“This palpable world… is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.” —Teilhard de Chardin
Ray LaMontagne was living off the grid in Maine with his wife, Sarah, hauling water from a well, stoking the wood stove, husbanding chickens and sheep, and bathing in a galvanized tub. She wrote and studied poetry while he worked as a carpenter, and together they homeschooled their two young sons. In the evenings after the boys were in bed, Ray sang and played guitar, creating songs for his ears only. When he saw some folk singers come through town and get paid for performing at a local club, Ray thought, Looks like a good way to make twenty bucks for gas money... and we sure need it.
Becoming biblically literate means not only reading the Scriptures, but learning to engage the natural world as a symbolic treasury of meaning, and letting those images shape our prayers, hymns, and intuitions. A dozen shows and a handful of serendipitous contacts later, Ray got a call from L.A. with an invitation to fly out west and record his music. This wasn’t exactly in Ray’s life plan. Creating music was his own private spiritual alchemy, a way of transforming depression into peace, pain into beauty, and the suffering of his fatherless, nomadic childhood into meaning. Fame and touring were the last things on his mind: home, family, stability, privacy, and simplicity were at the forefront. He decided to take a chance and see if sharing his music with the world could coexist with what mattered most.
Ray LaMontagne released his first album, Trouble, with RCA records in 2004, and has gone on to produce seven more albums. In the early aughts (still deep in the ambivalence of his career choice), he developed a reputation as a tortured troubadour with a subdued yet raw stage presence. Chronically shy, he often sang in the dark and didn’t speak to the audience. His beautiful tenor, alternating between raspy blues and a feathery whisper, carried equal parts love and sorrow. He wore his heart on his sleeve in the early days, and quietly bled all over the stage. His emotional honesty earned him many devoted fans.
After more than a decade of growth and musical experimentation, LaMontagne has come back to his seventies folk roots on Monovision (released June 2020). There are echoes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Stephen Stills throughout his work, but the palpable peace that oozes through these new songs is his own hard-won achievement. As one fan noted, “It’s as if Ray listens to all our favorite songwriters, and then says, ‘Hold my beer…’” He’s returned to the natural simplicity of his pre-fame demos, but without the spotlight-triggered angst. No longer singing through his hurts, he’s sharing the healing that emerged on the far side of anguish.
Considering that Monovision was all but finished by the time 2020 turned itself upside down with a pandemic, LaMontagne has given us a balm in Gilead without intending to. The texture and tone of his voice is part of the message: medicinal, soothing, and confident, it carries as much emotional freight as his lyrics. Half the songs are about love and loyalty. The steamy desperation of “Roll Me, Mama, Roll Me” confirms LaMontagne’s cheeky self-description as a “facilitator of romance.” In the classic rock tune “Strong Enough,” which features LaMontange’s gravelly, rhythmic swagger, he pays tribute to his single mother as he seeks his fortune in an unwelcoming world. The soothing, harmonica-laced lullaby “We’ll Make It Through” (written for LaMontagne’s wife who suffers from muscular dystrophy) epitomizes the way we comfort one another when the future is uncertain and scary.
The other half of Monovision teems with images from nature, borne out of his own experience as a New Englander living close to the land with observant, Thoreau-like sensibilities. Love, nature, and the wisdom that grows from attending to both are central to this album which he made by himself in his home studio.
The imaginative nature poetry of his songs are what spoke most to me. They’ve lured me into paying much closer attention to the beauty outside my door, the kind of attention that leads to spiritual insight. LaMontagne explains, “Going outside and just being in nature is like going to church for me; I mean, it’s the closest thing to going to church that I know.” He has encountered something holy in nature: an acceptance of suffering, limitations, and mortality knit together with love, hope, and healing. While not a Christian himself, LaMontagne’s intuition is accurate. All of creation is sacred space, shot through with the presence of God as light shines through a window. And what better response is there to such beauty than to sing of it? In “Morning Comes Wearing Diamonds,” LaMontagne shows us that a revelation of beauty in nature can have an immediate, personal, and humbling impact:
Morning comes wearing diamonds
Where she is, the sun is shining
Throwing gold through the windows to the floor
Hear a bird singing a song I’ve never heard before
Colored leaves blowing in through the kitchen door
I just don’t give a damn anymore
About winning or taking sides
Trying to change your mind
I just don’t give a damn anymore
‘Cause I got love in my heart today
I got love that ain’t gonna change
I got love, and it won’t fade away
In “Misty Morning Rain,” LaMontagne paints an image of coastal fog that rolls in and obscures everything from sight; then it clears and all is revealed again. Back and forth, known and unknown, rolling in and out like the tide—that’s life, and we must learn to roll with it. The song is a lament, because clarity and progress are temporary, but it’s also a comfort, because obscurity and drifting are temporary too. “Summer Clouds” furthers this acceptance of the inevitability of change: “The wheel it ever turns / What is life but learning how to cry? … Hours roll like summer clouds / And summer clouds never worry about tomorrow.” I can almost hear Matthew’s gospel whispering, tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. In “Rocky Mountain Healing,” LaMontagne tells the story of a man for whom repentance and homecoming are synonymous, and linked to a very specific place: “I’ve been running all my life, never slowing down / All I’ve got to show for all the miles I put away / Are the dreams of what I could’ve done if I’d only stayed… A man can get lost in what might’ve been / Up here in the mountains, can be born again.” Absence leaves a wound in what was left behind; it also leaves a wound in the wanderer himself. To be healed, he must be knit back into his home: “person” and “place” become one thing again instead of two.
