Brother Francis fasted in the desert in what had been the southwestern United States centuries before, before the Fire Deluge. He was fasting during Lent, to discern if God had called him to take his vows to the monastic Albertian Order of Leibowitz. An old pilgrim came along the road, and after an altercation, the wanderer promised to find him a capstone among the ruins of the Ancients that Francis was staying in, as he had built a dome to protect himself from the wolves and needed a capstone to complete it. When Francis looked later, he found a perfectly shaped piece of rubble, marked in Hebrew with the letters L and TS. Picking it up opened a black hole, which caved in to reveal a staircase. Inside he found a skeleton, a toolbox, and a sealed door marked “FALLOUT SHELTER”. Rummaging through the toolbox, he found some personal papers, and a schematic labelled “I. E. Leibowitz”, the same name as the founder of his Order. Francis took this as a sign and returned to the abbey early.
The abbot was most displeased. I. E. Liebowitz was a weapons engineer before the Fire Deluge, and had survived the catastrophe. The survivors of that ancient civilization had blamed all the learned, and even learning, for the catastrophe. They burned all the books they could find, as well as any who could write. Liebowitz had laid low for many years, and repented and became a priest. He was given permission by New Rome to found the Order so that knowledge would not be lost. Monks of the Order gathered the remaining books that they could find and buried them in drums in the desert in the Southwest. They memorized entire books so that if the caches were found, the books could be written down again. Eventually Liebowitz himself was martyred when he was discovered to be one of the former weapons scientists.
The Catholic Church was in the process of examining Liebowitz for sainthood; he was only beatus at the time. Francis’ fellow novices and monks were quick to embellish his account of finding Liebowitz’ papers, and the abbot did not want that ruining Liebowitz’ chances at sainthood, although Francis did not find that out for seven years. Despite Francis’ refusal to corroborate the miraculous accounts of the day by his fellow brothers, Francis’ uncertainty upset the abbot, and he continued a novice until the canonization appeared successful.
After taking his vows, Brother Francis was assigned to the scriptorium, where he was given permission to work on side projects when there was extra time. He spent fifteen years on an illuminated manuscript of Liebowitz’ schematic. Everyone who saw it was amazed at its beauty, and a messenger from New Rome who questioned him on some aspects of what happened with the Beatus urged him to finish it.
The Pope invited Brother Francis to the canonization ceremony, and the abbot suggested that Francis take the blueprint and his illumination as a gift to the Pope. Francis was quite honored, and set out for New Rome. However, along the way he was waylaid by some of the children of the fallout, who lived as lepers in the wilderness. They took the blueprint and the illumination, and when Francis begged them to let him have one of them, since he had worked fifteen years at copying it, the bandits mocked him and gave him the original, thinking that he had wasted his time copying the illumination so poorly. They said he could buy the other back with gold. Francis was thankful that the original Memoribilia had been preserved.
He had a marvelous time at the ceremony and was blessed with an audience with the Pope, who even gave him gold so he could buy back the illumination from the bandits. On his return, Francis tried to find the bandits, but they saw him from a distance, and this time shot him in the head with a stone-tipped arrow, so they could eat his flesh. When they were done, the beggar that had met Francis saw the buzzards, drove them off, and buried Francis. He later told the Church where to find his body.
Hundreds of years later, Thon Taddeo, a distinguished scholar at the Collegium and relative of the king of Texarkana, came to the Abbey. Although St. Leibowitz had hoped that mankind would want their knowledge back in decades, it took twelve centuries for the children of man to rediscover its value. The monks had patiently preserved, patiently copied, patiently tried to decipher the meaning of the texts whose context had been completely lost. But progress had been made, and one of the brothers had been experimenting with an arc lamp, which he hoped to show off to the visiting scholar.
The Church hierarchy warned the abbot that Thon Taddeo would be arriving. The king of Texarkana was preparing war, and the Thon was likely to want to take the books with him, for he was no fan of the Church. But the abbey was always open to all, and Dom Paulo invited the Thon to stay as long as he liked and research. When he descended to the library, the brothers surprised him with a demonstration of the light that was so bright that candles were like shadows. The Thon’s reaction was the woundedness of someone whose scholarship was upstaged, but he was gracious. And he was impressed at how the brother who had designed it had such an intuitive grasp of the principles of electrical emanations that he had designed a device for something that would have taken the Thon years to understand the theory.
Likewise, the Thon was impressed by what was preserved. He waxed lyrical about the elegance of the equations and the simplicity of explanation, although he had to decipher it because his scholarship had not reached the level of the ancients. He gave a lecture to the brothers on what he had found, somewhat reluctantly at request of the abbot, since he thought that the brothers were likely to be offended by some of the scientific points. But when he expressed concern that they might be offended that the Collegium had discovered that light refracts into different colors, he found that the brothers simply laughed, because the idea (expressed by a high-ranking Church official at Court) that light could not refract until after the flood when the rainbow first appeared was nonsensical. The Thon felt somewhat more at ease afterwards. Somewhat ironically, the Thon was dismissive of the idea, raised by a brother who quoted St. Augustine as saying that God created life as seeds which evolved into their present form.
