"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.
Well, maybe you're right. It's an interesting thought. My sense of what's normal among Christians might be distorted by the fact that I've spent so much of my life around what you're calling public Christians.
I wouldn't say it is especially rare among Christians, but it may be rare among public Christians, those who are affected (infected?) by the "culture wars" narrative and envision themselves as courageous warriors against a hostile world. That narrative seems to attract people who value being right (ie. holding the 'right' opinions) as much (and often more) than doing right.
On the other hand, ruthless self-examination and consciousness of one's own faults may actually deter others from taking public or visible roles (or result in those people being actively discouraged).
The authentically humble, I suspect, don't tend to be all that concerned with looking holy or humble or counter-cultural. They are too busy working out their own salvation in fear and trembling. And so they aren't necessarily going to be one of those people or families or groups that make people on the outside say, "I want to be like ____. They've really got it together."
If being able to accept correction is a sign of a trustworthy person, being able to accept correction from someone you are in a position of authority over may be the gold standard.
I agree. At the same time, it seems to me strange that it's so rare among Christians, since it's so basic to the gospel. Humble yourself; the last shall be first and the first shall be last; let him who will be great make himself the servant of all...
This seems to me a major theme of Pope Francis' papacy too. If we want to help others, we have to present ourselves not as righteous ones, explaining to the others where they're wrong, but as sinners who have found help and grace.
I have related this story so many times that I am sure anyone who knows me at all well has heard it, but it made such a lasting impression on me. I was a teen. My mother was concerned about my welfare (I was being uncharacteristically close-lipped), and she knew I had been corresponding with my brother who was away at college. Rather than ask him whether she had anything to worry about (and trust his judgment if he said I was ok), she chose to read my emails to him. When I discovered this, I was furious. We argued about it for a couple of days on and off.
Then Sunday came, and we went to Mass, still angry. And when we came out of Mass, my mother drew me aside and told me, "I was wrong. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"
She humbled herself in prayer, and it led her to recognize the real harm she had done me and our relationship. This blew me away.
I'd say philosophical rather than academic, since the latter term has a negative connotation of "unrelated to life". Also, I'm not an academic. :)
Philosphical of course doesn't mean impractical. When Wojyla wrote his essays on Person and Community, he didn't intend to start a community. Same goes for von Hildebrand's Metaphysics of Community. But both texts have immense value for anyone who might like to form a community.
Then, too, think of all the debate and discussion that preceded the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. Quite a lot of thought about the principles of right governance went into that document, including the thought of men who didn't live to see their ideas realized.
Think of Peter Maurin and his call for "round table discussions" as an indispensable prerequisite for the development of new communities.
Think of the discussions and debates, not to mention all the philosophical and theological texts, that preceded the documents of Vatican II.
The Protestant Reformation began with the 95 Theses...
I don't want to start an intentional community. What I want to do is help articulate and identify the sound principles for intentional community life.
So more of an academic interest then, rather than an immediately practical or action-oriented one? Given that your post contrasted yourself with people who find their family/parish life to provide sufficient community, I find that ... odd? I would rhetorically ask you what the point is, of working out the right way to do something, if you're not planning to actually do it... except I've done that so many times myself, it's not really worth asking.
I was thinking that if you want to start an intentional community without those problems, it might be helpful to know the details of how the attitudes arose in the first place...
I don't want to start an intentional community. What I want to do is help articulate and identify the sound principles for intentional community life. One way to do that is the "via negativa", i.e. examining bad and dysfunctional communities.
So, for example, if a lack of transparency and accountability in the governance of the group is hallmark of dysfunction, it follows that transparency and accountability in governance is among the desiderata for a healthy group.
If control and conformism easily creep in, we will want to find ways of maximizing freedom, and so on.
Since a stress on "roles" for men and women so easily leads to the subordination of the individual to his or her "role," we would want to take care to avoid that.
I've already got several draft posts in the works. One identifying community destroyers, one identifying several models of healthy community, one being to lay out some key principles of sound community.