09 July 2012

living in a minor key

{Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells}
"He had delighted above all in strong effects of colour: spirits who have upon their heads instead of hair the feathers of peacocks; a phantom reaching from a swirl of flame towards a star; a spirit passing with a globe of iridescent crystal--symbol of the soul--half shut within his hand. But always under this largess of colour lay some tender homily addressed to man's fragile hopes.

"This spiritual eagerness draws to him all those who, like himself, seek for illumination or else mourn for a joy that has gone. One of these especially comes to mind. A winter or two ago he spent much of the night walking up and down upon the mountain talking to an old peasant who, dumb to most men, poured out his cares for him. Both were unhappy: [the imaginative youth] because he had then first decided that art and poetry were not for him, and the old peasant because his life was ebbing out with no achievement remaining and no hope left him.

"Both how Celtic! how full of striving after a something never to be completely expressed in word or deed."

-William Butler Yeats, from The Celtic Twilight

Goodbye Miss Goodavich/Rosie' by Lúnasa on Grooveshark

Yeats and his striving Celts, whose music--filtered through their melancholy--reflects certain crucial truths about darkness: mostly that it's real. We often live in a minor key. Even in happy moments a tarnished side gleams through. On a broken earth, both unmet longings and imperfect expressions of beauty and goodness are inevitable.

This song by Le Vent du Nord was playing as we ate dinner several nights ago. Though clearly not a Celtic group, their Quebecois music shares elements with that played by Lunasa or The Chieftans--the misty sadness underlying so much of it, the "striving after a something never to be completely expressed in word or deed" as Yeats observes.

  La Valse À Huit Ans by Le Vent du Nord on Grooveshark

As it played, I turned to Jared and told him, This is precisely how life feels right now. It's written in a minor key. Melancholy much of the time . . . yet all the parts still work together so beautifully. 

Here is what I mean. I have learned that the darker movements of life, when walked through at Christ's side, have their own perfection. He works and strengthens; He shapes the struggling soul into lovelier form. Most of that forming comes as we raise our eyes from today's grief to see Him, more glorious by contrast.

Because Yeats is right. We will never reach like a flame to the stars, not on our own. However, the longing for paradise ("this spiritual eagerness") is valid, and it is abundantly met in Christ. So any suffering that refines our desires, pointing them to Him, actually becomes a thing to embrace. Mysteriously, it becomes a means of peace.

Blue Bonnets Over the Border by Natalie MacMaster on Grooveshark

Perhaps this is why Celtic music speaks so directly to my heart. I've wondered about that for a while. I remember listening to Thistle & Shamrock with Daddy on Saturday nights, dancing across the kitchen floor, enthralled by the tunes and rhythms. I remember watching Riverdance in childlike rapture. How could it grab on to me like that?

Now, I understand. It was how the musicians crafted beauty out of darkness. I've always wanted to grapple with the dark instead of run away from it, and I heard the rough edge of experience in those tunes, even the joyous ones. They were honest.

She's the Sweetest When She's Naked by Laura Risk & Jacqueline Schwab on Grooveshark

By no means is Celtic music all sad (just as my days are by no means filled with depression and woe!), yet I love the melancholy side most. Its musical acknowledgment of difficulty reminds me that pain is simply reality. Then as someone like Natalie MacMaster turns grief into a work of art, I am reminded that it's okay to look darkness in the face. In fact, such recognition is better than pushing pain down inside of myself, or ignoring it altogether. Clear-minded lamentation tends to transform darkness into--not joy exactly--but something far above despair.

Maybe because with faith, lamentation becomes prayer. Maybe because God crafts beauty out of darkness too.

The Vega Set (Jigs): The Banks Of Lough Gowna; The Gaelic Cl by Solas on Grooveshark

But finally, music such as this encourages me to think of the day when our darkness will vanish.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.  (Hebrews 11) 
Our minor key will change forever. Fruitless striving will stop. We'll reach for the stars and find them within our grasp; our fragile hopes will strengthen; final illumination will be found. May the miracle come soon.

In the meantime, I believe that God has a use for the darkness, and even our tears become shards of glory.

Because of these things . . . given the chance, I wouldn't change the song.

Ashoken Farewell by Scythian on Grooveshark

p.s. This seems an appropriate time to mention that Lunasa is coming to Long's Park on August 5th. That means free. I will so be there. Bring a picnic!


  1. Love this. I'll be at Long's Park with you on the 5th!

  2. Love your article. Planning on being at Long's Park on the 5th, too!

  3. I listened to all the music you posted here while I was building a fire - now isn't that a primal, Celtic sort of thing to do concurrently? Thanks so much for sharing. I think you are right about the "darker movements of life" and their shadows being what gives this kind of music its appeal for me. Whenever I listen to it I feel that my sorrows are acknowledged as well as my joys.