Thursday, February 25, 2010

More on Blind Hikers of the Appalachian Trail


And here's a quotation from Bill Irwin's book BLIND COURAGE:

"I had never encountered anything like the A.T. It took me to the very edge of physical and mental exhaustion almost every day. No matter how much strength I had in the morning, it was completely gone before I reached that day's destination.

I guess the Lord put me on the Trail with my blindness to let other people see what He could do. My job was to show up for work every day and walk as far as He gave me strength to walk. God needed a weak man for that job, somebody who had to depend on Him for every step. Some people feel that the Apostle Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' was failing eyesight. A few scholars think that, later in his life, he may have been almost blind. No one knows for sure what it was, but he walked a lot of miles with that 'thorn.'

Maybe it was that his toenails had fallen off, just like mine."


He fell 3,000 times total--and got up again 3,001--wilderness tenacity!


Vision Quest: Blind Thru-Hiker Trevor Thomas Vision Quest: Blind Thru-Hiker Trevor Thomas
By Jedd Ferris • March 30, 2009

What others are reading: IT TAKES A STRONG WILL to fall 78 times and keep getting back up. But that’s just what Trevor Thomas did on one of the last days of his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Last October, Thomas became just the second blind person to hike the entire A.T. The first was Bill Irwin, who completed the trail in 1990.

In 2004, a rare degenerative eye disease started taking Thomas’ sight. But Thomas refused to let blindness interfere with his dream of walking 2,175 miles through the woods. Thomas, from Charlotte, N.C., needed to follow other hikers to be able to hike the trail, and fortunately he found a regular group of hikers willing to help him through the first part of the trail. But as fellow hikers started dropping out later in the journey, he started relying on Boy Scout troops, day hikers, or anyone else he could find. By the end, he was bruised and battered but also renewed by a spirit of adventure that transcends what can only be seen.

Blue Ridge Outdoors: What made you want to attempt a thru-hike?
Trevor Thomas: In my sighted life, I was always into extreme sports—from backcountry skiing and mountain biking to parachuting. When I was going blind, those things kept being taken away from me. It felt like my world was getting smaller, and that caused a good bit of depression. Then, one of my friends took me to see Erik Weihenmayer speak. He’s the first blind guy to climb Everest, and he had a similar eye disease. I decided that if he could do Everest, I could do something too.

BRO: What happened to your no-show hiking partner?
TT: I met a friend of a friend through the National Federation for the Blind, who trained seeing eye dogs. He would have been perfect, but at the last minute he couldn’t come. He did try to call me on my cell phone, but I had no reception. I went down to the trailhead and started asking people if I could follow their footsteps. Twenty-three people said no before someone finally said yes.

BRO: How did other people on the trail embrace you?
TT: There was a certain group that didn’t want to have anything to do with me, because they didn’t want to be responsible for getting the blind guy killed. That was a small percentage. Ninety-nine percent of the people were willing to hike with me or get water for me. I especially needed help stopping in the towns along the trail and restocking groceries, and more often than not, people were willing to help. I would recommend doing this to any blind person.

BRO: describe your hiking process.
TT: I used trekking poles instead of a cane. The poles were my eyes. I scanned the trail and found rocks with them, and I used them to make sure I was on the trail. Along the way, I learned to stay on the trail by feeling the actual ground under-neath my feet.

In Virginia I tried hiking alone, because I want-ed to have some time by myself. I developed an elaborate system where there would be people in front of me and people behind me. If for some reason I came to an intersection that made me unsure, I would stop and wait for the people coming from behind, and they would direct me. Also, if a section up ahead seemed too difficult, the people up front would stop and wait. I did 300 miles solo. That’s where I felt the most amount of accomplishment.

Thomas’ Injuries
1 Foot fracture

1 Head gash closed with Super Glue

2 Broken trekking poles

4 Broken ribs

8 Hospital visits*

78 Most falls in one day

3,000 Times falling total

* including 1 visit to a veterinary clinic in Nowhere, Maine, when he couldn’t find anyone else to treat his injuries

BRO: Was there ever a moment when you doubted you could finish?
TT: There were a lot of those. One of the first times I hiked alone was right after Dragon’s Tooth going over McAfee knob. I made it nine miles by myself and then nearly walked off the side of a cliff. Someone heard me moving around off-trail and yelled for me to stop. I came within three feet of going off the knob.

When I hit the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, there was a day when I fell 78 times, and I almost drowned during three of the river crossings. There was a moment when I was sitting in a shelter by myself freezing to death when I didn’t think I could finish the last 60 miles. That was my darkest hour.

