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Finding fortitude in the Red Hot Chili Peppers

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS

Tony Norkus | Shutterstock

Matthew Becklo - published on 02/12/22

Lessons on faith can be found in the release of the band's new single, "Black Summer."

When I was just a young kid, the haunting melody of “Under the Bridge” was, somewhere along the way, etched into my soul—probably from an older brother playing it from a cassette or car stereo. In middle school, a classmate talked passionately about Californication, which he carried around in his Discman—and before long it was “Scar Tissue” that hung in the air of my mind. In high school, a friend played By the Way from his iPod in the car, bringing “Zephyr Song” into view. I was never a full-fledged Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, but the half-rap crooning of Anthony Kiedis and melancholic guitar of John Frusciante—always new, yet always the same—periodically intersected with a decade of my life.

Then, just days ago, I stumbled on their new single “Black Summer.” The song marks the return of Frusciante to the band after a second leave, with Kiedis singing in something like an Irish brogue. Whether the focus is the Australian brushfires, or perhaps just the overall chaos of recent years, “Black Summer” gives voice to a struggle of fortitude: “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend / Waiting on another black summer to end.” It’s a fitting theme for the band in 2022: thirty years after “Under the Bridge,” through the many shifts of life and culture, the Chili Peppers are still at it. They are not switching up their formula or trying to reinvent themselves. They know what they’re about and do what they do—and do it exceedingly well. 

Fortitude, one of the four great “cardinal virtues” of antiquity, is not quite the same as courage—or, at least, what we tend to think of as courage. It’s not about going out to conquer danger (though that can be part of it). It’s about staying put to endure affliction. It’s not just about being stouthearted; it’s about being steadfast. Aquinas, citing Aristotle, argues that endurance—“to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them,” which is “more difficult” than aggression—is “the chief act” of fortitude. To live with fortitude ultimately means living with the passive strength of a fort: beaten, battered, but refusing to budge, even if it means our destruction. Here is the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. . . . The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions” (CCC 1808). This doesn’t being totally passive or inactive—justice and love, too, are virtues. It means refusing to yield the base of operations.

Thus, the opposite of fortitude is not fear; it is fickleness. The fickle are like a band that changes its whole style and sound with every album. Or, to use a classic image from one of Fulton Sheen’s talks, 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 on and on for years without ever reaping a harvest. That’s how many of us live. “Some 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 still another. They have their quivers full of arrows, but no fixed target.” The fixed target, Sheen goes on to argue, is that for which we were made: union with God. We approach this union through the Incarnation and its extension in the Church. The height of fortitude is to tenaciously cling to this one thing necessary (Luke 10:43), whatever the cost. 

The virtual stifles this virtue; our world is more and more a fickle world. Life is increasingly fast: everything comes at us rapid-fire and bite-sized. It’s ever-changing: we innovate, upgrade, adapt, and explore. And it’s hyper-controlled: we decide what comes and what goes, what we see and don’t see. Fortitude—the pursuit of strength rather than speed, tradition rather than innovation, and fidelity rather than control—is deeply countercultural.

All of this is familiar enough to Catholics. Endurance is a major theme of Sacred Scripture (especially the letters of the New Testament) and the name of the game when it comes to Sacred Tradition: “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thess. 2:15). Fortitude is in our DNA. Yet is there not a growing skittishness in the Church today? Champions of the papacy denigrate or even deny the pope; champions of tradition cast a longing gaze into Eastern Orthodoxy or the SSPX. Some throw their arms up in exasperation at what this or that bishop did (or didn’t) say; others drop their arms in exhaustion and deconstruct out of the faith entirely. We demand things to move on our terms and timetable. When they don’t, we feel like we have to move. Fortitude is tedious and ugly; we would rather gaze over at the other side of the fence, saw off the very limb we sit on, or even sell our birthright for a mess of pottage.

None of this is to downplay the very real struggles and sufferings that many experience, or that the Church as a whole has experienced. We have been passing through an extremely difficult time of scandals, disaffiliation, division, and confusion. But to riff on a line of Chesterton, fortitude means enduring the unendurable, or it is no virtue at all. Difficulty is the time for fortitude; in fact, it’s what fortitude is for: the great storms of affliction and black summers of shame. We must strive to be disciplined, alert, and steadfast in the faith amid suffering, relying on the Lord, our strength (1 Pet. 5:8–9; Exod. 15:2). Of course, we only hold fast because of the truth of the good to which we hold. If the faith is false, why bother? But if we know it in our hearts and minds to be true—as indeed it is—why do we loosen our grip? 

The fortitude of the Chili Peppers is impressive. But it’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 that up? How could we even think of giving it up? Like any band, we may bicker over creative differences, suffer setbacks and losses, and at times maybe even wonder whether we’d be happier doing something else. But God knows we wouldn’t. For the sake of the music, we must be a people of fortitude, and play on.

Tags:
CatholicismMusicVirtue
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