  To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar.  But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law--a perversion.  Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.

The book ends with the ending of the world.  A nuclear holocaust takes place as Abbot Zerchi dies and a flight of bishops, priests, and brothers takes off for an outer space colony.  

The reader is left wondering the question we began with: was it all for naught?  Man destroyed himself again.  Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?  Is there no hope for mankind?

The answer, I think, may lie in a mysterious character named Rachel.  

Living near the monastery is a woman named Mrs. Grales.  She was born with genetic defects, due to the long-lasting effects of radiation.  Mrs. Grales doesn't have all of her mental abilities.  The reader also learns, as she confesses her sins to Abbot Zerchi, that she has had an abortion.

Another important point: Mrs. Grales has two heads.  There is Mrs. Grales's head and there is another head attached to her called "Rachel," who does not speak or even seem alive.  

At the conclusion of the book, as the world is being destroyed, Abbot Zerchi sees Mrs. Grales before him.  Or rather, he sees Rachel.  The Mrs. Grales head is now passive, mute, and dying.  Rachel, however, is very much alive.  In his final moments, Abbot Zerchi attempts to baptize Rachel, who refuses the sacrament.  Instead, she picks up a consecrated host and gives him his viaticum.  

In an earlier scene, one of the brothers had a dream about Rachel, which provides some more clues regarding her identity.

In a dream he met Mrs. Grales again.  There was a surgeon who sharpened a knife, saying, 'This deformity must be removed before it becomes malignant.'  And the Rachel face opened its eyes and tried to speak to Joshua, but he could hear her only faintly, and understand her not at all.

"Accurate am I the exception," she seemed to be saying.  "I commensurate the deception.  Am."

He could make nothing of it, but he tried to reach through to save her.  There seemed to be a rubbery wall of glass in the way.  He paused and tried to read her lips.  I am the, I am the--

"I am the Immaculate Conception," came the dream whisper.

Rachel is the exception--there is something unique about her that sets her apart.  She also commensurates the deception, or undoes the deception.  This may well refer to the greatest deception: that of the ancient serpent, convincing Eve that she and Adam may be like gods. 

Rachel is the Immaculate Conception...the New Eve.  She is an image of the Blessed Mother.  But why call her "Rachel?"  There is a passage in Scripture that reads:

 This is what the Lord says:

“A voice was heard in Ramah
    of painful crying and deep sadness:
Rachel crying for her children.
    She refused to be comforted,
    because her children are dead!”

But this is what the Lord says:

“Stop crying;
    don’t let your eyes fill with tears.
You will be rewarded for your work!” says the Lord.
    “The people will return from their enemy’s land." (Jeremiah 31:15-16)

And this is indeed explicitly what happens at the end of the novel: God's people return from their enemy's land.  

As 1 John 5:19 states, "We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one."  Indeed, the world belongs to the prince of the world: Satan.  In the end, God's faithful return to their ultimate homeland in heaven, while others continue Christ's Church on another planet.  

In the face of despair, when it seems like man is doomed to repeat his errors, Mary shines before us.  We are all Mrs. Grales: handicapped by our concupiscence, fallen with our sins.  But one of us--one of our race--chose correctly.  She is united with us, just as Rachel and Mrs. Grales share a body.  Mary stopped history's repetition.  Through her, a new race was born: sons and daughters of God.  

The Rachel figure at the end of the book, so very alive despite the death and destruction around her, is a poignant reminder to us that in the world there is evil, but Christ has overcome the world.  Through Him, man can be transformed.  

When faced with a Culture of Death, with paganism, with evil, we know we will not be completely victorious until the Coming of Christ.  Sin and evil will be a part of this world until the end.  
We might not save the whole world.  But we can do what we can, guided by the light of Christ and filled with hope, to help the Thon Taddeos and Dr. Cors of our culture to know and live by that light.  

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