"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 have the same tendency, Katie. Willing oneself to be joyful backfires, as you say, yet there is a lot of pressure, I find, within certain Christian circles to be joyful. There is, of course, a way of burdening the rest of the world with one's bad mood, which is wrong. Yet putting on an act and faking it is wrong as well. If the smile is not simply a "grimacing", merely a lifting of one's facial muscles, but a response to another person, an expression of love, even if one isn't feeling joyful, then, it seems to me, it is genuine. My smile then is a loving reaching out to another. St Therese of Lisieux was saying how she would smile to a nun each time she saw her though the latter had a difficult character. She probably wasn't feeling joyful inside, but could still radiate real love by deciding to be welcoming to the other, and real joy, because of God's presence in her soul.
The dark night, after all, is not the result of sin, an absence of grace, but rather a presence of God so overwhelming that the soul is blinded. She experiences as darkness what is really an abundance of light and love. God allows this for the good of the soul, even though it is excruciatingly painful. While she may not feel His presence, it can be felt by the persons surrounding her, sensing God’s presence in her.
I've never come across so clear a distinction between this sense of dark night and mere suffering, or so clear an explanation for how Christian joy can coincide with inner anguish.
Reading it, I realize how much my tendency is to feel guilty about not being joyful, and then to "will myself" to be joyful, which of course backfires.
M.C., I've found the book Co-dependant No Morevery helpful and illuminating. There were "recovering alcoholics" in my life growing up, so I'd heard the term. But it it's only recently that I've begun to really look into what it is, and try to understand what it means for personal and interpersonal life. Now lights are going on.
Another great book on the same theme (which I read at Kate's recommendation) is Boundaries.
I know I'm going to spend years working out the relation between the nature of a person as a being "made for her own sake and called to make a sincere gift of herself in love" and the problem of dysfunctional relations, wherein the master/slave dynamic disguises itself as Christian community.
The "master" figure in that situation typically (and unwittingly) teaches those around him to regard their attempts to be a self as "selfish" and otherwise morally and religiously defective. He imagines that by imposing his will on others, he is being a leader and an example. The "slave" figure disguises to herself her lack of courage and strength as humility and service. She imagines that she is being loving and giving.
I've read this and the comments- its given me real food for thought. I thank you! I find I'm still drawn to relationship with persons who tend to replay these dynamics for me. Its difficult to disentangle myself from the desire to be "managed." This in particular rings very true: "the underlying characteristic of most addicts is the deep seated desire to play the 'director' of life's dramas...and continual angst and resentment that others won't learn their lines." I'd add that both recipient and deliverer of this treatment play a role in sinning against the other. I would love a specific reference. This post was written long ago, so maybe, not possible to provide. I shall have to do some research. Lots to read from here, and thanks.
Thanks for your practical insights, Derva. I have been re-searching Maritain's Education at the Crossroads for a maxim that is most relevant to your sharing: "The unbending quality of the the simplest natural truth" . I think it was in the context of manual work.
I once worked with a cabinet maker of sorts and my measurements were off only slightly but it still ruined the work. Despite the fact that I'm a good person there was no pity! It had to be done over!
Despite the fact that Thomas Merton was a man of God, his gentlest touch on an exposed electric wire electrocuted him.
Patrick, I read Brian's article, with great interest. I've heard some responses to it, the gist being that many of the gnostic elements he identifies are not exclusive to gnositicism, and are motifs used by the Church, espeically early on. I found the responses quite convincing, though not entirely. I thought the movie was very thought-provoking, but I do think it's a mistake to let ourselves get sidetracked by lining up as pro- or anti-Noah, or any other movie. Even with something like Passion of the Christ, about which there was a lot more unanimity among Christians, I didn't like the way people were sometimes pressured into seeing it, or the way it was treated as a litmus test.
Yet St. Paul has counseled: "Test everything; retain what is good."
As to the movie itself, or the Catholic 'approach' to it,
"The scandal is this: of all the Christian leaders who went to great lengths to endorse this movie (for whatever reasons: “it’s a conversation starter,” “at least Hollywood is doing something on the Bible,” etc.), and all of the Christian leaders who panned it for “not following the Bible”…
Not one of them could identify a blatantly Gnostic subversion of the biblical story when it was right in front of their faces."
To me, the matter is simple: why do we even need to bother with something like Noah? If it is as described above, and it comes down to entertainment vs. no entertainment (of this variety), I would rather suffer with none. It is just clutter in my soul at that point. Noise.
Kate, thank you! If you do change your mind and see Noah, you'll enjoy it a lot more if you read Fr. Ed Fride's take on it, and Patrick Coffin's, to head off possible misunderstandings. But of course nobody has to see it--I'm even having second thoughts about writing about it, not being someone who thrives on conflict!