"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.
One of my pet peeves is the nostalgia so many conservatives express for arranged marriages, which generally goes hand in hand with an identification of "western style" marriages with the "whatever feels good" romanticism of contemporary pop culture. That's better described as secular than western.
In any case, what we should aim for, it seems to me, is the realization of the Christian ideal of marriage, which includes both romantic love and indissolubility.
Another point: Those self-help books can contain quite a lot of practical wisdom.
I'm really glad that couple found each other again. What a beautiful story.
Great article, she makes some beautiful points, as do you. I have nothing against candor, and I know the HF's heart is in the right place on Catholic teaching. That being said, I do think candor and caution can go hand in hand. He could convict those of us who need convicting without causing pain amongst lovely faithful non-hardened Catholic women (and men). That's my thought; I know prudence is an unsexy virtue but I am coming to appreciate it more and more as I age, having so little of it myself by nature. God bless you and your fine work, Katie, and thanks for a civil and enlightening discussion. Can I ask your prayers as my 17 year old daughter Margaret and I head to Benedictine College today for a visit? Have a great day-- Nancy
Personally, I like his mode of "incaution". I think it's doing a lot of great good, including by exposing the lack of love and faith on "my side" of the cultural divide in the Church. Those of us who have always been faithful to her teachings are (like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son) apt not to notice when our hearts are gradually becoming hard or proud or complacent.
Startling and/or challenging words from the Holy Father can (and should) prompt a fresh self-examination in us. I know I've been convicted more than once by him.
And boy does it delight in using incautious phrasings as sticks to beat the faithful with. I'm not saying the Holy Father is to blame for the world's disingenuousness, but that his high office demands he be aware of it and be more cunning when he speaks. But yeah, I could wish folks could be more restrained in their commentary on both "sides" (I don't mean you, I think your tone is exemplary). It's probably a result of the exhaustion we all feel at fighting the world all the blessed time.
Thanks Katie- I wasn't at all hurt by what you said, I alway think you are measured and charitable and I knew what you meant. I feel I should clarify one thing: my concern isn't so much for the lady he made an example of, though without further information his words about her do seem a bit harsh. No, I meant the ladies from whom I'm hearing, also on Facebook, who are exactly or nearly exactly in this woman's position and are feeling the sting of his comments, and to many of whom these comments are being cast in their faces, by unkind family and acquaintances alike, as "proof," from the Pope no less, of their own irresponsibility. It's tough, because though you and I may take the time to carefully interpret the Holy Father's words and meanings, the world won't.
Ack, Nancy! I hadn't meant that last comment to be a direct response to you. I should have made that clear. It was more a response to friends who have been commenting on facebook, including saying things like the Pope's comment was "disgusting" or a fiasco. I want more people to know how many Catholic couples are suffering in silence, either because they have misunderstood Church teaching, or because fellow Catholics are judging them unjustly.
As for your concern about that woman, I can see what you mean, but I sincerely doubt it was like that. I mean, I think it's perfectly likely that she felt helped and reassured, not judged by the Pope when he spoke with her.
If his experience of their interaction was entirely positive, then there would be nothing wrong with his referring to it when making a more general point. It's the sort of thing priests and public speakers and writers do all the time to make their meaning clearer.
Katie, I absolutely agree there has been a need to say something exactly for women like ths one you quote; I am a woman in a similar situation, facing more than one autoimmune disease that could put me out of commission permanently without caution. My quibble is with using a specific example which can cause as much pain in some cases as it may relieve in others. I don't doubt the benignity of the Holy Father's intent, and I often thank Heaven I am not in any such position myself due to foot in mouth disease, but when you're the Pope, you've got to be more careful. This just didn't happen with JPII or B16. Of course, not everybody's strong suit is prudence... *raises hand*