The older I get, the more tangibly aware I become of God’s presence through beauty. Among the world’s beautiful things, music is perhaps the most powerful and the most difficult to resist for even the most hardened un-believer. It releases a wellspring of longing in the soul that can’t be contained or denied.
One of my favorite movie quotes comes from the film The Soloist, based on the true story of a homeless musical savant named Nathaniel Ayers. An LA Times reporter named Steve Lopez discovered and befriended him, and the popular newspaper columns he wrote about their experiences together were eventually published in book form. Although Ayers never fully overcame the mental problems he struggled with, their friendship changed both men forever. The film takes some liberties with Lopez’s character, but the core story remains utterly compelling. In this scene, Steve and Nathaniel receive private access to an orchestral rehearsal at Disney Hall. As they sit and listen together, Nathaniel closes his eyes, enraptured, seeing the music in his mind as only he can. When Lopez tries to describe the experience later that night in a karaoke bar, he’s lost for words. He shouts over the din, “If you had seen him, if you could have felt him… I’m watching him, he’s watching the music, and while they’re playing, I say ‘My God, there is something higher out there! There is something higher!'”
He’s far from the only one to be so surprised by joy. Just ask Billy Joel to tell you about his encounter with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
As Billy tells the story, it was around Easter time, “which is one of those ‘holy’ times of year, you know?” He was in his car, moving slowly through traffic on a rainy, “gloomy” day. Flicking on the radio, he heard the “Adagio” coming over the airwaves, one of the most famous and most sad pieces of classical music. As he listened, something began to come over him:
I hear this music and it goes like this [begins to play it on synths]. Now this is a piece called the “Adagio for Strings.” It’s one of the saddest pieces ever written… and it builds and it builds, and I’m short-cutting it here, I’m not playing it right… and it builds to this peak [plays it]. And as it gets to that peak, the sun shoots out of the clouds, it stops raining… the traffic clears up, I had to pull over! I pull over to the side of the road, and I burst out crying. And I’m saying, “What’s happening to me?” I lost control, I just lost it. What happened?
Maybe there’s part of an answer in the rest of that conversation from The Soloist. Of the “higher” thing, Lopez continues, “I’ve never even experienced it, but I can tell! I don’t even know what you f—ing call it!”
The woman he’s speaking to (his ex-wife in the film) smiles and says “Grace.” It’s lost in the noise. “What? What is it?”
“All right! That’s grace?”
Herewith, a bit of grace.[Note: For my expanded thoughts on grace and transcendent beauty in The Soloist, click here. There I also discuss a short film project I created pairing it with the Marc Cohn rarity “One Thing of Beauty,” the last link below.]