BRO: What advice did you get from Bill irwin?
TT: His biggest piece of advice to me was: don’t quit. He said, “You’re going to hate five out of seven days. It’s going to be too cold, too hot, or too something. But the days out of the week when it’s gorgeous are what you live for. And if you’re going to quit, don’t do it spur of the moment. Stop and think about it for at least three days.”

BRO: how did the trail change you?
TT: It was the most amazing experience of my entire life. The trail has changed me for the better. I’ve learned to not take things for granted. I value things by what they weigh and how it will feel on my back, as opposed to how much stuff I can accumulate in my house.

BRO: What’s next?
TT: I want the Triple Crown. I’m leaving in 2010 to make an attempt at the Pacific Crest Trail. If I can figure that one out, then I’ll do the Continental Divide.


from Martin Laird's INTO THE SILENT LAND


regarding prayer:

" [learning to not engage with the] running mental commentary that said something like, 'I can't have this thought.' "I must let go of thoughts'...

The practice is not 'never let your attention be stolen.' It will most definitely be stolen, perhaps every few seconds. The practice is to bring your attention back when you realize it has been stolen...

As Teresa of Avila...put it..., 'The harder you try not to think of anything, the more aroused your mind will become and you will think even more.'

The deeper we delve into the prayer word [i.e. the Jesus Prayer], the less we use it as a shield from afflictive thoughts. Rather we meet the thoughts with stillness instead of commentary. We let the thoughts simply be, but without chasing them and whipping up commentaries on them.

The doorways of the present moment are each guarded by an elaborately simply array of distractions that works in tandem with the prayer word. Together they open the doorways into the silent land. These distractions are like the riddles that must first be answered before the door will open. The riddles, however, are not answered by the calculating mind but by successive silences. These silences are built around a central paradox: all distractions have within them the silent depths we seek, the flowing vastness of Presence that eludes every grasp of comprehension. Therefore, distractions do not have to be rid of in order for them to relax their grip and reveal their hidden treasure. Such is the simplicity of paradox....

The discovery of this mystery of silence is the grace of a lifetime, the 'pearl of great price.' The best response to this grace is to gather in the folds of this mantle of silence and wrap them around us....[This] is marked by a sense of deep inner freedom, even in the midst of all sorts of constraints, limitations, trials, failings, and responsibilities....

John Chapman writes in his SPIRITUAL LETTERS, 'One must do this practice for God's sake; but one will not get any satisfaction out of it in the sense of feeling 'I am good at prayer,' 'I have an infallible method.' That would be disastrous, since what we want to learn is precisely our own weakness, powerlessness, unworthiness. And one should wish for no prayer, except the prayer that God gives us--probably very distracted and unsatisfactory in every way.'"


Monday, February 22, 2010


Fr John Behr’s Homily at Westchester Pan-Orthodox Vespers

“Today, the first Sunday in Lent, is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This isn’t just a general reference to orthodoxy, and it is not a congratulatory pat on the back after getting through the first week of Lent!

No, it commemorates something very specific: the restoration of the icons, after two periods of iconoclasm, two periods when, for various reasons, iconography was prohibited and icons were destroyed and those who defended the icons were persecuted. The holy icons are not simply religious art, and we don’t place them in our churches and houses simply for decoration. They are a theological statement: they depict key aspects of our faith. Most importantly, of course, they show that God himself, whom no one has ever seen (and so all images were prohibited, as idolatry), this God has now become visible in his Son – our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the image of the invisible God – it is to him that we look to see and understand who and what God is, for in him the fullness of divinity dwells bodily – the fullness of divinity: we do not find God anywhere else.

So, as the apostles depicted him in words, we also depict him in colors, and all the aspects of his work of salvation, all the various events we celebrate; and we also depict all those who have put on Christ, all those in whose lives, words and deeds we can see the Spirit of Christ breathing – all the prophets, the Theotokos, apostles, martyrs and saints of every age. And we venerate these icons of Christ and his saints, not treating them as magic idols, certainly not worshipping creation rather than the creator, but we venerate the icons, paying honor to the ones depicted on them, worshipping the one God.

This is what we commemorate today, as we proclaim the Synodikon of Orthodoxy: What the prophets proclaimed and the apostles taught – that Christ is indeed true God; this is what the Church has received and this is the tradition that we maintain. This is what we proclaim in venerating an icon; honoring the saint and worshipping Christ as Lord. This is the one for whom the whole of creation was called into being; and so this is the faith which establishes the universe.

