I read Walter J. Miller’s first book, A Canticle for Liebowitz, when I was about 12 years old. It’s the pilgrimage adventures of 17-year-old novice, Brother Frances Gerard, who is on silent retreat in the radiated desert of the American southwest in the middle of the 26th century. This summer I found a hardback of Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman for $1.50. Apparently, Miller had written two books in his life: The Canticle, published in 1959, and Saint Leibowitz, published nearly 40 years later.
Both are one epic science fiction story about the church of Rome (or New Rome), a community of Benedictine monks, and the ruling Empire after the catastrophic event of the Flame Deluge (nuclear holocaust). In the second, Brother Blacktooth St. George at Leibowitz Abbey is having a crisis of vocation:
“Blacktooth remembered clearly the first time he had asked to be released from his final vows as a monk of the Order of Saint Leibowitz. … It was the third year of Blacktooth’s work (assigned to him by Dom Jarad himself) of translating all seven volumes of the Venerable Boedullus’ Liber Originum, that scholarly but highly speculative attempt to reconstruct from the evidence of later events a plausible history of the darkest of all centuries, the twenty-first—of translating it from the old monastic author’s quaint Neo-Latin into the most improbable of languages, Brother Blacktooth’s own native tongue, the Grasshopper dialect of Plains Nomadic, for which not even a suitable phonetic alphabet existed prior to the conquests (3174 and 3175 A.D.) of Hannegan II in what had once been called Texas.”
When an influential cardinal takes Blacktooth under his wing to make use of his facility with native languages in tricky ecclesial-political negotiations, the story breaks out into questions of ethics, power, spiritual calling, nonviolence, hegemony, and love—where should our priorities lay? What is the moral responsibility of the Texark Empire to care for genetically deformed humans, whom the church has taken to calling “the Pope’s children”?
Walter Miller was a tail gunner in World War II. Among his 55 combat sorties was the one that destroyed the Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy, established in 529 AD by St. Benedict himself. When Miller returned from war, he converted to Catholicism and wrote these two books as his way of working “out his salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
—Rose Marie Berger, senior associate editor at Sojourners, is a Catholic activist and poet (www.rosemarieberger.com).