"This is really neat!" wrote Michael Wallacavage, as he sent around a link to this fascinating clip of Eric Whitacre's virtual choirs. Watch it, and I think you'll agree.
The singing starts at 6:27 and then again at 12:12 on the timeline. But don't skip what comes before! Whitacre's introduction is very interesting and engaging. He not only talks about the project itself, how it came about and so on, but also explains how he got interested in classical music. As a youth, his dream was to be a pop star. (He wanted to be the fifth member of Depeche Mode. Remember them?). But when he got to college he joined a choir instead. Not for love of music, mind you, but because it included a free trip to Mexico and the soprano section was full of "hot girls."
But then, Boom!, during the very first day of practice, as the choir launched into the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem, he had a profound and life changing experience:
My entire life I had seen in black and white and suddenly everything was in shocking technicolor. The most transformative experience I've ever had. In that single moment, hearing dissonance and harmony, and people singing, people together, the shared vision, and I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself.
Wow. I love it. What a powerful testimony to the influence of great music on the human soul.
Whitacre's experience contains, in a concentrated and intensified form, elements that are found in any deep encounter with value and beauty. I'll try to draw out a few of them, and hope you'll add your own reflections in the comment section.
Whitacre's experience opened his eyes to the depth, richness, and significance of reality. It wasn't merely a different perspective, it was a deeper one. What previously seemed humdrum and ordinary is now revealed for what it really is. All of a sudden, everything has color and meaning, including (though Whitacre does not say so explicitly) his own life and what he decides to do with it.
This doesn't mean that everything is honky dory. All of reality is revealed in technicolor. Not just the things that are noble and lovely, but also those that are ugly and painful. And yet, if the experience went deep enough, I suspect it also inspired a certain confidence that light is stronger than darkness, and that it has the final word.
It's worth underlining that the experience of a single thing of beauty, in this case Mozart's Kyrie, does not just affect one's perception of that one thing, but spills over onto everything else as well. In that way the experience of beauty is truly eye and soul opening. It improves our general ability to see and respond to value.
Whitacre's experience is also transformative. It does not just change his perspective, it changes him. That is why he is now a classical composer and conductor instead of a pop star. The change in his career is a reflection of a deep change in his person.
And note the manner in which beauty works these changes: not through force, or by leaving him with no other option, but by affecting his heart, and inclining it in a new direction. Whitacre is not compelled to give up his previous dreams, he wants to do so. The change, though sudden and drastic, is entirely free and organic.
This gentle, natural way in which values exert their influence is one reason they are so important in education. Exposing children to high values is a way of forming and enobling them that goes deeper and is more congenial than other methods of education involving discipline and rules. (Not that the latter can be eliminated altogether!)
Another fact about Whiteacre's experience is that it was totally unplanned and unexpected. Unlikely even. This also is a general feature of experiencing beauty. We can open ourselves to such an experience, and long for it, but we cannot simply decide to have it. If we are going to be swept up into something higher than ourselves, something (or someone) higher will have to do the sweeping.
This powerlessness on our part seems like a bummer. But really it is part of the blessing of beauty. Too much control is stifling and oppressive. Letting go is liberating. Or at least, it can be liberating. Everything depends on whether one is lifted up by something higher or dragged down to something lower than oneself. The former is liberating, the latter enslaving. (As an example of the latter, there's a song I sometimes hear during spinning classes at the YMCA, that challenges the listener to "disconnect from all intellect," "lose this inhibition," "break away from tradition," "get stupid," and so on.)
One last conspicuous feature of Whitacre's experience is that of a deeply felt communion with other people. "People singing," he describes, "people together, the shared vision… I felt for the first time in my life that I was part of something bigger than myself."
This unifying power is something that all genuine goods have in common, and it is related to the soul-opening power I mentioned above. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains this very well:
The human person has an "outer" and an "inner" side. When he is closed off, he touches the other only with his "outer side" and also touches the other from the outside. Something completely new happens as soon as man opens himself, lets his inner side appear and lets it touch the other person. Every experience of being deeply moved by value means such a breakthrough of the inner side, a self-opening of the person towards all others … [T]he crust of indifference, of egoism, and of pride, which forms on the outside of the person and closes him off from the other, melts under the influence of being moved by the world of values, [and] a union with all other persons constitutes itself simultaneously. The breakthrough of the depth of the person who is taken by the embracing rays of the realm of values … is simultaneously a falling away of the separating barriers between persons.
I agree about academic institutions being the best cases available. I think it's something about there being a shared endeavor, plus geographical proximity.
We really miss the comaraderie of college and grad school and professional life in academia.
I guess I'm not ready to give up yet, though, on the possibility of something emerging in the extra-academic world—something that takes due account of all that's been learned through trial and error over the last couple centuries.