At the heart of our faith stands this mystery of Christ – let us never change it for anything else! Even before the first Sunday of Lent became the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the restoration of the icons, it still pointed in the same direction. From many centuries earlier, the first Sunday of Lent was given over to remembering the prophets; that is why we heard so much about them in the hymnography last night and again this morning in the Gospel and the Epistle during the liturgy. This commemoration of the prophets is really another aspect of the same mystery: the icons confirm what the prophets foretold.

But we are now also taken a step further. In the Liturgy we heard, in the Gospel, that when Christ called Philip, Philip went to tell Nathanial that: “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:45). Or, as we sang last night, the prophets spoke of the one who from all eternity was born from the immaterial and bodiless womb of the Father, yet was made flesh by being born from the Virgin, and so was seen by us on earth. The message of the apostles – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ spoken of by the prophets – this is what the icons confirm: he has come visibly in the flesh.
Then in the Epistle we heard of the sufferings endured by the prophets as they looked to the things that God had planned for us. Or again as we sang last night: “the prophets refused to worship the creation instead of the Creator; they renounced the whole world for the Gospel’s sake, and in their suffering they were conformed to thy Passion which they had foretold.” The prophets, by concentrating all their hearts and strength on the promise of God, the Gospel, refusing to compromise with the world, and enduring all the suffering that this entails, in this way they themselves were conformed to Christ’s passion, in this way THEY became images of Christ.

And let us make no mistake about this, this is what WE are also called to: not simply to be proud of our orthodoxy – that we have icons – but to become icons ourselves. We are to be sharers in Christ’s passion, to be crucified with him, and so be conformed to the image of the Son of God. Thus, the Epistle finished by exhorting us: Being surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us, let us throw off the sin that so easily entangles us, so that we can run with perseverance the race that is set out before us. We are, the Apostle says, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, so that he now sits at the right hand of the Father (Heb 12:1-2).

What amazingly powerful words! The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is fulfilled not simply by having the right answers to particular questions, nor by preserving traditions for the sake of their antiquity, or particular practices because we think that they will make us better Christians. No, the goal is to have our attention captivated by, our gaze fixed upon, our ears opened to, and our hearts enthralled with our Lord Jesus Christ. He is for us the beginning and the end of all things: he is the one who began our faith and the one who will bring it to fulfillment.
For the joy that was set before him, he endured the Passion, and only by having his joy before us, are we able to set our hearts on high, above the things of this world, focused on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, so that he can fashion us in his image.

But we all know how difficult this is, especially when everything about this world is thrown into uncertainty and confusion, when we can no longer feel safe and secure. If we no longer feel safe in whatever kind of security we had thought that we had established for ourselves, let us now take this opportunity to see where the treasure of our heart really lies…

If we are going to follow Christ on his path to Golgotha, to be able to enter the joy that lay before him, well, we need to set our hearts on high – above the supposed good things of this world. The Epistle already urged us to discard everything that holds us back, every sin and passion that entangles us in the things of this world. And this, of course, is why we are given the gift of Lent. Not so that we can undertake arduous tasks, and get through Lent, coming out at the other end satisfied with our performance (Lent is not here for us to “get through unscathed”), but so that we can learn again the joy that is given to us in Christ, the joy which alone can sustain us in this world. And, I would suggest, what prevents most of us from experiencing this joy is not that we are living in great wickedness – murder, licentiousness, heresy, and so on – but that we have become numb to the gifts which God has bestowed upon us. We are so familiar with the riches of our orthodoxy, that we overlook what they point us to.

That our minds and hearts should be captivated, held fast by Christ, also speaks to the other great theme of this Vespers on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, one that dates back not to some far off age and place, but to our contemporary situation.
We come together, from all jurisdictions, to celebrate this feast of Orthodoxy together, so making a powerful statement of faith: our common witness as the one, undivided, body of Christ. As the one body of Christ, it is vitally important that we not only acknowledge, but also express our unity. St Paul speaks very forcefully of the church as the body of Christ, pointing out that every member is needed: the hand cannot work if the eye is not sound and working together with the hand; nor can any other bodily member function properly without the whole body working together.
This is often taken as speaking of the hierarchical structure of the Church, and that is certainly true: all are needed, and all are needed to fulfill their God-given roles harmoniously together.

But it is also true of us as different church communities; when we overcome our differences – ethnic, social, family – whatever they may be – and come together in the common faith in Christ, then Christ is all the more manifest in us. Our differences are no longer obstacles to unity, but in fact become an expression of our unity: St Irenaeus, writing in the second century, when the churches were much more diverse than they are now, commented that “our differences in practice confirm our unity in faith.”

