Lessons in faith can be found in the release of the band’s new single, “Black Summer.”
When I was just a young child, the haunting melody of “Under the Bridge” was, somewhere along the way, etched into my soul – probably from an older brother playing it from tape or of a car radio. In middle school, a classmate spoke passionately about Californication, which he carried in his Discman – and soon it was “Scar Tissue” hanging in the air of my mind. In high school, a friend was playing Moreover from his iPod in the car, featuring “Zephyr Song”. I’ve never been a full-fledged fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Anthony Kiedis’ half-rap vocals and John Frusciante’s soulful guitar – always new, but always the same – have periodically cut across a decade of my life.
Then, just a few days ago, I came across their new single “Black Summer”. The song marks Frusciante’s return to the band after a second hiatus, with Kiedis singing in something like an Irish brogue. Whether the focus is on the Australian bushfires or perhaps just the general chaos of recent years, “Black Summer” gives voice to a struggle of courage: “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend / Waiting for another black summer to end.” It’s a fitting theme for the band in 2022: thirty years after “Under the Bridge”, through the many changes of life and culture, the Chili Peppers are still here. They don’t change formulas or try to reinvent themselves. They know what they are doing and do what they do – and do it extremely well.
Fortitude, one of the four great “cardinal virtues” of antiquity, is not quite the same thing as courage – or, at least, what we tend to think of as courage. . It’s not about going out to overcome the danger (although that may be part of it). It’s about staying put to endure the affliction. It’s not just about being brave; it’s about being unshakeable. Thomas Aquinas, citing Aristotle, argues that endurance – “to stand still in the midst of dangers rather than attacking them”, which is “more difficult” than aggression – is the “main act” of strength. To live with courage ultimately means to live with the passive strength of a strong: beaten, beaten, but refusing to move, even if it means our destruction. here is Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Courage is the moral virtue that assures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of good. . . . The virtue of fortitude makes it possible to overcome fear, even the fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” (CCC 1808). This does not mean being totally passive or inactive – justice and love are virtues too. It’s refusing to hand over the base of operations.
So the opposite of force is not fear; It is inconstancy. The inconstants are like a group that changes style and sound with each album. Or, to use a classic image from one of Fulton Sheen’s speeches, they’re like farmers who plant wheat one week, then dig it up and plant barley the next, then dig that up and plant watermelon, then oats – and so on. for years without ever harvesting a crop. This is how many of us live. “Some people change their philosophy of life with every book they read,” Sheen says. “One book sells them on Freud, the next on Marx; materialists one year, idealists the next; cynics for another period, and liberals for yet another. They have their quivers full of arrows, but no fixed target. The purpose set, Sheen continues, is the one for which we were created: union with God. We approach this union through the Incarnation and its extension in the Church. The pinnacle of fortitude is tenaciously clinging to this one thing necessary (Luke 10:43), no matter the cost.
The virtual stifles this virtue; our world is increasingly a fickle world. Life is growing quick: everything comes to us at rapid fire and in bite size. It is always-changing: we innovate, improve, adapt and explore. And it’s super-control: we decide what comes and what goes, what we see and what we don’t see. Courage – the pursuit of strength over speed, tradition over innovation, and fidelity over control – is deeply countercultural.
All of this is quite familiar to Catholics. Endurance is a major theme in Sacred Scripture (particularly the letters of the New Testament) and the name of the game in matters of Sacred Tradition: “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions which we have taught you” (2 Thess. 2:15). Strength is in our DNA. Yet, isn’t there growing nervousness in the Church today? The champions of the papacy denigrate or even deny the pope; the champions of tradition take a nostalgic look at Eastern Orthodoxy or the SSPX. Some raise their arms in exasperation at what this or that bishop has said (or has not said); others drop their weapons of exhaustion and completely deconstruct themselves out of faith. We demand things happen on our terms and on our schedule. When they don’t, we feel like we have to move. Strength is boring and ugly; we’d rather look over the fence, saw off the very branch we’re sitting on, or even sell our birthright for a pot of soup.
None of this is meant to minimize the very real struggles and suffering that many are experiencing, or that the Church as a whole has experienced. We are going through an extremely difficult period of scandals, disaffiliation, division and confusion. But to borrow a line from Chesterton, courage means enduring the unbearable, or it’s not a virtue at all. The difficulty is the time of fortitude; in fact, that’s what courage is for: the great storms of affliction and the black summers of shame. We should strive to be disciplined, alert, and steadfast in faith in the midst of suffering, relying on the Lord as our strength (1 Peter 5:8-9; Exodus 15:2). Of course, we only hold on because of the truth of the good we hold on to. If faith is wrong, why care? But if we know it’s true in our hearts and minds – as it really is – why are we loosening our grip?
The courage of the Chili Peppers is impressive. But that’s nothing compared to the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ is a 2,000 year old band with the greatest music the world has ever heard. How could we give it up? How could we even think to give it up? Like any group, we may bicker over creative differences, suffer setbacks and losses, and sometimes maybe even wonder if we’d be happier doing something else. But God knows we wouldn’t. For the sake of music, we must be brave people and keep playing.