Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Visceral or Virtual?
 Hierarchies exist

Father John J. Lombardi .

Are "hip hop" and rock as famous as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart? Maybe. Do we Catholics and Christians progress from the visceral to the virtuous? Maybe, hopefully, read on…

I recently saw an ad for famous rock and rollers who, in their sixties are, well, still rocking on. Their faces were aged and yet their music loud as ever and it made me think: Did they ever hear of Bach or Beethoven? Have they progressed from the visceral to the virtuous? Do they know the "music of the spheres"? I once read an article comparing Bob Dylan, as good a folk poet-singer as he is, to classic poets. Really? Is Dylan's poetry the same as, say, Shelly, Sophocles and Shakespeare?

This "progression thing": Children usually graduate from grade school to high school and perhaps go on to college. Flea league ballplayers go from little leagues to big leagues. Spiritual seekers should go from the "basics" (do well and avoid evil) to the more serious (practicing virtues heroically and becoming a deeper disciple).

Put another way: I used to be "glued to the tube"-as a child, that is. I watched tons of TV growing up. Now I hear a friend expressing my sentiments: "I can't imagine spending hours in front of the TV, there's more important things to do." Not to mention all the semi-soft-pornography spread on TV programs these days to ensnare people. The televisions (and its programs) are visceral-immediately grabbing us and sometimes straight-jacketing us. Kinda like rock and roll music. Get me right: there are many instructive and inspiring programs and movies on TV. But too much is, well, enough. The TV is not reality.

I know a filmmaker who used to work for MTV. Now he makes films for God. He said: MTV is not godly. I want to use my talents for God…He graduated. He moved on…up.

Sometimes we get stuck in a kind of "arrested development" whereby we do not progress from the visceral (immediate sense-gratification which is easily entrancing-like, say popular music) to the virtuous (the more sublime truths and forms of life-for instance philosophy and classical music). From Plato (in his allegory of the cave whereby seekers got stuck on passing things and were thereby ignorant of eternal ones) to Thomas Aquinas (who pointed from created things to the Creator) to Pope John Paul II (who expounded the works of the Mystical Doctor St John of the Cross) a pattern is made-and taught: we should progress thru stages of development to higher truths and spiritual teachings and, even, artistic forms. This is akin, in the natural world, whereby a caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly: it "graduates" and progresses from one life form to the higher one it is designed for. It doesn't get stuck.

I was talking to Rich, a Grotto pilgrim who is an artist and we began discussing various artists who are popular today and how they can have an initial element of beauty or truth in their works, but they may go awry in their artistry. The artist may not use his or her talent for the sublime and eternal things but rather for the visceral and vain. They seemingly do not progress. Some art critics are scapegoated today because they do not accept modernist art which sometimes vilifies the human body-form or which accentuates subjective "expression" over the objective beautiful form of art--such as Andre Serrano's crucifix in urine. Critics are accused of "elitism" at critiquing such so-called art.

Within Catholic spirituality we have a progression of "graduation"-laid out in a tri-fold classic scheme: beginners, proficients and perfect. Are you as a beginner practicing oral prayer, mastering various prayer forms? As a proficient are you embracing the art of meditation (focusing within on a bible saying or spiritual truth). As a "perfect" disciple (the term is used loosely) are you advancing to contemplation-simply resting in God without images or words? Remember-we are called to graduate from basic forms of spirituality to higher ones.

In college I remember balking at taking a mandatory classical music class. I was, at the time, hung up on rock and roll-even joining bands with my blaring Gibson SG electric guitar and plaguing my parents. I eventually became entranced, thru the college class, to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven after being exposed to their music and to this day enjoy this supreme music art form. Ditto for the "art in the dark" college class-which introduced me via slide presentations to artists thru the ages--like Leonardo and Fra Angelico. The teacher was helping-"high jacking", in a way!-this wayward, ignorant pilgrim into the classical, beautiful forms of art.