At the end of the talk, the beggar walked into the refectory. The beggar, the “Old Jew” who lived on a mesa nearby the abbey, by the name of Benjamin, was a friend of the abbot’s. The abbot had gone to visit him shortly before the Thon had arrived. Benjamin had shared the Dom Paulo’s hope that a renaissance was arriving. The abbot did not believe Benjamin’s claims to be related to Liebowitz, or to be 3200 years old, or to have been told by Jesus to “come out”, although he did wonder how the Old Jew had such detailed knowledge of things. Benjamin was hoping that He would come back, for he had been told to wait for Him. The beggar grabbed the Thon by the arm and hopefully looked into his eyes, before announcing “not Him" and leaving sadly.
But the Thon and the abbot did clash over a more substantive issue. The Thon thought that the documents were wasted hidden away at the abbey and that they should be given to people who would use them for mankind. The Thon had a technocratic view, which the abbot knew would be used by his ruler to develop weapons to conquer and extend the ruler’s personal dominion. It was this lust for dominion that had led to the Fire Deluge, for in the words of one of the few accounts leading up to the Fire Deluge (written by one who enjoyed a biblical flair, and so admittedly more helpful in explanations of the heart actions than in the record of the historical events), one of the kings of the earth had listened to the lies of Lucifer that if he struck first with the sword of fire that God had taken from the angel that guarded Paradise and given to Men, that he would not suffer destruction. But it was a lie, and the cities of the world were destroyed, including their own. It was this same, seemingly neutral approach to science that led St. Leibowitz to design the weapons that destroyed humanity. Now, here was the Thon, claiming that this knowledge which had destroyed the world once was stewarded poorly by the monks and should be given to men such as himself, who were paid by the a man who, even now, was preparing to extend his dominion by the sword.
The clash was even greater when the Thon took an idea from a work of ancient fiction about humans who had created slaves who then rebelled against their creators, and suggested that the Fire Deluge might have been because the people of the present were creations of the ancients who had sought their freedom. In addition to taking fiction as fact and, even worse, he asserted that mankind—which was God’s creation in His own image—was just a secondary creation. But the real problem in the abbot’s mind was that this absolved mankind of responsibility for its actions in causing the Fire Deluge. How could knowledge be trusted to men who had no sense of responsibility for the attitudes that caused the past destruction?
The Thon left shortly afterwards, although the two remained on good, if formal, terms. The Thon even confiscated the military drawings of the abbey (which had served as a citadel against attackers over the years) and gave them to the abbot, suggesting that he burn them. The Thon might have had attitudes that paved the road to destruction, but he was not supportive of destruction directly. After he left, the king of Texarkana declared independence from the Church and that Christians owed allegience to its hierarchy of clergy, and expanded its domain to extend over Laredo.
Six hundred years later, humanity had again reached to point where vehicles drove on roads of manufactured stone, even having surpassed the ancients because now the cars drove by themselves. It was a race that envisioned itself as divine toolmakers. But an explosion of a nuclear weapon by East Asia and a tit-for-tat retaliation by a North American satellite raised the danger of a new annihilation. Until now the annihilation was kept at by shared expectations that these things were not to be used. The governments kept the fact that “Lucifer had fallen” secret from the public, but a ten day truce was declared and people were hopeful that peace would prevail.
New Rome sent Abbot Zerchi a directive to put their standby escape plan in readiness, although by now the different regions of North America spoke mutually unintelligible languages. The divine toolmakers had again built rockets to the stars, and the Church had quietly acquired one in years previous, as it was permitted to launch a colony under old agreements (never tested in court). In case of catastrophe, some monks of the Order of St. Leibowtiz, along with some bishops (who could consecrate other bishops, so that the authority of St. Peter would remain in an unbroken lineage) would take the Church to the colony on Alpha Centauri. Father Zerchi asked Brother Joshua (who had just sampled the air and found it to be somewhat radioactive) if he had a calling to the priesthood. Brother Joshua did not know, and Father Zerchi said that he had three days to find out.
A few days later New Rome told Father Zerchi to activate the plan.
Brother Joshua had to decide by the time Compline ended, and eventually he
decided that although he did not feel a call, per se, if the
other monks wanted him as their priest, that he was sufficient call for
him to choose that vocation. Father Zerchi told the monks chosen for the
mission to remember Earth, but to never come back, and they left on a
clandestine private plane flight to the rocket ship.
