"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.
It becomes an even bigger problem when people assume that good Catholics conform to traditional gender roles. Thus, the woman who decides to have a career, remain single without religious vocation, or marries but keeps her maiden name, feels at odds with Catholicism with no reason to be.
In addition to roles, I'm glad you mentioned tendencies. I've spoken to a number of women who have been through a disordered purity talk at some point in their lives. While the purity talk for men directly confronts our urges, the talk for women oftentimes consists of "You need to dress modestly so as not to make life hard for your brothers." This would be fine, I suppose, if the talk continued on to address a woman's urges, but it stops there. The assumption seems to be that, since men generally struggle more with lust, that lust is a man's problem and women don't need to worry about it. The generalization is not unfounded, as the sex industry is primarily catered to men for a reason. The problem is treating a generalization like a universal, and an even bigger problem is, as you said, treating a tendency as a moral imperative.
No, just about everyone knows we need relationships. I will be thinking about how to express what I'm trying to say more clearly as I take care of some urgent things around here, because I want to do this discussion more justice than I can right now. Bis bald!
Maybe I live in a bubble. But I know lots of people who think being Catholic (for instance) means "you have to stay in relationships" and that all concern for authenticity is a modernist cover for egocentrism, that annulments are nothing but ephemisms for divorce, and that if you're a mother it means that you "role" is to be a fulltime housewife, and so on and so forth.
I haven't met anyone who thinks we don't need relationships.
I know they're out there, but I don't come across them.
Kate, yes, I was always struck by Karol Wojtyla's distinction between humanl acts and "acts of man": acts that emerge from your free center, and things that you do but that are just physiological or instinctive or reactive--acts that are "automatic" in some way, and don't fully involve your freedom.
The feminist ideas that Maggie Gallagher was writing against did have a large grain of truth. As we've been talking about here lately from many angles, for a long time, there definitely are people and relationships and cultures and mentalities that you do have to separate yourself from to find out who you even are, and to initiate action that really comes from your own free center.
Where many people go wrong, it seems, is in seeing the core of each person as totally unrelated to relations with other subjects. It's as if they think: if it's a relationship, it's not a reality, but just something that's "in your head" or something that belongs to the realm of feelings, understood in the most superficial and reductive sense.
As someone who has had a lot to learn about personal authenticity, I have more sympathy (I think) than a lot of conservative Catholics—certainly more than I used to have myself—for the contemporary ways of talking about about the self.
I mean, I understand now in ways I didn't used to, for instance, that "me time" is something I need. I used to scorn the idea as selfish. "All of me and my time belongs to God and my husband and children." I didn't understand that this was a neglect of my own humanity.
I had to learn not to be driven by my "role" as wife and mother, and so on. I hadn't realized how alienated from myself I was, and how artificial many of my ideas of what I ought to do and be were.
I had to learn to "taken possession of the land" that is my self—take responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, acts, limits, etc.
Part of this entailed a discovery that some of my relationships weren't real.
Sometimes I think that the "who you are" in "become who you are" refers to our acting and being--which are inalienable, really. So it's not really that we can ever be not ourselves, but we are less than fully ourselves when we abdicate responsibility for our actions, when we re-act rather than act, when we choose by failing to choose.
Which mean, I guess, that I am as fully myself in relationship as I am in a role or function, so long as I am fully present to the choices and persons around me, and fully choose to act out of my own gifts, abilities, and call to virtue. If I use a social construct, relationship, function, or even a 'vocation' as a prop, a layer of insulation against the terrible call to own my own actions and respond rightly to the goods around me, then they can be obstacles to my full development as "who I am."
I remember when Jen Fulwiler wrote about realizing that the best 'me time' is the kind that reinvigorates--which tends to be active: creation, exercise, service, self-development. These are responses to the goods in ourselves, the world, and others.
In the case of the apostolate I mentioned that I used to support financially, I twice sent emails expressing my concern. I got no answer. Then I noticed on facebook that many others shared my concern. The public outcry became strong enough that the head of the organization wrote about it. He didn't just defend his organization, he touted the Christian heroism of its members. He didn't just disagree with the critics, he chastized them for their lack of charity.
That's when I determined to disengage, which is to say (in this case), stop sending them money.