My text today, though I write of one book, is taken from a different book, though the two could scarcely be more different in style and tone. I introduce Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz with the words of Faramir, from The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien:
For myself...I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in Peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens:...War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.
When this blog was in the planning stage, there was a discussion among the charter members as to what its name should be. One suggestion that came up was "The Order of St. Leibowitz"--an allusion to the book by Walter M. Miller.
It would have been an obscure blog name, hard to pronounce and likely to confuse, and it's just as well that we did not choose it. The predecessor blog to this on which several of us had written, Enchiridion Militis, had suffered from a title problem of that sort, and there was no reason to perpetuate it.
But the point behind the suggestion remains a good one. Miller's three-part novel--really, a series of novellas--is all about preserving what can be preserved, even in unlikely places. After a nuclear holocaust, the monks of the new Order of Leibowitz preserve the remnants of man's scientific knowledge, remnants they do not understand themselves but know to be important, in the desert of what used to be Utah. Through the hundreds of years the book covers, during which man drags himself back from the brink of destruction, rediscovers scientific learning and technology, and rebuilds civilization, the abbey remains. At the end there is, of course, another nuclear holocaust, but the Church has obtained a spaceship in which it sends away a group of children led by nuns and a representative of the Order, the last hope of the human race preserved by the Church which has preserved all else throughout human history.
The Latin Mass is a constant thread in the book (published in 1960, before Vatican II), and it provides a symbol of the continuity of the Church no matter what the rest of man may do. Miller even has some fun with the language; the second chapter contains a meditation by a monk, confronted with the mind-boggling phrase "fallout survival shelter," on the difficulties of English and the superiority of Latin.
Canticle is strange, funny, dark, and truly great; there is something ineliminably gritty about it, something even overwhelming. It is not for those who like lighthearted fiction. Pain and deformity are constants. The nuclear disasters have left many strange genetic sports indeed, called "the Pope's children" because the Pope has saved many of their lives by stern injunctions against killing them. Here, too, there is a gleam of Miller's dark humor, as the "Pope's children" are not particularly grateful--indeed, know nothing of the favor done to them--and end the first novella by killing and eating a monk returning through the desert from an audience with the Pope.
At the same time, Canticle is an intensely Christian book and never succumbs to despair. A powerful exchange between a priest and an arrogant da Vinci character in the second novella shows Christianity to be the truest humanism. Thon Taddeo, the great scientist, points out the window at a peasant who has just passed by:
"Look. Can you bring yourself to believe that that brute is the lineal descendant of men who supposedly invented machines that flew, who traveled to the moon...? Can you believe there were such men?...Look at him!" the scholar persisted. "No, but it's too dark now. You can't see the syphilis outbreak on his neck, the way the bridge of his nose is being eaten away. Peresis. But he was undoubtedly a moron to begin with. Illiterate, superstitious, murderous....Look at him, and tell me if you see the progeny of a once-mighty civilization? What do you see?"
"The image of Christ," grated the monsignor, surprised at his own sudden anger. "What did you expect me to see?"
Nor is this by any means the greatest passage in the book, which I would argue comes at the very end and concerns the Father Abbot, suffering, offering up, and euthanasia. I have not even mentioned the character of the Wanderer, who somehow manages to be there in all three novellas over a span of hundreds of years.
At the moment, none of us expects all of human civilization to be wiped out by nuclear weapons. But there are plenty of destructive cultural forces to go around. In the end, what will be preserved will be preserved only by those who have a powerful creative impulse, an impulse not only towards saying what is wrong with the world but also towards saying what is good, what is great, what is beautiful and important, and what therefore must be preserved, however we are able to keep it.
If you are to be a preserver, you must know not only what you oppose, what you fight against (though you do need to know that) but also what you love, what you guard, what you uphold. It may be the truths of theology, of philosophy, or of science. It may be dance, literature, mathematics, music, or the beauty of visual art. It may be the lives, minds, and hearts of children. It may be the order and peace of a home or the love between man and wife. All these things can be served and nurtured. There are always good things, great things, things worth knowing and worth doing, to the greater glory of God. How blessed we are that, unlike the earliest monks of the Order of Leibowitz, we are able to understand what we preserve, to know not only that it is valuable but why it is valuable.
Here at W4 we tell you much that is sad, bad, and wrong. Often that is a worthwhile thing to do. The world is a depressing place, and a blog called "What's Wrong With the World" can hardly be expected to be a barrel of laughs. But at heart, we also belong to the Order of St. Leibowitz. We fight; we also preserve. We fight that we may preserve. And we encourage you to do the same.