But it will only be so, if we do indeed come together in the common faith, if it is Christ himself and he alone who binds us together, as the head does all the members of the body, not if it is anything else. If we try to come together in the name of anything else, it will be our own efforts, and bound to fail. If we come together in Christ – the one that the prophets saw, the apostles taught, the Church received, and whose presence we maintain – then God can work and overcome all our human limitations.

So again we are directed back to Christ – the image of God, the fullness of divinity – as our only hope. By his shed blood and his broken body, Christ has called us to be his Church.

We like to use the language of the Church triumphant: the glorious body with a mission to bring the whole world within its fold, and so manifest the Kingdom of God upon this earth. And this is indeed our mission: go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mat 28:19).

But let us be careful that in doing this, in striving to bring all peoples to Christ, we don’t accommodate ourselves to this world, begin to think in its terms, or reduce the Church to a worldly or national organization. We are called to come together, here and now, to be the one body of Christ,
overcoming all the differences of our backgrounds, bearing witness to the hope that one-day we will be able to overcome all the institutional, jurisdictional, structures that separate us, so that we will no longer be, as the apostle Paul puts it, xenoi kai paroikoi, “strangers and sojourners”, that we won’t simply be the diaspora of a nation, expats living abroad, waiting to go home.

But let us be careful how we now identify ourselves. For, the apostle continues, that we are no longer strangers and foreigners, is not because we have now become indigenous (replacing one national identity with another), but because we have become “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2.19).

If this is our citizenship – being members of the household of God – then we will always be in diaspora in this world. The Church must always understand herself as being in diaspora – never settled down, never accommodating herself to a particular time or place within this world and its history. Christians live by faith, the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, so that they are ‘strangers and exiles on this earth’, searching for their true ‘homeland’ (Heb 11.13-4), having no abiding city here on earth, but seeking the one which is to come (Heb 13.14). Or as the second century Epistle to Diognetus puts it: Christians “dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they shall all things as citizens, but suffer all things as strangers; every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland a foreign country” (Chap. 5).

We are in this world, but not of it; we must indeed live somewhere, in some country and culture, but we can never settle down anywhere and claim it as our own, our proper home, or allow ourselves to be identified in this way.

In a world in which being a Christian is becoming ever harder – whether because of the oppression of others, or because of “secularism” or because of our own addiction to consumption – let us make sure that we don’t take refuge in any other identity – nationalistic, economic, political ... whatever it is that is offered to us, even under religious cover, as a means of understanding ourselves and belonging to a larger group. Let us accept no other identity but that of Christ alone.

Only if we realize that our identity does not lie in whatever identities we create in this world, or have foisted upon us by the circumstances of our birth, education, and society (or “jurisdiction”), but rather that our identity lies hidden with Christ in God, only then and in this way can we actually begin to find and manifest our unity together, here and now, as the one body of Christ.

But this requires that we accompany him to his Passion, that just like the prophets in their suffering, and like the martyrs in theirs, we also may become images of Christ, icons of him.

This and nothing else is our task: that we conform ourselves to Christ. And this is why we are given the gift of Lent; that, sharing in the joy set before him, we too can follow the path to Golgotha and the empty tomb, with a broken but merciful heart, so being conformed to his image, so becoming ourselves icons of God.
Only in this way will we be celebrating the feast of Orthodoxy in spirit and in truth.”


"Then they were glad because they were silent."

Psalm 106 (107):30


Sunday, February 21, 2010

"When I forgive, it is still the me that is at the center"



When we hear the words of the priest at the eucharistic liturgy, "Let us lift up our hearts" and the response of the choir, "We lift them up unto the Lord," what happens at that moment? What does it mean "to lift up one's heart to God"? ...[W]hether we like it or not, our heart is a universe. Our heart is wider than the world because it contains it; it knows that the world does not know this mystery it carries within. When are hearts are filled with everything that makes up our existence, our joys, our sorrows, all our loves, all our hatred and sufferings, what can we do? We are not able to tear all this from our hearts. Thus, we can only lift up our hearts to God. Just as we expose the sick part of our body to radiation that can heal it, so do we lift up our sick hearts and ask the Lord to penetrate them; we ask Him to enter into our sick and beseeching hearts with all His power, His grace, His love, with all the presence, the light and the fire of the Spirit to consume what must be, to transform and recreate what must remain for the kingdom.

