It was a cool October afternoon thirty years ago and we were doing hill workouts. My high school varsity athletic team drove to a nearby neighborhood to sprint up its hilly terrain. It was a loop, where you pump your arms and legs up a steep incline, then walk back down where jogging would be too much like riding your brakes. Several teammates and I formed a small group and our competitiveness drove us to top performance up the hills. I was in a state of runner’s high — a hyper-oxygenated brain awash in natural endorphin — reveling in the functional perfection of my weightless body. I thought: This is an incredible workout for the mind, the body nourishing the brain…
But thoughts raced on. Is the brain the end-beneficiary of physical health? No… something whispered. The brain merely regulates everything so that the reproductive organs can do their job. My first encounter with doubt: the body’s purpose is to replicate itself, and the illusion of having a mind or a soul is a byproduct of fluids.
The next hill workout was several weeks later. It was late Sunday afternoon and I was alone, catching my breath on the grassy hill overlooking an empty vista of my school’s athletic fields. A teenager’s emotional state is volatile and his mind solipsistic, taking certain things with grave seriousness. As euphoric I was during the previous workout, the rush of oxygen was now fueling thoughts of doom. The air was cold, the western sky was on fire.
Miserable thoughts piled on: Is this the best it’s going to be? The heart pushed jets of bile through my overheated body. Would it be best to die now? What is my purpose?
This is vivid recollection, not poetic license: I looked down from the hilltop and the panorama of athletic fields glowed golden, like the Elysian fields.
Ideas that ran in conflicting directions took me, at turns over the course of my twenties, to materialism and then back to knowing of another plane. I’m becoming convinced that keeping your eyes open and thinking without fear, over the course of a long life, will lead you to the foot of the Cross.
What Is Out There?
I can’t convince you of any metaphysical reality because I don’t understand it myself. Rather, it’s a certainty to me that God is more real than the two hands I’m looking at right now. So I’ll just leave you with someone’s comment from a recent thread at Chateau Heartiste:
I always keep coming back to the martyrs of Christianity. From St. Stephen, to St. Paul, to St. Peter, to St. Ignatius of Antioch, to St. Maximilian Kolbe, to the Copts massacred just this last Palm Sunday, and all the known and unknown martyrs in between…
1. There is absolutely nothing after death. Just the big “Nothing.” Lights out for good. Eternal Oblivion. They’ll never know they were totally wrong. All of them are all the biggest fucking idiots in history, throwing away their lives […] St. Paul himself says as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14.
2. There is something more to all this.
Good and evil. If they are real, than so is God. To get a sense of evil, imagine extremes of depravity, and not necessarily involving violence — just look around you. And to contemplate an expression of good, read John 15-13:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Laying down your life for your friends. This next comment is not my original insight but I agree with it: A.B. Breivik volunteered to spend the rest of his life in 23-hour/day solitary confinement to deliver his countrymen from evil.
It’s not just martyrdom that the Cross inspires. There is also our sublime output. Finally acknowledging the title of this post and starting with high art, there is Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring,” Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3.” There is also this Eastern Orthodox hymn from Serbia. Speaking of Coptic martyrs, listen to this Assyrian Palm Sunday prayer in Aramaic.
Stepping away from high art, there are songs that regular people can sing. A famous example is the immortal “Stille Nacht.” It was written in 1818 by a young Austrian priest, with music composed by a schoolmaster from a nearby village.
“Pescador de hombres” was written in 1979 by a Spanish priest. Pope John Paul II famously said that “Pescador” (Polish version: “Barka,” transl. below) is his favorite song:
Lord, you have come to the lake shore
Looking for people who are ready to follow
To capture hearts with the truth of God’s word
O Lord, your eyes have looked upon me
Kindly smiling, you have spoken my name
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me
By your side I will cast a new net
I don’t have many possessions
My treasure is my two ready hands
To work with you and my pure heart
Today we set out together
To capture hearts on the seas of human souls
With Your truth and the word of life
The calling of a priest is to be a holy man. Since the one true religion, by definition, applies to all of humankind (unless you go with an assumption that not all subsets of mankind have a soul), then such a man’s thinking will be catholic, lower-case. I imagine that such a priest would wish for everyone to aspire to godliness according to their nature, on their own land and among their own people, encountering others solely in friendship.
With that thought, what do you make of the scene a little after 3:45 in the Barka video linked above, showing an African man and his son crying at the Pope’s funeral?
The great bass-baritone Bernard Ładysz leads a choir in this arrangement of the traditional evening-song “All Of Our Daily Matters” (“Wszystkie nasze dzienne sprawy”). I like the spontaneous feel of the performance. It sounds like a what you would hear in a church with the parishioners singing.
All of our daily matters
Accept mercifully, righteous God
And when we fall asleep
May our dreams praise You
Your eyes turned
Day and night in our direction
Where the frailty of man
Your rescue awaits
Turn away the nightly perils
Protect us from all harm
Have us always in Your care
Guardian and Judge of man
And when we ascend to Heaven
We will sing to You together
God in Trinity unfathomed
Holy, forever and ever Holy
From 966 A.D. onward, men have sang hymns in that language in preparation for putting foreign invaders to the sword.
In the live performance below, the eye is on the ghoulish guitarist until the vocalist lets out the pathos in a lung-defying howl.
He looks tormented, maybe possessed. This isn’t a comment about the band members. I don’t know Thom Yorke. Yet even if that dramatic performance is all-artifice, the fact that it expresses the inner state of listeners points to their hunger for something.
Did we just watch an artistic interpretation of a station toward the foot of the Cross?