Do you have time for beauty?

Joshua Bell playing in the Metro

Sometimes a news story asks philosophical questions that cause us to stop and think deeply about our lives and the way we lead them.  That’s the case for Pearls Before Breakfast, Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer-prize winning story from the Washington Post in 2007 that is making the rounds again on Facebook – so I finally saw it.

The premise: what would happen if one of the world’s best violinists played some of the world’s best music on one of the best instruments in the world – but in the persona of a street musician in a public place?

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post asked Joshua Bell to carry out the experiment at the L’Enfant Metro station during the morning rush hour on January 12, 2007.   It was captured on video (below) and audio.

They developed contingency plans for crowd control, but not for the big nothing which, in fact occurred.

The essay:  I wonder what Weingarten would have written if the crowd had gathered, if more people had acknowledge the presence, and the beauty, of the music. He must have had something in mind when he proposed the plan to Bell.  As it happened, the lack of response elicited a  deep and insightful reflection about our lives and priorities, but also about the factors that influence our perceptions of the events going on around us.  No one expects to hear an excellent musician playing in the Metro; he lacked “a frame” that highlights the quality and importance of the music, as the National Gallery’s Mark Leithauser said.

Weingarten’s essay masterfully draws us into the topic – why some might not have noticed at all, others noticed but moved on, their thoughts, the realities of their lives.  One person pondered the finances of street musicianship.  Another saw by a clock that he was 3 minutes early for work, spent the entire 3 minutes listening – and then went to work.

Children:  Weingarten reports that every single child who went by tried to stop and listen.  Every one.  Most of them probably didn’t listen to classical music at home, and Bell had chosen pieces that are usually performed for solo violin – not tunes from symphonic pieces that passersby might recognize.   Weingarten speculates that babies are born with a sense of poetry or music – and life “chokes the poetry out of us.”   Perhaps kids are simply curious: they notice just about anything that differs from the routine and want to see more.  Or perhaps children just feel the constraints of the modern world less than adults.

Reification.  Reading Weingarten’s essay with the audio track of Bell’s music playing in the background, something else struck me.  Of those who paused at least for a moment, or who tossed some money into the case, most cited details of their schedules as the reason they couldn’t stop.  John David Mortenson – the guy who spent the 3 minutes – said of the music, “”Whatever it was, it made me feel at peace.” But the schedule of the job was even more real than the feeling of peace, so when the 3 minutes were up, he left.

Our schedules are an idea, a concept, a social convention, an element of agreement reality that we construct among ourselves.  They are not real, neither a force of nature nor any other object we encounter in the real world.  They help us coordinate our actions; they make our world predictable; they enable us to have large interlocking systems the run fairly smoothly.  The schedules that kept everyone moving that day in the Metro were important and useful.  They were not real until the people living by the schedule treated them as real.

Schedules and choices. Most of us have highly scheduled lives; we even have to make choices between two events that overlap.  We speak and act as though these schedules have a force and a life all their own, setting requirements and dealing out consequences.

  • We speak of them in terms of coercion:  “You must be on time for the meeting!”
  • We talk as though they are a force, an actor, present in the room:  “I have to go now, it’s time.”
  • Our idea of our image changes according to the schedule: “I have to look professional for the meeting” or “I’ll look bad if I’m late.”
  • We use the language of slavery and bondage:  “I’m not free at that time.”

Are we free the rest of the time? Many programs for reducing stress and increasing joy and peace in our lives tell us to schedule time for ourselves – whether so that we can continue to be good at our jobs, or just because we’re human beings.  One of the blessings of monastic life is precisely this:  the Horarium schedules time every morning and every evening when we will gather in the Chapel to pray in the same words that have been used for thousands of years, to have minutes of silence to encounter the Mystery larger than ourselves.  Even so, these are still set times with their own demands – I am as likely to say “I have to go to chapel now!” as I am to say “I have to get to class.”

This reification of the schedule hides the choices that we make.  While I’m not suggesting that we toss our calendars in the trash or consider all our appointments  optional, we  have been trained not to respond, perhaps not even to notice, the tug of attraction and curiosity we experience when we encounter something of beauty.  We value painters and photographers who capture some detail or nuance in an everyday setting, praising their ability to really see – but not stopping, even for an instant, when there’s something to see.

Beauty.  In Christian theology – especially among the Orthodox – Beauty is identified with God; all the beautiful things of the earth are reflections of that ultimate Beauty who created them.  God is also Truth – the real, the ultimate.   An encounter with beauty – small b, worldly beauty – is a window into a touch with source of all Beauty, with Truth – with reality.

The sociologist Max Weber referred to bureaucracy and modern life as an iron cage where goals of efficiency, rational control,and  maximized production trap us in a “polar night of icy darkness.”  (Such a cheerful discipline, sociology!) with most of the world now organized according to bureaucratic structures and patterns of interacting with each other, it becomes harder and harder even to find the spot in our hearts that can – outside of its scheduled time – notice beautiful music or a bright flower, and have the freedom to pause and enjoy it.

Sunrise in Duluth January 2010

“Do you have time for beauty?” was one of the questions Weingarten hoped to pose with his experiment.   While it would seem that most people answered “no” or “not much,” Weingarten’s question itself accepted the schedule as a reality – subtly recognizing that time for beauty would have to be taken from elsewhere, even stolen from work.

The experiment posed a deeper question: “Are you free – and aware – to notice beauty?”

The windows on our cloister walk face towards the east.  A few times a year, we will just be leaving the Chapel from morning prayer as the sun comes up.  We face a small version of the question Weingarten’s experiment posed.  Can we stop, with the words of the psalms still ringing in our ears, to see God’s glory that we were praising just a moment ago?  Just like the commuters at L’Enfant station on the Metro, our minds are full of the plans for the day as we go to breakfast – classes, meetings, tasks – and, off to the left, a glorious performance of color and light.  On those mornings, more than a few of us stop to look.

I wasn’t among them when I first came to the monastery.  “Nice for them,” I thought of the older sisters who watched the sun come up, “But I’ve got to do …”  Eventually I noticed that some of the busiest sisters in the monastery were among those who stopped to spend a moment drinking in the beauty.  Then, one day, Sister Cabrini stopped me in the hallway.  “Look,” she said, “isn’t that just magnificent!”

Well, I was a postulant at the time, and Sister Cabrini was the one who had charge of me.  So of course I stopped.  “Aren’t we just the luckiest people to get to see that!!” she said.  And then I looked, really looked.   She was right.   A great artist was painting the most beautiful canvas with the most striking colors, and I was simply ready to pass by.

It’s very hard to stay free to notice beauty.  I learn the lesson repeatedly, only to find myself hurrying past another Joshua-Bell quality sunrise.  Since I’ve had this cell phone, I sometimes step outside and snap a photo  – they look pretty similar – to post as a reminder to myself o the gift of beauty I received – but almost missed – that day.

“A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ” (Lewis Mumford)

(hat tip to Steven Gold whose Facebook posting brought Weingarten’s article to my attention – Thanks!)

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