St. Paul says it well: "The wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God." The very fact of lifting up our hearts implies necessarily a purification, a cauterization, a healing. If we have hatred, it is burned gradually, consumed. It melts like snow in the sun. All the barriers we have created and put up against one another dwindle gradually and disappear.

Thus, when we lift up our hearts, we lift up our joys and our hatreds, our friends and our enemies. Lifting up one's heart is a true baptism of the heart--a baptism in which the heart will die again and rise with everything it contains...

One last point seems important to me. Very often, when I reflect on the manner of forgiving, I discover that when I forgive, I view myself to be at the center of things; it is I who forgive, for it is me who has been wounded. When I forgive, it is always the me that is praised...[But] I am indebted for each moment, every instant of my life where I turn away from God, where I let darkness or hatred enter in me. I am infinitely indebted toward all people; each time I impede the action of the Holy Spirit who works for my sanctification, I introduce a little or much darkness into the entire world. As indebted to all people, would not my real resolution be to ask forgiveness, even before offering forgiveness?...When I forgive, it is still the me that is at the center. Conversely, when I ask for forgiveness, I break this proud me; the forgiveness of the neighbor, or of the one whose neighbor I am, becomes necessary.

The mystery of repentance is the first work of the Holy Spirit, which is to bring us to recognize ourselves as sinners, aliens, and orphans. "Give your blood and receive the Spirit," a patristic adage states. The Spirit descends on the world in tongues of fire, in dew of living water to quench the thirsty, in healing the wounds of sin, in leading the lost sheep to the house of the Father, when I discover myself--and me alone--as a sinner and guilty (1 Tim 1:15). I ask forgiveness from all and each, but above all from God who alone can forgive... (Mk 2:7).


Friday, February 19, 2010

The Desert Wilderness of Lent


It's tempting to see the desert wilderness of Lent as a time of deprivation, but the following passages seem to imply that God sees it differently--as a time of abundance, intimacy--somehow (as in the verses from Hosea) a kind of honeymoon. Not a time of complexity, a season wrapped tightly in rules and regulations,as though God is a Baal (master/taskmaster) but a time of return to simplicity resulting in restored joy: "There she shall sing as in the days of her youth."

He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.
He made him ride on the high places of the land,
and he ate the produce of the field,
and he suckled him with honey out of the rock,
and oil out of the flinty rock.
Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
with fat of lambs,
rams of Bashan and goats,
with the very finestd of the wheat—
and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.

Deuteronomy 32

Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the Lord,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you ind righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will know the Lord...
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”

Hosea 2


Wednesday, February 17, 2010




I've heard that deaf children,
in a room where music is played,
grow calm, begin to rock slightly
as the sounds, moving through air,
move them too. It's this way
with forgiveness; it goes unheard
for a while, delivers us
into a rhythm we can't help,
like a weather front. In the end,
we can't even say
who gave or received, only that air
still trembles, that walls fold around.

by Temple Cone


Monday, February 15, 2010

"Don't Come to Me with the Entire Truth"


Don't Come to Me with the Entire Truth

Don't come to me with the entire truth.
Don't bring the ocean if I feel thirsty,
nor heaven if I ask for light;
but bring a hint, some dew, a particle,
as birds carry drops away from a lake,
and the wind a grain of salt.

Olav H. Hauge


This Is Not the Kingdom of the Poor

In the Asylum

This is not the kingdom of the poor,
nor the house of sorrow.
But take your hat off
as you go in.
You have no way of knowing
where love blazes here
and whose spirit
No one reads here.
No one writes here.
But God
finds the sleeping
and the waking

Olav H. Hauge


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snow Poems (one's a repeat, I know--or maybe both?)


The Snow Arrives After Long Silence (by Nancy Willard)

The snow arrives after long silence
from its high home where nothing leaves
tracks or stains or keeps time.
The sky it fell from, pale as oatmeal,
bears up like sheep before shearing.

The cat at my window watches
amazed. So many feathers and no bird!
All day the snow sets its table
with clean linen, putting its house
in order. The hungry deer walk

on the risen loaves of snow.
You can follow the broken hearts
their hooves punch in its crust.
Night after night the big plows rumble
and bale it like dirty laundry

and haul it to the Hudson.
Now I scan the sky for snow,
and the cool cheek it offers me,
and its body, thinned into petals,
and the still caves where it sleeps.

Snow (by Louis MacNeice)

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and fell
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.


Thursday, February 11, 2010


Pearls Before Breakfast


You can see the associated videos at

Pearls Before Breakfast
Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.

