I fear if I don’t write this now, then I never will. I have kept putting it off because it’s pretty hard to type when your eyes brim with tears. On Tuesday I was walking down the road and went to grab my cross and instead grabbed at air. It’s still so raw, too raw, to write a final Year in God’s Time post. But then, I don’t think it will ever become any less raw. It might change, the grief might age so that I no longer have fresh tears but a deeper longing, the permeating pang of homesickness, the staring at photographs and wishing you could walk into them and be, once more, with the people in them.
The other reason for delaying writing this is what can really be said only a week after it all ended? There were so many lessons this year, the fruit of which is yet to come. If I wax lyrical about unity or community or reconciliation or silence or service, is it too early, should I wait until the weeks and months and years to come when each of those things will become trials and chores that I will have to earnestly and desperately and deliberately seek God’s help for?
I feel the weight of expectation to be eloquent. I feel people are expecting something profound. I have nothing to say, except there is no greater thing than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his love, his power, his call, his making a way to the Father.
There is nothing greater than Jesus Christ and him crucified.
And he is revealed in community, in Christian unity, in the paradox of joy and pain present in reconciliation. He is loud in silence and even louder in service. He is in each person, a precious, wonderful gift. He is in the decision to say ‘yes, I will follow you, I will make your cause, my cause.’
The Community of St Anselm has been the best year of my life. I say that totally sans hyperbole. It has been challenging, it has been glorious, it has transformed me. Saying goodbye on Monday was nearly impossible – how do you say goodbye to people you have given your hear to? But it was all these things because they all pointed to Jesus.
The things I have loved most about the Community, are not exclusive to the Community. They are possible wherever Jesus is possible. At St Anselm, we use sung worship like punctuation – that’s still possible beyond the walls of Lambeth Palace! (Although, I chickened out of trying it at PCC on Wednesday… maybe next time).
No eloquence, nothing profound, only Jesus.
And to Gabi, Becky, Dora, Eloise, Hannah, Hayley, Israel, Katy, Laura, Lianne, Mim, Pete, Phil, Rebecca, Simon, Andy, Demarius, Esther, Eve, Nida, Prisca, Rachel, Salmoon, Simon, Sunila, Tonde, and Tollin, Simon, Keren, Asia, Oliver, Setske, Virginie, Nicholas, Ula, Sybille, Alan, Ione, Justin, and Caroline… thank you. Each one of you. I love you and I will always choose you. Go and be Jesus to the world, just as you have been Jesus – love, acceptance, joy – to me this year in God’s time.
I was asked to give my testimony of this year at the Community of St Anselm’s Commissioning Service. Here is what I said:
A week before we first met as a Community, I messaged a friend who’d been here last year and who had persuaded me to apply: ‘this is a really bad idea, I shouldn’t be doing this. She said, ‘give me one reason why.’ I replied with eleven. When we were in this room ten months ago, I was so happy to be here, but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was fraud, that I’d been let in by administrative error, and that I was going to have to do something to earn my place.
Before I joined St Anselm, seven years of studying and three theology degrees had made me a smartass who could talk with confidence about God’s love, but who had, along the way, annexed knowledge of God’s love to my head and away from my heart and left me with this sense that I would never quite be good enough.
A few months ago, I looked back on the eleven reasons I sent my friend for why this was a bad idea. They had a common theme I hadn’t realised at the time: why would anyone choose me? Why would anyone choose me, let alone super Christians which must be the criteria for getting to hang out at Lambeth Palace?
And then here we were, a bit nervous, arms hanging in slightly unnatural fashion as the albs were so alien to us. And we said ‘I choose you.’
To say ‘I choose you’ has been the most extraordinary gift both to give and to receive; we have said it not just in our words, but in our actions, from the depth of sharing groups, to the beautifully mundane moments around washing up stations; from the communal prayers offered in sacred thin places, to the unexpected yet wonderful intimacy bred in silence together.
And we still say ‘I choose you’ even when someone puts salt in the chocolate sauce, rather than sugar, but you’re on a silent retreat, so you can’t do anything about it!
I have been transformed by those three words ‘I choose you.’ Out of all the words in our Rule of Life, it is those three I really have carried with me each day, in the highs and lows throughout this year. Because ‘I choose you’ gives you permission to be vulnerable and says you don’t go into the wounded places alone. ‘I choose you’ says ‘I love you’ not because I have to, but because Christ is in you and that, to me, is irresistible. ‘I choose you’ says God chooses you. The God, the God who went to magnificent, cosmos-shattering, death-defeating lengths to bring you back to Himself. ‘I choose you’ undoes the lie I believed that I had to earn my place here to belong, and ultimately, undid the lie I had been believing for years, that I had to earn, to strive, to desperately beg, for God’s love.
I began this year hoping for spiritual boot-camp which would finally make me good enough, worthy enough. Instead, this has been a year of God saying ‘I love you.’ In many ways this year, nothing has changed yet everything has; I am no more loved by God than I was at the start of this year, but now I know deep within me that extraordinary and transformative love of Jesus Christ. We have all learned how to be loved this year. There’s no deep secret, it’s no elusive spiritual discipline, it’s in the gift God gives to us and which we give to one another, contained within those three remarkable words: I choose you.
