"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.
Thanks also for your last comment, Katie! I find it truly exceptional to find someone in whom I can confide – not just about others, but also about my own dark side – without judgment, while finding true understanding (I have one such friend). With her I find not only a lack of “boxing”, but a reading which is so open to the truth and therefore to be corrected, that I can get through her to the bottom of a complicated situation which would otherwise have escaped my understanding. It takes great charity and openness to the truth –and also great humility. For I often find that one wants to bring something down to one’s own experience, to be able to “nail” it, and to pride oneself in having been of help to the other. Empathy, in contrast, allows one to enter the other’s experience, even if it is completely other than my own; and humility permits me to say that for some reason I have a hard time understanding something though I do grasp and empathize with the other’s great pain.
By the way, Simone Weil spoke about “non-lecture” (non-reading) as a goal, where the person focuses with full attention on the object of perception, leaving all prejudices behind, and lets herself be stripped of all expectations and quick judgments, while waiting patiently on a fuller discloser of the other (or of the mystery, problem, paradox etc. looked at). My guess is that her concept of “reading” is a mix of the way you understand reading and boxing. Interestingly she makes the point that tyrants try to make others read the world, each other and themselves like they do, while slaves are forced to take on their master’s perspective. Only somebody who lets go of power or “force”, as she termed it, allows the other the space to take the world in on his own terms. Non-reading includes a suffering, a letting go, for patience comes from “pati”, to bear – and this means going through a dark night, of not being able to find the quick meaning I’d like to have to control the situation. The Cross, it seems, is always at the center of love this side of eternity.
Thanks for your comment, Jules! Yes, I think it’s a very good idea to distinguish between “reading” and “boxing”. It can still be painful for me to notice that another is reading me wrongly (through his reactions, comments, even if they are charitable). But I don’t feel pinned down, boxed or frozen by this; it doesn’t impinge potentially on my freedom in the same way and it is not at all as painful. It doesn’t contain any sin as such (it is simply due to the human condition to have a limited vision of the other) as boxing does, though it too can be shaped by our attitudes. When the other reads me more positively than I think is true, this can give me wings to grow and conform more to what I am called to become.
Your distinction, as you rightly say, also makes the difference between confiding and gossip clearer: in the one case, it’s a testing of one’s reading (as well as finding some support to bear the inflicted pain better), while in the latter case the purpose is to spread my negative thoughts and to box the other further through another’s judgment.
The distinction between "reading" and "boxing" also sheds light on the discussion between you and Katie about the legitimacy of confiding in others. Part of the reason for confiding is to test and adjust one's own read of persons and situations. But this confiding turns into mere gossip or venting as soon as it becomes a mere matter of spreading my negative read to others and infecting the larger community with it.
Thanks for this insightful post, Marie. Katie has been telling me to read it ever since it went up, but, knowing it required my full attention, I didn't get to it until yesterday. Very challenging stuff indeed! More a matter for self-examination than for further discussion. (Like some of Kierkegaard's writings.) I especially appreciate the way you bring out the motives of pain-avoidance and control, and also your explanation of how boxing others impinges on their inner freedom. I have never heard that point mentioned in connection with this issue.
I also think the word "boxing" well chosen. It is much more descriptive and less ambiguous than "judging". Perhaps it would also help to distinguish more clearly between "having a read" and "boxing". The former is both natural and helpful. It is only when a "read" turns into a "box" that it becomes a problem. That's when it becomes incorrigible, i.e. stops being responsive to the ever-unfolding truth and reality of the other. That's also when it freezes the other in time and goes against hope and charity.
In an era where women have to support men to provide for the household, headship should be as co-equals and co-partners. Man as the provider cannot cover all of the bills and she is forced by circumstances to help, then power should be equal. Also, my husband likes me to perform sex with him on live camera with other’s online---which I disobeyed. He likes porn. I also disobeyed. My husband doesn't like it when I go to church, or read the Bible or any other spiritual pursuit. I have not obeyed. He also wants open sexual relationships with other women. I still don't obey. Yet, I have to go out and help him provide for our household? Shouldn't I stay home and take care of the house while obeying all of his demands? Now what? The women are subject to obeying these unholy desires of her spouse? "Wives, be subject to and obey your husband in EVERYTHING?" But every male or spouse doesn't live up to, "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church." Christ died for the Church and gave Himself for it. Not one utter of a word mention from men here.
I have a few friends who have this beautiful gift of being able to listen to my pain, fully sympathize and enter into the wrong of the injury done, and at the same time constantly encourage me to a deeper level of conversion and faith.
They make me want to learn to be like that. The more I live life, the more I learn the importance of listening and receptivity in friendship, and the more I discover how few people—even very devout Christians—are able to achieve it.
It's all about that deep personalist insight articulated by Newman: Each person is "an abyss of individual existence."
The temptation to ego-centrism is almost overwhelming. And yet, in truth, we cannot thrive as selves unless we learn to genuinely open ourselves to the mysterious reality of others.
Empathizing genuinely with his pain, saying that it was wrong what the other did (if this is the case) are truly helpful to the hurt person; this doesn’t mean we need to agree with his condemnation of the other, if any. But getting this right is not easy.
Therefore when Mother Teresa said she’d never been guilty of judging another, this showed her level of sanctity. It takes great self-knowledge, humility and willingness to embrace the sufferings inflicted by others to be able to do so.
I think it’s already a very good step to discern whom we can trust with our “venting” (trust not just that the other won’t betray our confidence, but that he is a person with wisdom, who can truly listen, distinguish the pain from the judgment, and will still love us warts and all) , limit it to very few people, and know that together with our pain a good deal of nastiness and vindictiveness will also show themselves, which could become the path to greater humility.
The role of confidant is a difficult one as well. The two main temptations are to either judge the one venting, not allowing him to unburden himself by a “holier than thou” attitude, and thereby not letting the truth come to light as to what has been done to him (thereby creating greater hurt); the other is to chime into the condemnation of the “guilty” party, thereby hardening the heart of the one venting, and confirming his judgment about the other.
"But I feel constantly the difficulty of discerning when my "voicing the pain" is a genuine, valid and wholesome working-through the injury, and when it's an indulgence—one that makes it harder for both me and my confidant to stay focused on good.
I feel it, too, when I'm the confidant."
That’s a hard one, Katie. I’m with you on this.
But I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head, when you said:
“It's not enough not to break the law. What is wanted is an interior transformation.”
It’s not enough wanting to get it right. It takes a profound inner transformation. If we don’t realize that this is necessary, we are like the person who thinks that by jumping up continuously he will one day be able to fly (an analogy used by Simone Weil regarding the moral life). Until and as that transformation happens, all we can do is try, and as we try, get it wrong, sin, repent, and try again.