Famous Baltimore Colts' Joe Ehrman "graduated" from pro-football to Christian evangelist. He spoke at Mt St Mary's campus one time and described how he was kinda' stuck in a stage where "football was everything"-and that his family, personality and friendships all depended on football. He gradually realized there is more to life than football and eventually found Christ and now ministers to poor persons in the inner city of Baltimore. He "graduated" and progressed. This is not to say that football is bad, but, merely, that it is not everything and can inordinately overtake one's life and degrade from the progression of the soul to other things, eternal truths. Even famous football coach Vince Lombardi went to daily Mass to, I guess, remind himself that God is all important, secondary to even football.

St Teresa of Avila famously said: "All is passing, God alone is changeless." So: are you stuck on passing things or are you searching for eternal things? Henry David Thoreau, Nineteenth-century New England author and transcendentalist, famously said, describing the movement-progression toward the virtuous: "Read not the times, read the eternities." Speaking of reading: are you enjoying pulp fiction or the Bible? Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" is visceral and entertaining, but are you progressing on to reading the virtuous Aristotle and Dante? There is a scale of truth and beauty in our world-are you embracing it?

We all have some kind of visceral attachments-hooked on passing things-- but are we graduating to the virtuous? Some today want to throw out (and have) the "Western Cannon" (classical tradition) of Hawthorne, Melville and Austen, in favor of contemporary writers who stress political-race-class-gender topics-and thereby loosening our "anchor" to the past and eternal things. And yet, today, many colleges are, in fact, "returning to the Canon" of classical studies. They see the need for progression and proven virtuous teachings.

In his seminal book, "Human Achievement," Charles Murray "boiled down" all the studies of music, literature, philosophy, science and art and came up with lists of great, human achievement, and defended the classical tradition, and was subsequently attacked for his study. Why? Because of his methodology and because he was seen as an "elitist" and against progression of knowledge. He defended himself against all these charges, all the while saying that there is room for progression and "multiculturalism," but this cannot be untethered to what is empirically proven by so many studies. By the way, his list includes the great human achievements in art- Michelangelo; literature-Shakespeare, of course with Dante close behind; science (Einstein and Newton); music--Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Are you scaling up or downgrading?

Regarding Catholic Tradition: How can you progress from the visceral to the virtuous? Progress in painting-I just got a gift of a beautiful Blessed Fra Angelico print to inspire me. In poetry have you enjoyed Gerard Manley Hopkins? In philosophy have you read and fed on Aquinas and Bonaventure and Maritain? In music have you heard Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (Ninth Symphony) or Mozart's Masses? Remember; the good is sometimes the enemy of the best. Graduate! Go higher. Are you choosing the temporal or the Eternal--the material or the spiritual?

Jus think: Fr Damien of Molokai, the "Leper priest," taught outcast, abandoned lepers not only their inherent dignity but also how to progress to sing Latin and Mozart at Mass. He learned and taught that the scale of perfection and higher truths are not just for oneself but are given to us to give away to others. We can choose, wrongfully, elitism when we learn about perfection, or we can choose "equalization" whereby we share God's truths and progressions with others, selflessly like Blessed Damien, realizing that all are equal to the call.

Lastly we may think of some of "America's pastimes" which may hang us up and arrest our development? Sports, money, possessions, hobbies (collecting trains or dolls or tea cups). Are you fixed on stock car racing and failing to actually run the good race-as St Paul counsels? These pastimes in themselves are not wrong but when they become ends in themselves they may block and detract us from the Eternal.

Go up the ladder of spiritual truth! It should be as natural and supernatural as a caterpillar becoming a butterfly! Think of the beauty and freedom in going higher.

The Poor Widow's mite and True Spirituality:

A poor woman in the Gospel (St Mk 12:38-44) gave as much as she could, and Jesus contrasts this with the legalistic scribes and Pharisees. Most of us get stuck, as Plato suggested, on the externals, the forms (i.e." religiosity"), and forego or forget the essence ("true religion" which is deeper worship and love). Many give from their excess-what is left-over, but how many give from their loving abandonment? The Poor Widow gave from all she had. Do you give from the heart like the Poor Widow or from the hip-pocket book or wallet like a savage capitalist? Give generously of your time, talent and treasure.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi