I’m about halfway through the classic Catholic sci-fi novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is the first time I’ve read it, so what I say only goes as far as the first half of it, but so far I’m enjoying it. It is alternately delightful and sobering—delightful in its humorous characterizations and anecdotes, and sobering in its subject matter: a world trying to rebuild itself after near-total destruction from a nuclear holocaust—and the foibles of human nature throughout. I’d like to include here one humorous bit and one sobering one.
This little vignette happens when Brother Francis is in New Rome (the original one was leveled in the “Flame Deluge”) for the canonization of the Blessed Leibowitz, the mysterious and martyred founder of his monastic order. He is in awe at the grandeur of the basilica and the ceremonies: “No motion occurred which did not quietly contribute to the dignity and overpowering beauty of this ancient place, even as the motionless statues and paintings contributed to it. Even the whisper of one’s breathing seemed to echo faintly from distant apses… Some of the statues were alive, he observed after a time. A suit of armor stood against the wall a few yards to his left. Its mailed fist held the staff of a gleaming battle-ax. Not even the plume of its helmet had stirred during the time Brother Francis had been kneeling there. A dozen identical suits of armor stood at intervals along the walls. Only after seeing a horsefly crawl through the visor of the ‘statue’ on his left did he suspect that the warlike husk contained an occupant. His eye could detect no motion, but the armor emitted a few metallic creaks while it harbored the horsefly. These, then, must be the papal guard, so renowned in knightly battle: the small private army of God’s First Vicar.
“A captain of the guard was making a stately tour of his men. For the first time, the statue moved. It lifted its visor in salute. The captain thoughtfully paused and used his kerchief to brush the horsefly from the forehead of the expressionless face inside the helmet before passing on. The statue lowered its visor and resumed its immobility.”
That, I think, needs no further comment! And now for something completely different:
“In a dark sea of centuries wherein nothing seemed to flow, a lifetime was only a brief eddy, even for the man who lived it. There was a tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons; then there were aches and pains, finally Extreme Unction, and a moment of blackness at the end—or at the beginning, rather. For then the small shivering soul who had endured the tedium, endured it badly or well, would find itself in a place of light, find itself absorbed in the burning gaze of infinitely compassionate eyes as it stood before the Just One. And then the King would say: ‘Come,’ or the King would say: ‘Go,’ and only for that moment had the tedium of years existed.”
That is indeed quite sobering and it concisely expresses the awesome gravity of our life and destiny. I can certainly identify with the “tedium of repeated days and repeated seasons,” and this is perhaps more noticeable in a monastery where things are usually more regulated than they are in the world. Usually it is tolerable enough—I’d say about medium tedium—but sometimes it can seem a heavy burden. But precisely there is where our salvation is worked out (or lost), through constant faithfulness (or lack thereof) in the repeated days and repeated seasons.
This reminds me of something I published a while back (Memento Mori, 4-21-08), a passage from a different novel, this time about the dying of a monk. In those last moments, everything crystallizes into the essence of a life lived well or badly, one’s eyes are finally opened, and the value of one’s whole life is placed in a balance, as it were. We are ushered, willing or not, into the presence of the King, who will say either “Come” or “Go” (see Mt. 25:31-46). Only for that moment does the “tedium of years” exist. Nothing else matters, ultimately, in the whole of our existence, except to hear the King say “Come.” This is the law and the prophets and the Gospel and the Church.
We ought to try to remember this in the tedium of daily life, as we generally do the same things over and over—the endless daily rituals we perform between rising and retiring, at work, at home, even in church. Life isn’t a circle, it’s a line. We small shivering souls started somewhere (and somewhen) and we’re going somewhere, and we’ll end somewhere—but that end will be a new beginning of our eternal destiny. We do well to keep in mind, while we’re here, where we’re going. Enduring the tedium well, as we keep our eyes fixed on the Just One, will make it all worthwhile. We needn’t fear, only be faithful, for He looks upon us with compassionate eyes.
With the grace of God we will even be able to stand in his service at reverent and unruffled attention as the horseflies of life crawl through our visors…