The Common Good
July-August 1998

The Journey Into Mystery

by Christine Valters Paintner | July-August 1998

Lorrena McKennitt's musical and spiritual guidance.

It is the rare contemporary musical artist who thoroughly captures my imagination and delights my spirit. Canadian artist Loreena McKennitt has succeeded at both and more for seven albums, writing music that reflects on the soul’s journey, using Celtic and Middle Eastern rhythms. So imagine my surprise at hearing our local adult alternative radio station announce her recently as a new "Zone" artist. It seems her music video of the single "Mummer’s Dance," now being aired on MTV, has launched her into the mainstream.

McKennitt began as a folk singer, singing traditional ballads with her remarkable voice. She was instinctively drawn to Celtic music because of her own heritage, fueling her desire to connect with the past. However, her two most recent albums, the mask and mirror and the book of secrets, take us into some new territory.

Extensive journeys to places like Turkey, Italy, Greece, and Spain, as well as a trip on the Trans Siberian Express, are woven into her music. Such solo journeys allow for quiet reflection, which informs her creative work. (Fascinated by the role solitude plays in reaching God, she is particularly drawn to the monastery setting.)

McKennitt draws on the influence of a culture to give her music a feel for the place in which it was inspired, such as taking inspiration from Sufi chants. The song "Marrakesh Night Market" transports the listener to Morocco, and sparks the imagination to be able to see and feel the city. But her journeys also offer a rich wellspring for her lyrics, meditating on the metaphor of the soul’s own journeying.

A QUOTE FROM THE ancient philosopher Lao Tzu opens McKennitt’s latest album: "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." Mirroring the Celtic nomadic journey that is so much a part of her’s own roots and music, McKennitt takes us on her journey. "The journey, not the destination, becomes a source of wonder," she writes in the notes to the book of secrets. Her liner notes are transformed into travel journals and reflections upon the questions closest to her heart, enhancing the listener’s experience. McKennitt herself 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.

McKennitt’s use of poetry, literature, legends, and history is another delight. She often draws on classic texts to reflect on the life of the Spirit. In the mask and mirror, she uses John of the Cross’ beautiful poem about the "Dark Night of the Soul," set to her own haunting melody, to describe the soul’s desire for God. In the book of secrets, she draws on The Inferno to write "Dante’s Prayer." She attests, "I did not believe because I could not see/Though you came to me in the night/When the dawn seemed forever lost/You showed your love in the light of the stars."

The quest for God and the manifestation of this search in our lives are powerful themes in the music. "Night Ride Across the Caucasus" was inspired by an autobiography she read in which the writer talks of his initiation to the Sufi path via equestrian training. She conveys the freedom of riding through the night on a horse and requests, "Take me with you on this journey/Where the boundaries of time are now tossed." Beautiful metaphors, such as "the velvet of the darkness" and "cascading stars," reflect her love of nature. Her single "Mummer’s Dance," being played on adult alternative music stations, is rich with references to springtime and the fertility of nature, which her song concludes are "the work of our Lord’s hand."

McKennitt combines powerful lyrics with her rich, sensual voice filled with longing. Her songs will wash over you gently and involve you in their passion, if you let them.

To expand the impact of her music, she uses an impressive array of different musicians on her albums. She herself plays harp, accordion, guitar, keyboards, and piano. In addition, she invites many talented artists to play the cello, violin, snare drum, bass, and others to enrich the listener’s experience.

The journey to discover God is one that immerses us ever more deeply in mystery. Listening to Loreena McKennitt’s music helps the listener to be reconciled with that mystery and to delight in it. She muses in the introduction to her most recent album, "in the end, I wonder if one of the most important steps on our journey is the one in which we throw away the map." Perhaps 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.

CHRISTINE VALTERS PAINTNER is a facilitator for a graduate program in ministry, a retreat leader, and a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

the book of secrets. Loreena McKennit. Quinlan Road, 1997.

the mask and mirror. Loreena McKennitt. Quinlan Road, 1994.

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