Montecassino abbey, Lazio (DEA / G. COZZI / Getty)
Artillery Row Books

Grasping for the divine

The church has lost its way but our need for lasting purpose remains

For Allied forces seeking a path to Rome, the holy building on the hill was an immovable obstacle. On each side stretched the Gustav Line, a hundred and sixty-one kilometres from the Tyrrhenian Coast to the Adriatic. From it, you could see Highway 6. Within its walls, two hundred and thirty Italian souls took refuge. But at British headquarters, the commander-in-chief received intel that it had been occupied by the Germans. The order came down: Launch the planes. So it was that on a cold winter morning, in the wink of an eye, an ancient abbey died.

A young American pilot named Walter M. Miller, Jr., was among those who dropped the bombs. His experience would subconsciously haunt his classic dystopian fiction work A Canticle for Leibowitz, which turned sixty last October. Its distinctive composition—three novellas spanning three epochs of future Earth history—was a gradually inspired stroke, as Miller first published early versions of them as standalone works. Their protagonist is not a person but a place: the Utah desert Abbey of Saint Leibowitz.

The novel opens on a world shattered by nuclear holocaust, plunged into a second Dark Age. While freaks of nature lurk in the shadows, eager book-legging monks preserve any fragments of former glory that they can find. In the second novella, their patience is rewarded by the new birth of a second Enlightenment. Yet by the third novella, we have come full circle to devastation again, in a distant future that feels eerily familiar. Nevertheless, the Abbey remains, as constant as the North Star.

Crowds in the US renounce their “white privilege”

A man of science struggling to become a man of faith, Miller breathes fresh life into the age-old conflicts of faith and science, church and state. The second novella is a slow dance between Thon Taddeo, the coming revolution’s proto-Newton, and the abbot whose monks hold the last puzzle piece that he needs. In an almost operatic exchange, Taddeo preaches the gospel of Enlightenment Now with the fervour of a Steven Pinker. But the abbot counters with what we all know to be true: that our world never will be any better, “only richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.” In Miller’s scorching vision, the new generation is no less capable than the ones who came before of slitting its throat before the altar of a tribal god. They are Adam’s sons and Eve’s daughters still, “forever building Edens—and kicking them apart in berserk fury, because somehow it isn’t the same.” One cannot read these words today, as America’s cities burn, without feeling a chill up the spine.

When we watch protesters renouncing their white privilege and all its works, we are watching a generation starved for liturgy

Miller’s Catholicism hung by a tenuous thread that would be broken by PTSD and clinical depression, leading ultimately to suicide. Yet Canticle still stands as a uniquely harrowing, potent tribute to the Catholic ideal. The cadence of the book is suffused with the cadence of the liturgy, the give-and-take of Versicle and Rejoinder. The corridors echo and re-echo with the sounds of masses sung and Latin spoken. Each abbot in each age leads in his own way, with his own particular combination of fire and ice. In its last days, the Abbey has been stripped down to the bare necessities, like a barracks whose soldiers move as one unit. They survive, as the Church survives: not in spite of its alien otherness, but because of it.

Though now over half a century old, Canticle could not be more timely or convicting, as the dual crises of COVID and race riots have collided head-on with the West’s crisis of spiritual identity. The post-modern man may have forgotten his prayers, but he has not forgotten how to pray. When we watch protesters engage in a call and response creed with hands in the air, renouncing their white privilege and all its works, we are watching the ritual of a generation starved for liturgy.

But whither the old liturgies, and whither their gatekeepers? At the height of the COVID crisis, images like Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi in an empty St. Peter’s Square were visually resonant. Yet for those whose trust in the Catholic Church has proven tragically misplaced, such an image is bittersweet—redolent of all that has been, and all that has been lost. The pope himself is no friend of the Latin Mass which burns so unquenchably in Walter Miller’s imagination. Indeed, the Old Rite has been placed “under review” as of this April. 

Meanwhile, the Church of England cannot muster even the ghost of its former self. As Tom Holland wrote in The Telegraph, echoed by Douglas Murray in The Spectator, apparently even a global pandemic was not enough to make C of E clerics stop talking like middle managers. The voices that once preached of sin and judgment and cruciform grace were reduced to reading from the Labour Party’s teleprompters. At least nobody was left in doubt on what the bishops thought about Dominic Cummings, even if their views on the eternal mysteries of life and death remain TBD.

In analysing the source of this dispiriting impotence, Holland suggests that churches have come to believe themselves redundant. The hospital systems first sparked and fuelled by early Christian revolutionaries have now been subsumed under the secular welfare state. At the same time, bold declarations of the Christian articles of faith have been culturally stigmatised. And so, bit by bit, the Church’s services have become “non-essential,” not only in the government’s eyes, but in her own. Forgetting what she has to offer that the welfare state cannot, she has forgotten the antidote to death itself. 

For what could the welfare state offer to the mother and child encountered in Canticle’s final third, doomed to die of radiation poisoning? What except a swift, painless, state-sanctioned end? In the novel’s most agonising scene, the Abbey’s last abbot admits he can offer nothing so swift, nor so painless. But he offers the conviction that life, even painful life that ends in slow, painful death, is good. We are born and grown to die with dignity, not as it has been redefined, but as God has defined it for us, as creatures whose bodies and immortal souls bear a divine stamp.

Of course, such language exists uncomfortably in a naked public square, which is why we hear it so little today. Those who could speak it choose not to, timidly hoping to be thought relevant, thereby becoming more irrelevant than ever before. 

Meanwhile, like the couple at the registrar’s desk in Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem “Missing God,” the world waits in vain “to be fed a line containing words/like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine.’” The “involuntary prayer” still escapes our lips at the sight of the breast lump, or the shadow on the X-ray. The “residual blast of incense” still comes wafting to us as we trudge past the church. Perhaps we will walk on. Or perhaps, one day, we will stop. Perhaps we will go in. Perhaps we will sit a while.

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