So, what do you think happened?


Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.

"How'd I do?"

We'll tell you in a minute.

"Well, who was the musician?"

Joshua Bell.


A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library's vaults to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee. "I'm thinking that I could do a tour where I'd play Kreisler's music . . ."

He smiled.

". . . on Kreisler's violin."

It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick -- and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he's also appeared on "Sesame Street," done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie "The Red Violin." (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, "plays like a god."

When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said:

"Uh, a stunt?"

Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?

Bell drained his cup.

"Sounds like fun," he said.

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in white tie and tails -- he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body -- athletic and passionate -- he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.

He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In Boston, as he performed Max Bruch's dour Violin Concerto in G Minor, the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them -- a distillate of the young and pretty -- coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph. It's like that always, with Bell.

Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." He's learned to field these things graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified "pshaw."

For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius." "Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.

It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.

It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a congenital brilliance -- an elite, innate, preternatural ability that manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.

One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell took a taxi. He's neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.

"Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."

Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Just "he." When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. "He made this to perfect thickness at all parts," Bell says, pivoting it. "If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound." No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell's violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.

"This has never been refinished," Bell said. "That's his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula." Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

Like the instrument in "The Red Violin," this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman's hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief -- a minor New York violinist -- made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.

Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the Orange Line, and rode one stop to L'Enfant.

AS METRO STATIONS GO, L'ENFANT PLAZA IS MORE PLEBEIAN THAN MOST. Even before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to get it right: "Leh-fahn." "Layfont." "El'phant."

At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.

On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note.

Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bell didn't say it, but Bach's "Chaconne" is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.

If Bell's encomium to "Chaconne" seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

So, that's the piece Bell started with.

He'd clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.


It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . . ."

Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story."

With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.

MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."

So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?

"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."

And that's that.

Except it isn't. To really understand what happened, you have to rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment Bell's bow first touched the strings.

White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.

It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."

On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.

Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that he really likes.

As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious, exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.

Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was," he says, "it made me feel at peace."

So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.

THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

After "Chaconne," it is Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet "Ave Maria" is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: "I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion." This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

IF THERE WAS ONE PERSON ON THAT DAY WHO WAS TOO BUSY TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn't hurrying to get to work. He was at work.

The glass doors through which most people exit the L'Enfant station lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his 40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the watchful eye of his bosses, and he's supposed to be hopping, and he was.

But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job. Then he'd lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could, watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came through pretty well.

"You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional," Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.

"Most people, they play music; they don't feel it," Tindley says. "Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the sound."

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single number he played that day -- 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of $20. He doesn't recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship's band was playing in "Titanic," before the iceberg.

"I didn't think nothing of it," Tillman says, "just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks." Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.

When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.

"Is he ever going to play around here again?"

"Yeah, but you're going to have to pay a lot to hear him."


Tillman didn't win the lottery, either.

BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.

"Where was he, in relation to me?"

"About four feet away."


There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.

For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes.

"YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST," Jackie Hessian says, "but nothing about him struck me as much of anything."

You couldn't tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn't noticing the music at all.

"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially."

What do you do, Jackie?

"I'm a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract."

THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE WERE UPHOLSTERED. In the balcony, more or less. On that day, for $5, you'd get a lot more than just a nice shine on your shoes.

Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: "My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined."

Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he's got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too loud, and he tried to calm her down.

Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business. So she fights.

Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.

What about Joshua Bell?

He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."

Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."

Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.

"People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?"

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

THE CULTURAL HERO OF THE DAY ARRIVED AT L'ENFANT PLAZA PRETTY LATE, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.

Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.

Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza."

Haven't you seen musicians there before?

"Not like this one."

What do you mean?

"This was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn't want to be intrusive on his space."


"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him; he hadn't seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.

"Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn't registering. That was baffling to me."

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."

BELL THINKS HE DID HIS BEST WORK OF THE DAY IN THOSE FINAL FEW MINUTES, in the second "Chaconne." And that also was the first time more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn't know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.

Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, "I really don't want to leave." The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."

These days, at L'Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk. Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off Edna Souza. Joshua Bell's latest album, "The Voice of the Violin," has received the usual critical acclaim. ("Delicate urgency." "Masterful intimacy." "Unfailingly exquisite." "A musical summit." ". . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.")

Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.

