When I first saw a trailer for Bohemian Rhapsody, I could barely contain my excitement. Of course I enjoy the anthemic music of the classic rock band Queen and, like anyone, have been known to participate in the obligatory stomp-stomp-clapping and head-banging that goes along with their songs – participation that is almost a part of the music itself. I certainly think the band is killer. Plenty of discussion could be made about whether they are the greatest band ever, but if I’m being honest, the band and their music are not what made me so excited. What propelled my enthusiasm (and still blows my mind) is the fact that there is a real, living person in this world that would be playing the part of Freddie Mercury. How can a person imitate such a staggering icon? Who could imitate his stadium-filling vocal force with all the charisma and bravado of a true, undeniable, through-and-through rock star if there ever was one?
I finally found some time to watch the movie, and as far as entertainment goes, it was thrilling. Maybe it was that Rami Malek did a great job (his voice was not disappointing), or it could have been the re-enactment of the legendary Live Aid performance that occupied the final 20 minutes, but the movie was such an exciting experience for me that I left the movie theater and had to keep myself from strutting like a rock star and ending every sentence with “darling” and being all-around overly dramatic. Needless to say, I’ve been listening to a lot of Queen music for the last week.
Now, I don’t know the true story of Queen, or the details of Freddie’s promiscuous rock-n-roll lifestyle, or the intent of the filmmakers in focusing on the theme of his sexuality throughout the movie; there are probably plenty of blogs you can find that detail any of those topics. I could perhaps write about the pressures of glory and what it does to a man and his relationships. I could spend time assessing the sin and vice that permeates the life of so many celebrities of that archetype. I could commentate on how the movie portrays homosexuality and how that portrayal may or may not have been influenced by our world’s current view on the topic.
What I will write about, though, is the image of the performer, because that itself is what drew me in so powerfully! In my experience with music or acting or even leading retreats, I’ve felt myself come alive while I’m on the stage; the spotlight, the crowd, the applause! Part of me is always hoping that I could be the center of attention, performing, showing the world that I’m the funniest, the most talented, the best of all.
I think the root cause of it is a desire for affirmation, that what I’m doing is good. This is something I believe all of us have experienced to some extent. And this affirmation and recognition is often a good thing, in fact a very good thing. It can push someone to accomplish great things. Positive encouragement can provide the groundwork for accomplishments that are truly worthy of praise. For me this comes through performance, but for others it might be seeing others enjoy an event they planned, or the success of their basketball team, or a perfect grade-point average, or even something as simple as an intentional “thank you” from one friend. It gives a sense of accomplishment, and one can say, “I did something good,” and here’s the proof: the affirmation and recognition!
However, when receiving praise becomes the goal of any of our actions, we begin treading into the territory of vanity. Like any other sin, vanity will never leave us fulfilled. Even Bohemian Rhapsody showed the negative impact that vainglory had on Freddie’s life. It didn’t shy away from the loneliness that the superstar felt amidst the crowds of fans and their empty “love” for him, or the self-inflicted abandonment of those that truly cared about him. And yet, while he was singing his songs with the band, I repeatedly found myself thinking, “I want to do that.” But, why? For my own glory? To feed my own ego? That’s not what we should seek, right? After all, shouldn’t our goal be the goodness of the thing itself? In fact, the greatest things are often accomplished in silence.
Let’s look at St. Joseph. What marks St. Joseph against all other inspirational and holy (even divine) characters in Sacred Scripture is his continuous, resolute, and unbroken silence. Never was a single word of his written down for us to read. Not once did Tradition make an effort to remember any sound uttered from his lips. Nowhere can we find a single line of advice from this icon of humility about how we ourselves may become humble. He decides to divorce Mary quietly (Matt. 1:19). He brings Mary to Bethlehem and the inn is too crowded (Luke 2:7), so they go to the stable: someplace secluded, and lonely, and silent. It was St. Joseph that fled with his family from Herod in the night (Matt. 2:14). It was probably a silent night. How many other things could St. Joseph have been responsible for that we have no record of at all?
And God himself comes to us in silence: “Then the Lord said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lordーbut the Lord was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake一but the Lord was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fireーbut the Lord was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound.” (1 Kings 19: 11-12)
When we think of heroes, we can picture the soldier at the front of his army shouting a battle cry, or the coach of a sports team giving an inspirational speech, or the charismatic frontman of a rock-and-roll band with unrivaled vocal talent. St. Joseph was never recorded to have said anything, yet he has been called the Terror of Demons. Demons flee from him and are terrified by him not because of his great battle cry or grand accomplishments or glamorous fame, but because of his constant and unbroken silence.
Queen had to sell their van to record their first demos; not even a full album! They ended up being “good enough” and made it big. Today, it is much easier to produce music, or writing, or art, or anything, and it seems like anybody can be a star at anytime. Someone could create a YouTube channel and be known across the country without leaving his living room. It is so often our own goal to get as many likes, follows, subscriptions, and so on as we can. In this age of posts and memes and Internet stardom, I’m reminded of a quote by G.K. Chesterton: “Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”
I like to think of humility as a silent virtue, and the thought comes to me that maybe the most holy men and women to come out of our generation will be the ones that simply slip by; unheard, unseen, unnoticed. I’d like to think that I have met some of our modern Saints, and I’d like even more to think that maybe I haven’t met them at all. Maybe heaven will soon be crowded with the glorious presence of those who never saw a shadow of glory in this world. Maybe our generation’s Saints are silent.