We choose one another. Like Jesus has chosen us, we choose to give ourselves to one another in prayer, in service, in support, in forgiveness, in work, in play, in listening. We give ourselves to the task of learning to love one another, receiving each other as a gift from God given at his discretion, not ours. By the grace of God, we choose this way of life in the Community of St Anselm.
‘Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.’
The Celtic Christians had a phrase ‘the thin place,’ the rare places where heaven and earth kiss, collapsing the space between them, tectonic plates of charisms and grace where from the gaps God bursts forth in beauty and power.
If you seek them, you can find them. Sometimes they are in the most unlikely of places. Others are known, established, places of pilgrimage for many generations. Let me tell you the story of a thin place, a house of prayer, of welcome, of greeting each person crossing its threshold as a potential Christ. It is the story of ordinary exposed as extraordinary, of worship in both sacrament and household chores, of wrestling the chains from the ones you love as they wrestle your own chains from you.
It is the story of losing your life in order to really find it.
I’m good with seasons of life. I always have been. If anything, I am too good at them, closing them before they’ve officially closed. I’ve been ready for each school transition, to move from one degree to the next, to shift from my current working life into ordinand. But as the countdown to the end of my year in God’s time speeds up, I’m not ready. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want it to stop. I want to forever skip into Lambeth Palace on a Monday evening, stumble over the language of BCP in evening prayer, sing a chorus of praise at every opportunity, set off indoor fireworks, send back not-clean-yet plates to a musical soundtrack, share the peace, receive a hug from a foretaste of heaven, have the hairs of my arm stand on end as the harmonies of the nunc dimitis rise, leave in silence. I want to forever treasure and be treasured by these gifts of Jesus wrapped up in unique and loving and kind and beautiful and brave people, with amazing stories and incredible hearts.
I suppose, if we’re being honest, I don’t want a year in God’s time. I want a lifetime in God’s time. I want to always live with this bit of grief that this season will end before I am ready, because in this pain I will always be reminded of how much I love these people and how much they love me. In this pain, I will never again come to God’s altar with ambivalence, but over-awed by his gift of forgiveness, along with the gift of discomfort wrought by the disunity of Christians and how unity must be a priority if we want to see God’s kingdom here on earth.
We can’t all live in thin places. But we can all be thin people, vessels of God’s truth and beauty, a bit cracked, a bit bruised, but testaments to the profound goodness of God’s creation and creativity. We can all play our part in the continued creation of God’s earth, knowing it is a gift to do so and not contingent on our own striving.
If my time with St Anselm at the thin place of Sclerder has taught me anything (and really, it’s taught me so much) it’s that God is love.
God is love.
And he shows he is love in remarkable, transformative, dramatic, simple, ordinary, extraordinary ways. Through his word, through Christ, through the Spirit, through the bread and wine, through his whispers in the night, through the waves hitting the sand, through his fearfully and wonderfully made children – of which you are one. And that love makes striving redundant. It shouts down all lies of unworthiness or unwantedness because love is calling your name. And you wade through that love, the weight anchors you, it is balm, it is refreshment. And it changes you.
So seek out the thin places. Wade in the treasures of God you encounter there. But let me tell you that within every person is a thin place. Within you is a thin place. The divine spark of God deep within you meets your story, meets your life and is ready to burst forth. Unlock it receiving all the love God has for you.
Applications are now open for the 2018/19 Community of St Anselm. In case you needed some encouragement to apply, here are my top ten* reasons why you should prayerfully consider it and give it a go…
A rule of life will set you free. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. We follow a rule of life which isn’t always easy. And yet, the rule of life is not there for us to measure ourselves up against, but to release us into joyful obedience so that we might flourish under discipline through which we encounter God.
You learn new ways of praying. Coming from the evangelical tradition, I’ve always felt inadequate at prayer. There had to be so many words that sound so impressive; everyone knows the longer your intercessions last, the holier you are… But so far I’ve learnt about simplicity, about new ways of entering in to God’s presence. I’ve learnt that prayer is not a skill to strive for, but a gift we are graciously given.
You will hear God. Even in silence. In fact, especially in silence! If the idea of prolonged silence intimidates you, it’s okay, you’re not alone! All of us were intimidated by it, from the most die-hard introverts to the most gregarious extroverts. God speaks, being part of St Anselm equips you to listen and discern his voice.
Your life will be transformed by the words ‘I choose you.’ As Christians, we’re called to love one another. Of course, we don’t always do a great job of that. As part of St Anselm, we are called to do something vastly more profound. We choose each other. We don’t say ‘I love you because I have to, but I don’t actually like you.’ We say ‘I choose you. I choose you not because we’re similar, not because we click, I choose you because you are the image of Christ, and I choose you afresh each day.’ To be chosen, to be desired in this way, unlocks the image of God within you so that you recognise your innate value for yourself.
