A Canticle for Leibowitz

[Week 10 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: the Teaching of the Apostles]

What will the world look like in 600 years? Walter Miller approaches not only this question in “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” but also what the world will look like 600 years after that… and 600 years after that! Originally published in 1959, this novel is drawn from three short stories he had written for a sci-fi magazine. Taken together they give a speculative view to the future that has deep resonance with the past.

Miller’s story is set in a post-apocalyptic society brought about by nuclear war. Beyond the destruction caused by the bombs themselves, this had led to a strong backlash against all technology. During a period called “the Simplification” books were destroyed and scientists hunted down as criminals. One scientist – Isaac Leibowitz – had found refuge in a Cistercian monastery (a Catholic religious order developed from the Rule of St Benedict). He ultimately chose to enter the monastery and dedicate himself to the preservation of knowledge, becoming a “booklegger.” Leibowitz eventually founded the Albertian Order to continue this mission.

The first section of “A Canticle for Leibowtiz” picks up 600 years after this backstory. It is now the 26th century and the world is still largely in chaos. The Albertian Order continues its work of preserving knowledge. They have stored up not only religious knowledge, but all the aspects of scientific and artistic knowledge that they could as well. The next section jumps forward 600 years to 3174 AD. A new Renaissance has broken out with the re-invention of electricity drawn from the Albertian Order’s knowledge. Finally, the novel concludes with a section set in the year 3781 AD in which the world is once again on the brink of nuclear war (I’ll stop the recap here to avoid spoiling the ending!). Utilizing this structure allows Miller to look at the way some things change and others stay the same, with a dazzling scope of action.

Miller’s choice of structure was hardly random. The author had participated in the World War II battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. This mountain in Italy held a monastery founded by St Benedict in 529 AD. It was not in use during the time of the battle, and was destroyed because it was suspected of providing cover for Axis troops. The battle was a traumatic experience for Miller and inspired the plot of the Canticle. He sought to draw a parallel with the life of the abbey in the three sections of the book. Benedict had founded this monastery during the decline of the Roman Empire, and the monastic tradition stood as a strong barrier to the loss of knowledge during the “Dark Age” of the barbarians. The printing press was not invented until the 1400’s, and so a large reason that we have much of the knowledge of antiquity that we do is on account of monks copying texts by hand. As in the novel, in this way the Church preserved both theological texts and the classical works that formed the foundation of the renewal brought by organizations such as the University of Paris, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans in the 13th century. From here was sparked the Renaissance and the development to the modern period, which had led to World War II and the Cold War in the time during which Miller wrote his book.

These parallels direct us to reflect on cycles of history. What do we learn from the past, and what does this knowledge get us? War had shown Miller the way that advanced knowledge did not necessarily lead to a better society. However, he did not see the answer in the type of “simplification” he portrays in the novel (seeking to destroy the past), but by trying to return to the sources of knowledge for insight on how to build a better world. Miller had been drawn to become a Catholic after his experience in the battle of Monte Cassino. Although the Church is often portrayed as an opponent to knowledge, he had seen that this is not truly borne out in a study of history. He saw the positive commitment to the preservation of wisdom in the monks of St Benedict, as well as theologians such as St Albert the Great (a Dominican master of theology and the natural sciences, and the source of the name of the Order that Leibowitz founds in the novel). In fact, the Church sees both faith and human reason as avenues provided by God to reach truth (St John Paul II used the image of the two wings that lead a bird to flight). They enlighten one another, and only come in conflict when one is distorted in contrast to the other.

For this reason, I think study actually proves to be a key aspect of the spiritual life. Faith is not an enemy to the life of the mind. Although “study” may give the sense of boring “book learning,” this is a reductive view of the term. Instead, I think it is best to see it as taking time to place ourselves in contact with the gift of wisdom present in the thought of others. The Holy Spirit speaks in a unique way in the inspired Scriptures, but we believe has not abandoned us after that! Christ desired that the Gospel would continue to be present to us throughout time, and if this were dependent upon the teaching of the human members of the Church alone we would be in serious trouble! The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Body of Christ (the Church) and continues to provide life to the Church’s voice. When we turn to the writings of the Church and the saints we have the chance to encounter the Holy Spirit at work. Spiritual study provides fuel to the mind and heart so that the fire of our love can continue to burn. I have certainly found this true in my own life – it sparks reflection, deepened prayer, and new inspiration for action.

We have more opportunities than ever to encounter the living tradition of knowledge. This type of “spiritual reading” can take the form of reading a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a video series. A great parish resource we use is formed.org, filled with a large range of different media options. How can we in our own lives make time for this type of study, and through it give the Holy Spirit room to speak?

One comment on “A Canticle for Leibowitz

  1. Fred Stavins says:

    One of my favorite books that you have made come alive for me again. Thanks. Currently reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, based on your last post. Thank you for sharong

    Like

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