Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Onward Call

We woke that morning at the onward call
Our camels bridled up, our howdahs full
The sun was rising in the eastern sky
Just as we set out to the desert’s cry
Calling, yearning, pulling, home to you.

– From “Caravanseri” by Loreena McKennitt
(An Ancient Muse, 2006)

As perhaps you’ve discerned from a previous post, I’ve been recently enjoying Loreena McKennitt’s new album, An Ancient Muse.

It’s a rich and accomplished musical document – and one which, as McKennitt herself notes, explores “the universal human themes of life and love, conquest and death; of home, identity, the migrations of people and the resulting evolution of cultures.”

Rest assured, Loreena McKennitt is well-equipped to offer heartfelt, though never cloying, illuminations on such weighty topics. In lesser hands, approaching topics such as these could yield results both boring and pretentious. Yet unlike, for example, the more recent works of Enya, the music of Loreena McKennitt cannot be dismissed as the product of a New Age songstress, one who dispenses platitudes in multi-track vocals over synthesized music.

McKennitt’s lyrics are much more literate (she often sets classic texts to music), her vocals and music much more earthy, much more real. Whereas, for instance, Enya’s sound would be virtually impossible to perform live, Loreena McKennit, as I discovered in Minneapolis in 1995, is more than capable of delivering a spirited live performance, complete with a myriad of instruments perhaps not familiar to most people – instruments such as the Turkish clarinet, Celtic bauzouki, hurdy gurdy, nyckelharpa, lyra, and my personal favourite, the uilleann pipes.

Also, in planning and composing her music, McKennitt engages in extensive travel and research in relation to specific subjects and locales. To date, such research has formed the basis and general concept of each of her eight studio albums.

As Wikipedia notes: “Before creating Elemental (1985) and Parallel Dreams (1989), [McKennitt] traveled to Ireland for inspiration from the country’s history, geography and culture. The album The Mask and the Mirror (1994) was preceded by research in Spain where she engaged in studying Galicia, a Celtic section of Spain, along with the country’s abundant Arabic roots . . . Her latest album, An Ancient Muse was inspired primarily by travels among and reading about the various cultures along the Silk Road.”

Commenting on her travels to journalist Tim Wilson in 2000, McKinnett said: “I agree . . . with the Sufi perspective that you should not remove yourself from the world, but participate in it; that the opportunities we experience in life are the things that cause us to grow.”

WorldMusic.com observes that An Ancient Muse “incorporates melodies and instrumentation from cultures as diverse as Greece, Turkey and China, strung together with intoxicating melodies and lush compositions, resulting in a surprisingly cohesive and truly beautiful album. The songs are not upbeat or danceable, but rather meditative and quietly atmospheric.”

What is this life that pulls me far away?
What is that home where we cannot reside?
What is that quest that pulls me onward?
My heart is full when you are by my side
Calling, yearning, pulling, home to you.

– From “Caravanseri” by Loreena McKennitt
(An Ancient Muse, 2006)

McKennitt’s work has always reflected a deeply spiritual dimension, a spirituality that’s shaped and embodied by “those who [have] travelled far and wide . . .” – not only geographically, but spiritually as well.

Writer Christine Valters Painter notes that a quote from the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu opens McKennitt’s 1997 album The Book of Secrets: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

“McKennitt herself,” says Painter, “is a true philosopher, in that her questioning brings only more questions. Her music is not an attempt to provide answers. Rather, it tries to lift us for the moment above our own journey, which can become bogged down by seeking only the end goals, rather than marveling at the myriad moments along the way.”

Painter also muses on McKennitt’s contention that perhaps “the most important step on our journey is the one in which we throw away the map.”

“Perhaps,” says Painter, “we could each enjoy the wonder of our own journeys more if we put away our own maps and trusted the Spirit to guide us.”

For some, however, the thought of such mapless travels and the expansion in awareness which they inevitably invite, can be disconcerting. After all, as Chuck Lofy has observed, many of us “don’t want to be conscious but simply safe.”

Accordingly, we’ve allowed for the creation and maintenance of “monolithic, rigid forms or systems” of religion wherein we hide from “doing what conscious people do,” namely, trust in the Spirit as we seek to experience for ourselves the mystical origin of our religious heritage and thus facilitate an authentic human and spiritual life.

In the liner notes of An Ancient Muse, McKennitt shares her own understanding of (and hopes for) such travels and the authenticity which they can foster. In doing so, she eloquently allays any fears of potential chaos some may harbour about such journeys.

“Our paths may differ,” says the wise McKennitt, “but our quests are shared: our desire to love and to be loved, our thirst for liberty and our need to be appreciated as unique individuals within the collectivity of our society. . . I have not wavered in my conviction that . . . there should be more to bind us together than tear us apart. Nor have I ceased to hope that in striving toward harmonious, integrated diversity, we will be guided by collective beliefs that will be life affirming at their core.”

I’ve come to learn that the space of our shared quests, far from being a place where “anything goes,” is a place where we allow our convictions and beliefs the opportunity to be informed and shaped, not only by our collective beliefs, but also by new insights born of our experiences and the experiences of others. In short, it’s a place where we get to discover the light of God in unexpected places and faces.

And now all around me
I feel you still here.
Such is the journey
No mystery to fear.

– From “Never-Ending Road (Amhrán Duit)
by Loreena McKennitt (An Ancient Muse, 2006)

These pathways of common pilgrimage comprise the realm of authentic human experience, and therefore authentic religious experience. On this spiritual Silk Road (building on the thematic imagery of McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse) we are all on the same level and can look into one another’s eyes as we share the reality and truth of our experiences. In this sacred space we can walk and journey with each other, we can be in relationship and collectively live and embody that fullness of life and truth that Jesus spoke about and which our church claims to possess.

A passionate “striving toward harmonious, integrated diversity” has been and remains the “onward call” of McKennitt’s music. And as you’ve probably noticed, it’s also an important aspect of my own spirituality. I’ve long been drawn to what I call, a “theology of journey,” or to what Benedictine sister Joan Chittister refers to as a “spirituality of search.” I think that even as a child I was somehow aware that the creative, loving, and sustaining force in the universe which we call God, is bigger than any one religious tradition – my own Roman Catholic tradition included.

As I’ve opened myself to God’s loving presence in my life and the lives of others, I’ve come to the liberating (and at times, uncomfortable) awareness that we are a pilgrim people very much still on the road, very much still discerning and learning what it means to be fully human incarnations of a God of unfathomable love – a love which, as Loreena McKennitt sings . . .

. . . now leads onward, I know not where
I feel in my heart that you will be there
Whenever a storm comes, whatever our fears
The journey goes on as your love ever nears.

– From “Never-Ending Road (Amhrán Duit)
by Loreena McKennitt (An Ancient Muse, 2006)

To visit Loreena McKennitt’s official website, click here.

To read “Journey Into Mystery,” Christine Valters Painter’s 1997 article about Loreena and her music,
click here.

To read “From a Prairie Spark to a Global Flame,” a 2003 article about Loreena,
click here.

And in closing, here is a clip of Loreena performing “Caravanseri” in Alhambra, Spain earlier this year.

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