The fallout cloud drifted across the Pacific, and the government sent a doctor to set up a station for those affected at the town where the abbey was, since it was centrally located and on intersecting roads, so it was easily accessible by people who were affected. The abbot allowed the doctor to set up within the abbey on the condition that he did not recommend that patients who had no chance to survive go to a “mercy camp”. The doctor objected, because it is a painful death, but the abbot insisted, since only God can take life, not man, not even if it is your own life that you take willingly. Ultimately the doctor agreed, but when a mercy camp was set up down the road the doctor moved his clinic there.
The peace did not hold. An island in the Pacific was nuked and in retaliation an ancient city in Asia was destroyed. Soon, the new Fire Deluge came to the region of the Abbey, where Father Zerchi was hearing the confession of a local “tomater” woman, who kept pestering him over the years to baptize her other head, Rachel, which was always asleep, since her local priest would not. When he saw the bright light, Father Zerchi hastily absolved her and rushed to get the cup with the sacred Hosts. He got it but lost hold of it when the church crumbled on top of him. As he lay dying, he saw the tomater woman, except that her head looked dead and Rachel was alive. But Rachel was an innocent child, and just repeated what he asked her. He tried to say the rite of baptism, but she refused, and instead offered him communion, and in her attitude, and her honoring handling of the communion wafers, despite being a effectively newborn child with no understanding, Father Zerchi recognized the Lord. And so he died peacefully.
The monks and others were boarding the rocket as the lights brighter than the daystar blazed in the distance. They shielded their eyes, then the rest ascended in silence. The last monk shook off the dust of his sandals, ascended, and the rocket lifted off while humanity utterly destroyed itself in a second Fire Deluge.
This summary hardly does A Canticle for Leibowitz justice. While I can relate the events, I cannot relate the meditation on the heart of Man that is the essence of the book. One thing that I appreciate about Catholic writers is that they do not see sin as simply breaking some commandments handed down by God as dictates, but instead sin is in the heart of Man. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries emphasize this, as does the apocalypse Father Elijah. And, likewise, does Miller. The problem is not that mankind destroyed the world in nuclear war, but that the heart of man leads inevitably to the destruction of the world. This is communicated through philospophical discussions, especially in part two, but it is also communicated the characters interactions with each other. Mankind either hates knowledge or it uses knowledge selfishly and so brings destruction on all.
There are plenty of Christian themes that are portrayed. The propensity of the simpler believers to create fanciful miracle stories is contrasted with the slow, careful legal-like approach to sanctifying Leibowitz of the Church, and the abbot’s careful giving the artifacts the Francis finds to other Catholic Orders to avoid sensation, and his keeping the shelter sealed until the Church could do a proper excavation. I learned that the devil’s advocate was actually an official position in the Church, eliminated some years after Miller wrote the book], whose job it was to make a case that the person in question did not deserve sainthood. (In the event, he failed and had to do penance.)
There is also theme of the relationship of the Church to science. In addition to suggesting that there were examples of Church Fathers who did not think one should take the Creation account literally, and even that evolution is not entirely incompatible, as long as God directed it. Of course, the deeper theme is that a neutral approach to science is not actually neutral, since it willingly amplifies our destructive ability.
The final part discusses assisted suicide and indications of the Presence of God. Even the final moments allude to Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he sent them out to preach to the towns in Judea: if a town does not receive your message, shake the dust off your sandals as a sign against it when you leave.
The beggar is also a Christian theme, albeit more of a legend popularized in medieval times, the Wandering Jew. I had not heard of this before trying to figure out the purpose of the beggar. The beggar was old and Jewish, and could possibly be Leibowitz or a relative, but nothing really fit until I learned about the legend. The legend of the Wandering Jew has several variations, but the one Miller uses is that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus stayed raised and would not die until Christ returns. And so the Old Jew wanders around, seeking the return of Him who called him. Presumably this is also one of the themes layered onto the story, but I am not clear what role he plays.
This is one of those books that is simply intriguing. The characters are astute and frequently wry glimpses into human nature. Their interactions set up a suspenseful situations where the suspense is not what will happen, but rather how will the characters handle this. The philosophical elements are woven into this, so that there are rarely long sections of expounded philosophy. I rather suspect that the subplots illustrate the characters’ values, but it is not clear to me how, just that there is clearly more going on here than I am understanding.
As with science fiction from the 1960s, the modern parts do not age well, since technology has advanced so far that some science fiction has actually become lived fact. Certainly vacuum tubes are not artifacts of a bygone golden age, but obsolete curiosities (apart from certain audiophiles), and blueprints are not actually white-on-blue, so the monks wasting ink filing in the empty areas of the page with blue and leaving un-inked white lines might not even be understood by younger readers. But at the same time, most of it has aged better than its contemporaries, partly because it describes the future-past, which is easier to extrapolate, but also because the human heart has not really changed. And in present times, where advertisements ubiquitously recommend that you “get the ___ that you deserve", there are few voices calling out that our hearts are wicked and we are in need of a new heart. Much less are there beautiful meditations on the subject.