"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.
And Samwise, thank you for that link! As always for us, Wojtyla's thought is seminal. He nails the key right in the beginning:
The Acting Person does not contain a theory of community, but deals only with the elementary condition under which existence and activity “together with others” promotes the self-fulfillment of the human being as a person, or at least does not obstruct it.
This, in a nutshell, is the difference between sound and dysfunctional community. Wholesome communities promote the the self-fulfillment of the human being as a person; dysfunctional communities tend in practice to subordinate the individual to the whole.
Samwise, I wish Fr. Bob had time for conversations like that. On the other hand, I'm not sure he and I see eye to eye on the subject. My sense of the wrong and dysfunction of the convenant communities is (unless his view has changed in recent years) very different from mine.
Rhett, I, too, noticed that point of Jacques Maritain's, in his introduction to Raissa's Journal. It's come to mind often. He remarks in the same place that even if the initiative dies on the vine, often the friendships it engendered abide. I love that thought, and I have found it to be true in my own experience.
I agree completely that the deepest kind of interpersonal communion cannot be forced. Forced intimacy is one of the mistakes the Covenant Communities made.
One of the things I admire in Newman's description of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, as he understood it and brought it to England, is his unapologetic adoption of the principle of affinity. New members would be admitted on the basis of the other members' sense that they were a good fit for the community.
Of course that principle would have to be guarded against the problem of elitism. How do we limit ourselves and safeguard our specific identity without becoming elitist?
Also, Katie, I highly recommend bringing this subject up with Fr. Bob Oliver! I heard the superior of his order last evening in Minnesota: Br. Ken Apuzo. His order is all about community for both religious and lay members. Brotherhood of Hope and www.ccredeemer.org
None of these communities can be forced and a fortiori the community of the heart. In my experience as a Catholic school teacher, (I judge Catholic Schools to be a community of spirit) I find it absolutely counterproductive when the powers that be try to force the teachers and the students in to a community of heart. This can be encouraged but never forced.
Lastly I would note that religious communities should not be seen too quickly as embodying communities of heart. I was in the Society of Mary (Marianists) for nine years. I love the Society and its mission but, as Katie noted with her college experience, flawed human nature is very much operative there too, sometimes in spades!
Your yearning for the richness of the kind of community experience you had for a period in college reminds me of a comment by Jacque Maritain regarding the study circles he and Raissa had established in France. WW2 broke up the gatherings and Jacque saw this as an example of the fact that “the Holy Spirit is not at work only in the durable institutions which go on for centuries, He is also at work in ventures which vanish overnight and must always be started afresh.”
Regarding communities of deliberate intention, I think it is helpful to differentiate three different kinds of communities: communities of work, e.g. a construction crew building a house. Here just a minimum level of cooperation is needed. Second, there is the community of spirit. Here we have individuals cooperating to create something worthwhile for human kind, e.g. the development of an art museum or philosophical study club. The third type of community is the community of the heart. Here we have the profoundest sharing and enrichment.
I agree about academic institutions being the best cases available. I think it's something about there being a shared endeavor, plus geographical proximity.
We really miss the comaraderie of college and grad school and professional life in academia.
I guess I'm not ready to give up yet, though, on the possibility of something emerging in the extra-academic world—something that takes due account of all that's been learned through trial and error over the last couple centuries.
Thanks, Katie. I, too, have been preoccupied with this question for the past 25 years, and I've taken note of communities gone bad, as well as a few successful ones. I really have to conclude that communities, like happiness, have to be a side effect of something else, and not, well, "intentional." Another thing I've been watching for 25 years is how Catholic families keep their grown kids Catholic--or how they lose them--and I've concluded that the ones who succeed are the ones who have had larger communities for their children to grow out into when the family is no longer enough.
The best "something else" for a Catholic community to arise from, besides a religious order and its charism, seems to be academic endeavors: Catholic homeschool co-ops and small Catholic schools and colleges. It's why we sent two daughters to Trivium School, even though they could only come home on weekends. It's why we've encouraged our older kids to take on debt if it's the only way they can get a Catholic liberal arts education that won't even get them a good job when they graduate. It's the best we can do, but we're still starving.