Emily Shroder, Rachel Manteuffel, John W. Poole and Magazine Editor Tom Shroder contributed to this report. Gene Weingarten, a Magazine staff writer, can be reached at


Monday, February 8, 2010

more from ON HUMAN BEING (using the energy of suffering)


If at the very moment of falling headlong into suffering, the martyr holds to the Crucified and Risen Lord with all the force of his suffering, and indeed with all the violence of the fall itself, he is pervaded by the power of the resurrection...
And when the political situation changes and martyrdom is temporarily abolished, then the monk appears, who in another way, according to an old saying, 'gives his blood and receives the Spirit.'


from ON HUMAN BEING ch. 3


We must not think of a person as a cell in a body. Each person, while a member of the one body, is complete in itself. Each one is sufficiently important to the risen Christ to be received by him face to face in his kingdom. There is no question of comparison; Christ prefers each person. We often think of Christ's lvoe for humanity as if it were egalitarian, repeated over and over again, but such love would be only an abstraction...Love is always a preference. And Christ prefers each one.


The miracle of the first time, the first time you realized that this person would be your friend, the first time, in childhood, that you heard that heartrending music, the first time that your child smiled at you, the first time...Then you become used to it. But eternity means becoming unused to it. The more I know God, and my neighbor, in the light of God, the more God is revealed, and my neighbor, also, as blessedly unknown.

...Another receives me and I receive the other. And every other person whom I receive is a wound by which I lose my life, and by which I find it. Christianity is the religion of faces.

Christianity means that God, for us, has become a face and reveals the other as a face. Macarius the Great says that a spiritual person becomes all face, and his face all expression....

There is nothing more thrilling than interplanetary travel, soon perhaps intergalactic travel. We must explore our prison. But it is a prison without limits. For us the only way out is a face...The explorer is greater than what he explores, the expression on his face is all that saves us from nothingness. And if his expression should harden, if his face should close, we know that secretly there is an expression that is always welcoming, that the face of Christ is never closed.


The training of our consciousness enables us to recover an immediacy of response to anybody's face, however spoilt, haggard, or careworn, and precisely because it is such. God loves this person here and now, in their very ordinariness, their cowardice, their loneliness, their sin...For nearly always the image is disfigured by the powers of evil; on this new battlefield we must henceforth fight, armed with discernment, love and prayer.


...In Christ my death is no longer ahead of me but behind me, I can set myself to live and love. regression more than transgression...


If we did not know that Christ had shed his blood on the cross and uttered his cry of unimaginable despair, we should be crushed beyond recall. Everyone who relinquishes the security of a sleepwalking existence is sooner or later mortally wounded by the world's suffering. But because God became man and took this suffering on himself, the way of vulnerability and death becomes for us resurrection.


from ON HUMAN BEING Chapter 2


"Creatures," wrote Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow in the last century, "are balanced upon the creative will of God as upon a bridge of diamond; above is the abyss of the divine infiniteness and below is the abyss of their own nothingness."


When we ask of something, 'What is it?" we are seeking to learn about its nature. The question, being an abstract idea, is neutral. The person, however, goes beyond all questions. It cannot be defined, it cannot be captured by conceptual thought.

The person, says Lossky, is 'the irreducible of the individual to his human nature', the person is irreducible. In the non-Christian East reduction is by ascetic practice, in the post-Christian West by science. The Eastern method removes the dead layers, cosmic, biological, social, psychological, and reabsorbs the human being in the transpersonal. The Western method concentrates on the health of the infrapersonal, analysing its conditionings and curing them by psychoanalysis or social revolution.

But what the person desires is deified humanity. It acts in collusion with the living God, being like him secret, mysterious, incomprehensible. Deep calls to deep...Whatever the mind can grasp can only be the nature, never the person. The mind can grasp only objects, whatever is open to inspection. But the person is not an object open to inspection, any more than God is. Like God it is incomparable, inextinguishable, fathomless.

...And as, through Christ, this life of the Trinity is shed abroad, we find the same thing happening in the way we know our neighbour. The person, set by its very brilliance beyond the reach of rational analysis, is revealed in love. This disclosure surpasses all other ways of knowing a human being; it requires prayer, attentiveness, even to the point of dying to oneself; knowing a person is unknowing, the darkness of night made luminous by love.

Then, momentarily at first, we see the open face, that place where nature most readily allows the person to show through, first by the transparency of the eyes. For a moment, the face is seen, not weighed down by nature, but in God. Then we see everything from the opposite side. The person, far from deriving its meaning from the world in which it is immersed, suddenly illuminates the world by its presence and interprets it to us. The frets of time and pain on our flesh, the weariness which drags it down, the wrinkles which wither it, all become a miraculous sign of a personal existence. Our capacity for astonishment is renewed and refreshed.