Nature and humans, though distinct from one another, are not rightly thought of as separate things, for we exist in an essential, interpenetrating relationship with our environment. Through analogy, nature forms the poetic bedrock of human language, the material building blocks out of which our imaginations construct meaning. Before abstract thought, there were symbols. Before prose, there was poetry. Before speech, there was song.
According to Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald, we would be shut up in loneliness and ignorance if not for natural symbols. Once a person recognizes the material form of his immaterial condition, he can exclaim, “There stands [my] thought!” By seizing this image of nature as a symbol, “as the garment or body of his invisible thought,” he can present it to his friend, and his friend will understand him. LaMontagne sings, “Where once the wind was at my back / Now the sea’s gone slack, no seabirds wheeling / Has all of life gone off the rails? / Torn my sails and left me drifting? / No love left to lift him?” All it takes is this mutual recognition of the wind and then of stillness (there stands my feeling!)—and though we may yet be bereft and disoriented, we gain understanding of ourselves and cease to be alone. A symbol articulated and shared becomes a human bond. MacDonald continues,
The world is—allow us the homely figure—the human being turned inside out. All that moves in the mind is symbolized in Nature.… the world is a sensuous analysis of humanity, and hence an inexhaustible wardrobe for the clothing of human thought… The forms of Nature are the representations of human thought in virtue of their being the embodiment of God’s thought… The man, then, who, in harmony with nature, attempts the discovery of more of her meanings, is just searching out the things of God.
While I expect none of us will make music of LaMontagne’s caliber and reach, we still have every reason to imitate his attentiveness to nature and his emotionally honest response to it. He’s learned that by watching and waiting, the songs come to him, welling up unbidden from an imagination soaked in the particulars of the place and the woman he loves. Artists and prophets form overlapping circles on the Venn diagram of poetic imagination. The Psalms, Old Testament wisdom literature, the Hebrew prophets, and the parables of Jesus are saturated with nature’s symbols: from the tree of life to green pastures and still waters, from the morning star to the mustard seed, from the mountains skipping like rams to the lilies of the field clothed like Solomon, from the barren fig tree to the vine and the branches, from the floods which lift up their voice to the desert haunts of jackals, from the lion and the lamb to the serpent and the dove—nature provides the visual grammar of God’s word. Becoming biblically literate means not only reading the Scriptures, but also learning to engage the natural world as a symbolic treasury of meaning, and letting those images shape our prayers, hymns, and intuitions.
Music like Ray LaMontagne’s can play a part in tuning our hearts to this holy grammar all around us. “Am I to believe that all I see and feel / Is really only dreaming? / I don’t want a shadow life / I want the clouds, the sea, the sky, the real things,” LaMontagne declares in Monovision’s opening love song. We can agree with him that the physical world is just as real and significant as the spiritual world. It isn’t “merely matter”; it is a sacrament. “Nothing is ‘neutral,’” according to Father Alexander Schmemann, “for the Holy Spirit, as a ray of light, as a smile of joy, has ‘touched’ all things, all time—revealing all of them as precious stones of a precious temple,” in which humans, as God’s image-bearers, act as priests and celebrants, offering up to God in thanksgiving the beauty we behold. The symbols are threads that knit us to God, to this world and to one another.
When he’s not touring, Ray lives with Sarah in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in an enormous old farmhouse surrounded by 16,000 acres of woods. He rarely gives interviews. His sons are in their twenties now, and he managed to give them—in the midst of producing eight albums over sixteen years—the stability he never had as a child. Ray still makes music when his muse comes knocking, but he also keeps his hands busy renovating the house, repairing antique cars, riding his motorcycle, and blacksmithing in his homemade smithy. He hasn’t watched TV in nearly 30 years. Ray likes to take it slow.
The poet T. S. Eliot said that “our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves,” a truth I expect more of us can own up to now that a pandemic has thrown us back upon ourselves and sequestered our social lives. For those of us with a little more time on our hands, we can no longer blame self-evasion on a busy schedule. But if we’re willing and attentive, we can become “aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate.” LaMontagne’s music and example can help us meet rather than evade ourselves, mend our hurts rather than distract ourselves from them, and see the symbolic and sacramental depths of “real things” rather than their digital substitutes.
Listening to LaMontagne has prompted me to ask myself how often I “pretend to attend” to the people in my life, to the Scriptures, and to nature. Monovision held up a mirror to my heart, and I was ashamed of my shallow, scattered, and dissipated capacity for attention. Funny how a man who never mentions God in his music can nevertheless conjure repentance, insight, and worship in my heart. It’s a good thing for us that he didn’t bury his talents in the cold, hard soil of Maine. The wind blows where it wishes, I suppose, and not just through tree branches and human hearts, but also through this soft-spoken man’s vocal chords, which are still turning pain into beauty, and channeling the holiness of the palpable world into healing.
 The idea that poetical language with multiple layers of meaning is older than the dualism of subject/object or material/immaterial comes from Owen Barfield. Ancient figurative languages grew out of an original participation with nature which did not distinguish inner from outer, or even perceive them as separate things. We perceive a separation now, and draw material and immaterial back together consciously through metaphors. In this way, we remember a forgotten primeval unity and heal the breach.
 “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 ESV).