"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 for pointing that out Katie. I had not seen that entire quote.
I figured that that's what he meant, though, because of the wording I did read (and cite in my post). Chaput didn't say the Synod was confused, but that the "public image that came across" was one of confusion.
Jules, I love your point and agree with it entirely. But it might be good to add here that the Archbishop seemed to be at least partly blaming bad reporting for the confusion he so lamented.
Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion. Now, I don’t think that was the real thing there.
I think it's yet another case of a false alternative: EITHER you don't care about godless cultural trends OR you pour all your energy into political or activist solutions. There is, of course, a place for politics and activism, but if we don't start by making sure we're headed in the right direction ourselves, there's very little we can do for anyone else, much less the culture at large.
I'm all in favor. I think it's a great gift for the faithful to get to see, in real time, the way the teachings of the Church are worked out in human terms.
It's always been messy. It's always been politically fraught.
The only thing that has distressed me surrounding the Synod is the reaction to it among traditionalists, which has struck me as depressingly faithfuless. (Don't we believe the Holy Spirit is at work? Don't we trust fully that the Church will not fall into error? Don't we really see the Pope as the Vicar of Christ?)
This brings up the next point about doctrines. Doctrines are rules written by human beings. God does not write rules. God can inspire rules and humans can do their best in translating God’s revelation of The Rule into rules but God does not write rules, God is the Rule.
This reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s quote from, A Prayer Journal:
“No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons (p74).”
Through Grace if a person is fortunate enough, the person may experience flashes of God or insights into God, which can remain anchored in the psyche as reference points for reframing the person’s reality.
The term “false gods” is a misnomer for misunderstandings under the One True God. All persons of all religions share the same God and all religions may be operating under misunderstandings unique to the religion. For Catholics, Jesus Christ was the One True God, and having the teachings of Christ at Catholicism’s disposal is a great advantage to encountering the One True God, but this doesn’t mean persons who practice Catholicism are not operating under misunderstandings of the One True God.
This is due to: 1) the inherent problems of translating the teachings of Jesus Christ into a religion and 2) the nature of each person’s unique spiritual potential. There are no such things as “false gods”. There is only God and misunderstandings.
The One True God reins over persons under such misunderstandings the same as He does persons who see Him clearly, persons all of who are subject to God’s Divine Providence.
More specifically and to frame it for the Catholic, these misunderstandings are unresolved aspects of the person stemming from the person’s connection with original sin and either made more convoluted by the free choices of the person or relinquished by freely choosing to surrender to God one’s unresolved aspects stemming from original sin, thereby removing the obstruction to God to the extent possible for the person and thus increasing the person’s awareness of God.
These kinds of misunderstandings are the obstructions to seeing and experiencing true spiritual power. As a Catholic, you could say we all have these misunderstandings to a certain degree so that even the “god” that Catholics refer to falls short of the Real Thing and thus even Catholics may worship “false gods” and have misunderstandings.
Persons don’t have “false gods” they have misunderstandings, those of which persons with other “false gods” or misunderstandings call “false gods”.
The term “false god” is oxymoronic and the notion of a “false god” is an empty one. There is no objective metaphysical reality in existence besides the One True God. God is complex and has many mysterious qualities and attributes that persons have attributed separate, distinct and objective metaphysical realities apart from God to, but any of these that can truly be attributed to God are derivative of the One True God and are merely references to the One True God’s spiritual powers by degree and kind.
Anything else that cannot truly be attributed to God that someone may call a metaphysical reality is a misunderstanding attributed to the limited awareness of the person. Examples of misunderstandings attributed to the limited awareness of persons are demons and/or ghosts; these are not objective metaphysical realities. They are real in the sense that they can be dangerous and destructive to persons who experience them and to others who find themselves in their path, but they are merely misunderstandings and have no bearing against the spiritual powers of God.