“He don’t know it, but he’s balding–spiritually.”
Yes, I’m a fan of the Kids in the Hall, and this is one of my favorite sketches, perhaps because it is so quirky. Bass players are not flashy: they keep the beat; they blend in; they get the job done. My impression is that most people only pay attention to the bass when it’s really loud or time for “the bass solo.” Whenever I listen to music, my ears instinctively try to sift out the bass notes (but this does not mean I like dubstep or house or other such tripe). There’s a meekness about bass players, a quiet power, and their excellence shows precisely in their unflappable non-flamboyance. Everybody goes gaga for an incendiary lead guitarist or an explosive drummer, but it’s one of my little life lessons that the weaker the bass, the weaker the music. Too many bands get by on the fumes and sparks of gimmicky guitar riffs or costume rock (GWAR, anyone?).
The lowly bass player only has four strings and a much narrower range of pitch in which to show his creativity, yet it is precisely in these limitations that his creativity shines even brighter. As Goethe wrote,
Wer Großes will, muß sich zusammenraffen;
In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister,
Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben.
(Whoever wants greatness must remain within himself;
Within limitations the master shows his hand,
and only the law can give us freedom.)
The strictures imposed on a bass player do not mean that a bass player can’t wow the audience (Charles Mingus and Bela Fleck, anyone?) or light up his little corner of the stage (Flea, anyone?). It just means that his four-string saber must always remain close to his body and he must always keep the band on the beat. There is strength in meekness, and a beauty in steadfastness.
Not surprisingly, I like popes to be like bass players. For a while, the grandstanding improv and feedback that Pope Francis was putting out there not only gave me a splitting spiritual headache, but also seemed to be a travesty against the “performance” of the Catholic symphony. It is the increasing sense of steadfastness in Pope Francis’s magisterium which gives me hope, even as it signals his decline into being “just another pope.” As he morphs from a gallivanting lead guitarist or a frenetic drummer into the mighty meekness of a bass player–the one who keeps the whole crew in harmony–according to Pew research, we may be witnessing the decline and fall of “the Francis effect.” It may sound perverse, but this is heartening news for me. As people gradually start to realize that the Church is much, much bigger than Pope Francis as a man, they are at least being faced with an honest choice: Do I want to know Jesus Christ in His Church or do I just like being affiliated with Pope Francis in the limelight?
Today the pope has struck a huge bass note by releasing his first apostolic exhortation, and boy is it a doozie. At over 50,000 words (or 224 pages, according to Vatican Radio), Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) should put a significant speed bump in the path of sound-biters. I’m delighted to learn, care of Rorate, that St. Thomas is cited more in Evangelii Gaudium alone than in all of Pope Benedict’s writings. This is the preeminent duty of the pope: to feed the faithful with clear teaching that harmoniously draws upon the Sacred Tradition–in other words, to play bass so that everyone can perform and sing in harmony and confidence.
“In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister.” It was precisely in being “confined” to our humanity that God showed His sovereignty, and by being “stuck” on the Cross that He unveiled His glory. It takes humility to play the bass, and I am truly thankful for the humility which Pope Francis is showing by letting his charisma be swept up into, and thus somewhat muffled by, the larger duties of the papal office.
I’ve already received a few indications from various sources that there is some serious grist for “the sound bite wars” in Evangelii Gaudium, but I won’t have a thing to say about the exhortation until I’ve read it in full. I did the same with the Spadaro and Scalfari interviews, but this time around I’m not only much better braced for head-scratchers, but also believe Pope Francis is steering clear of the usual “off-the-cuff” hijinks.
P.S. The Vatican has released a reader’s guide of sorts, which Whispers calls the “liner notes,” so if the whole exhortation is too daunting to read right now, you might just want to read the official summary [“TRADUZIONE IN LINGUA INGLESE”].