Thanks, Katie. I, too, have been preoccupied with this question for the past 25 years, and I've taken note of communities gone bad, as well as a few successful ones. I really have to conclude that communities, like happiness, have to be a side effect of something else, and not, well, "intentional." Another thing I've been watching for 25 years is how Catholic families keep their grown kids Catholic--or how they lose them--and I've concluded that the ones who succeed are the ones who have had larger communities for their children to grow out into when the family is no longer enough.
The best "something else" for a Catholic community to arise from, besides a religious order and its charism, seems to be academic endeavors: Catholic homeschool co-ops and small Catholic schools and colleges. It's why we sent two daughters to Trivium School, even though they could only come home on weekends. It's why we've encouraged our older kids to take on debt if it's the only way they can get a Catholic liberal arts education that won't even get them a good job when they graduate. It's the best we can do, but we're still starving.
Thanks for the response, Devra. It's true that western countries are going to struggle to plead poverty, certainly in the case of food, of which I agree we throw too much away. What I would say is that it's possible to be rich in certain commodities and poor in others.
I would say most wealthy westerners are time poor and energy poor. There are personal choices that might make that easier, but if the working culture is a 50 hour week in one's profession, it takes a strong personality to resist that. These are the people on whom the responsibility falls to help the poor materially, but they are simply exhausted. Paradoxically, it's the more conscientious among them, who might be inclined to do more with the right encouragement, who most resent the implication that they aren't doing enough. Reaching them with the right narrative is a huge challenge.
Rhett, I have read the Tolstoy story--it's a good one. My husband actually used to use it on his business ethics class! It's about how a good man, given the opportunity to own as much land as he can walk around in a day, finds himself "needing" more and more, and...it doesn't end well. I urge everyone to read Tolstoy, who of course tells it better.
The government is so unwieldy and corrupt and beholden to special interests that it will never act like Joseph in Egypt, I don't think. I don't know that it's capable of handling wealth well enough to stockpile for those in need, or for our own future necessities. When it does help those in need, it does so with fictional money, or money borrowed from our great grandchildren, as far as I understand.
What we as individuals can do is also an important question. There are two aspects: being detached from what we do have, and realizing that giving to those in need is an obligation, not something beyond the call of duty. Pope Francis has been "convicting" me (as the Protestants say) on these two points lately.
I do realize it's not that simple--that there are, for example, predators who are getting themselves appointed guardians of children so that they themselves will be allowed to stay. But when you see pictures of toddlers sleeping on the floor of detention centers posted by one side and pictures of malicious-looing older teenagers covered in gang tatoos posted by the other, you wonder whether we can't do better than an all-or-nothing approach.
On the other hand, I realize I'm arguing agaisnt a straw man here, or at least against people other than the ones in this conversation. No one here is saying simply "Go back where you came from," nor are any of us implying that there's an absolute shortage of goods and services to go around. As Katie points out, we still need to address the injustice of law-abiding, taxpaying citizens being accursed of ungenerosity for resisting the burden imposed by those who disregard and break the law.
Also, of course, the ad-hoc lawlessness of the way this is being addressed can only make our country more like the chaotic and dangerous ones that people are fleeing. This is a (presumably) unintended consequence of actions taken in the name of compassion, and the last thing the world needs is more well-intended policies which actually make things worse for their intended beneficiaries and everybody else.
I'm still wondering whether we lack the will or the ability to distinguish between innocent people who would qualify as refugees and people who are obviously gang members or drug dealers or terrorists.
David, that's a fair point, about the distinction between saying "you're not welcome here" and wishing to spread the burden of extra obligations. That's exactly the kind of distinction, in fact, that could help the conversation be more fruitful. The impression you usually get is, on one side, people who generously want to allow poor children to share in our educational and medical resources and, on the other, the "go back where you came from" crowd. The fact that our birth rate in America (and so much of the West) is so unnaturally low makes it especially problematic to talk as if there's just not enough of anything to go around. Following that assumption to its logical conclusion, we'd end up telling all our own "extra" unborn children "you're not welcome here" and "go back where you came from," too. And when we consider how wasteful we, at least in America, typically are with the riches we have, the position becomes even more distasteful. It's said (and it sounds plausible) that the typical American family ends up throwing out 40% of their groceries each week, either because we leave them on the plate or let them go bad.
Shalom Rhett. Thanks for the recommendation. I've not read the story but I'm happy to admit we probably need fewer things and less space than we think we do. At the same time, we do make promises to other people based on what we think we need and what we think they need - those are probably over-estimates, but at the point in time when we've made a promise, people are going to feel let down if it isn't seen through. Okay, if you go too far down that road, you end up with a Salome/Herod scenario - she wants something totally unreasonable, but he's sworn an oath to her and that's all that matters. But - if parents have sent their kids to a school expecting an all english-speaking environment, and suddenly the area becomes popular with immigrants from eastern europe, who are still learning the language, and as a result the teachers have to devote the lion's share of class time to bringing the kids up to scratch, I'm happy saying that's unfair on the parents. They sent their kids to school based on a set of reasonable expecations which haven't been met.