...It is always tempting to judge rather than to accept. We are always labelling other people. If we are labelling them we are no longer seeing them. By knowledge, especially knowledge of other people, we achieve self-assurance, or the justification of our desires...True knowledge of someone else, that is unknowing, demands at the same time risk and respect. God has not truly known the human race except on the cross. An infinite vulnerability is the condition of this unknowing, where the more the known is known, the more it is revealed as unknown.

No, the God of Christians is not the summit--reassuring and plain to see--of a pyramid of beings. He is the depth who reveals depths everywhere, making of the most familiar creature a thing unknown. We are like drunken potholers; every face we see reveals the hidden side of the earth.


...[H]umanity must 'personalize' the universe; not save itself by means of the universe, but save it by communicating grace to it. And all the while human beings must also humbly decipher the 'Bible of the world'; they elevate themselves above all life in order to bring it to fruition, giving voice to and encouraging its secret surge of praise. The modern will to dominate nature as if it were something mechanical, an assemblage of things and forces which we use without respect, is just as foreign to true Christianity as it is to the impersonal cosmization of the East.


The face of Christ is inseparably the face of God in man, the only face which is never closed because it is infinitely transparent, the only gaze which never petrifies but sets free. The face of faces, the key to all faces.


from Olivier Clement's On Human Being:


When God banished humankind from the Tree of Life, it was so that they should not go into eternity while in a state of separation. If they had been thrust just as they stood into the divine Light, that state (which we also share) could have been nothing other than hell, hell beyond recall. How often have we offended the steady gaze of an innocent child by our lying and our depravity? The merest instant of love betrayed, of confidence ridiculed, if only we could see it with the perfect clarity of God's vision, would be revealed as an eternity in hell.


Clement quotes Denys the Aeropagite: "The libertine is deprived of good by his irrational lust; we can say that the privation annihilates him in some way, also that his lust has no real object. Nevertheless, because there remains in him a faint echo of commununion and friendship, he still shares in the Good. In the same way, anger shares in the Good by its intrinsic desire to bring about an improvement in something it sees as bad. Even one who desires the worst possible life, since it is a desire for life, and a life which seems the best, by the mere desire to live, by reaching out towards life, that person has some part in the Good."


Metanoia, the complete turning round in a person's heart of hearts, is not an attempt to achieve some superficial mental improvement by an effort of will, to overcome some fault or vice. It is first and foremost the utter trusting in Christ who gives himself up to death, hell, and separation for us, for me; to the death which I have caused, to the hell which I create and in which I make others and myself live, to the separation which is my condition and my sin. By enduring them, he has made death, hell and torment the door of repentance and new life. Then we discover something we never dared hope for, that our hellish autonomy has been breached by sin, death, and despair, that these have opened to us the mercy of the living God. Then the heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh, the stone which sealed the fountain of life in our heart is shattered; then gush forth the tears of repentance and wonderment, washing us in the waters of baptism, the great waters sanctified by Christ in the beginning; in which we are purified and recreated by the Spirit...

What is required of us above all is an entreaty, a cry of trust and love de profundis, from the depths of our heart. For a moment we must lose our balance, must see in a flash of clarity the meaninglessness of suffering, the ripping apart of our protective covering of happiness or moral virtue...In the Gospel the very root of sin is the pretence that we can save ourselves by our own effort, that we can find security in ourselves and one another...To save ourselves we must give up all security; any notion of being self-sufficient; we must look at the world with wonder, gratefully receiving it anew, with its mysterious promise of the infinite. Everything--the world, history, other people and myself--can be a source of revelation, because through everything we can discern, like a watermark, the face of the Risen Christ, the Friend who secretly shares with us the bread of affliction and the wine of mirth. To this paradox, that the Inaccessible has allowed himself to be crucified for us to reveal that 'God is love,' our only response can be one of humility and trust, tearing ourselves away from all that holds us back, in our desire to worship, even in the midst of our suffering...


St. John Climacus says, "To define repentance as the awareness of individual guilt is to risk emptying it of meaning"...Again, to define sin as mere individual guilt would be to do without God, since all we should have to do in order to quieten our conscience would be to keep the law. But, as St. Paul reminds us, the law cannot 'make alive.' We who are reminded every day of our death, that is of the daily murder of love, know that only the victory of CHrist over death and hell can 'make alive.'


Monday, February 1, 2010

On Secular Culture



Slow-motion lightning