It will break your heart. You fall in deep love with these people, your brothers and sisters. And then you come to the communion table, that cosmic equaliser. And equality is nowhere to be found. The words ‘we all share in one bread’ do not come true. The pain is indescribable.
Reconciliation and unity become priorities. It is from this pain, that your priorities change. Christian unity is no longer a nice idea, it’s an imperative.
There will be lots of fun. Indoor fireworks, quirky dancing, and Spice Girls parodies (‘if you wanna be my brother, you gotta have chastity.’ Some of the best fun will happen when washing up!
++Justin might tell you off for coming in late to evening prayer (and other fun quirks). It is pretty cool getting to say things like ‘I’m just going to Lambeth Palace.’ It is pretty cool to just walk into Lambeth Palace and no-one stops you! It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at one of the epicentres of Anglicanism.
God’s love is gratuitous and infinite. God desires to lavish his love upon each one of us. Yes, he is the king on his throne, but he is also the Father with arms flung wide for us to run into. St Anselm is not some kind of spiritual boot camp, it’s about realising just how profoundly and overwhelmingly you are loved by God and enjoying receiving that love.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that!’ It’s impossible to describe what life at St Anselm is like. All I can say for certain is that I am humbled and thrilled and so so grateful that called me here this year. It’s changing my life. It’s replaced my expectations with God’s awesome plans, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
*I’ve way more than ten reasons, but I’m taking up brevity for Lent.
As the coach crossed the Tamar, I have to confess to being excited for what lay in store. A week of silence, a week of calm following what had been a frantic few weeks filled with lots of doing things and worrying about things and wrestling with a deluge of demands on my time and energy and self. Seeing Sclerder Abbey suddenly appear in the dark was a welcome sight; I had the childlike urge to run up to the building and hug its stone but thought better of it.
One final chance to talk, to share, to be the noisy and vibrant Community we are and in a moment, my tongue was tied. Fear gripped me. It was like being plunged into icy water, a bony hand holding me under. My last moments of free-talking were spent gagged. All the nerves and anxieties of what the week may hold came flooding back. If this was supposed to be about encountering the stream of living water then I was about to sink.
And at the name of Jesus, as those words of worship rose forth in the now familiar chapel, the hand lost its grip and into the silence, the proper silence, the holy silence of divine encounter, the final words ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…’
In silence, the darkness is no longer so dark; the fire glows, the navy sky is warmer than black.
In silence, there is simplicity and joy to be found within it. Tasks like washing walls and peeling apples are not mundane but profound, consequential. Silence does not dismantle hierarchies, but it does demand equality.
In silence, you are rooted in the present. The bell rings through the old building, calling you to what is next, not what is in the days, months, years to come. So you notice things, the everyday things; you become aware that each day, this day, is a gift.
In silence, the chains of self-dependence are broken. You can’t journey this alone, you need others.
In silence, you can’t use other people. Yes, you need people, but you can’t use them; you can’t use them to find your validation, you can’t use them to derive your self-worth.
In silence, you reach a new depth of intimacy with those around you and it’s unity, and it tastes do deliciously sweet!
(In silence, you can’t do much when someone puts salt in the chocolate sauce rather than sugar… Decidedly not sweet!)
In silence, God is loud. He’s hard to ignore. He’s confrontational, but never aggressive. He’s persistent, but never degrading.
In silence, you get permission to plunder the riches to be found in the mystery of God.
In silence, you discover you are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means, to save my soul.
In silence, you learn you are created; created, a creation, God’s creation and His works are wondrous – I know that full well – and I am one! I am a work of His hand, His design, His gifts, woven into my history which I surrender back to Him so they become His story.
In silence, you realise you are created to praise and it’s liberating. In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice; bless the Lord my soul; alleluia, alleluia, amen amen, alleluia!
In silence, you understand you are created to reverence and your soul cannot hold back on proclaiming sanctus sanctus sanctus deus sabaoth because God is holy and He is King and Lord.
In silence, you recognise you are created to serve and there you are, folding laundry in a drafty outhouse, silent, in the presence of God, and standing on holy ground.
In silence, God is faithful and good and kind.
In silence, God’s love is infinite and gratuitous and overwhelming and never-ending and reckless – and for me.
In silence, God peels away scar tissue toxic to the body and fills wounds with living water and makes them His dwelling place.
In silence, God is everything He has said He is.
In silence, I am, with God’s help, everything He has declared I am.
In silence, I received gifts so generous, so numerous, to treasure.
In silence, I tasted, I savoured, I saw, and I heard. Because God is good. He is who He says He is. And He loves me.
I’m standing up in the back of a set of pews set off to one side. My tights-clad feet slip on the wood beneath me, a move which is soon going to bite me in the ass, or more specifically, split my side open and ruin the contemplative mood of silent prayer.
I’m not alone.
We’re all there, together. Well, nearly all there. Philip is missing and we can feel it. We’re a body and we’re missing a vital part, waiting eagerly for his arrival so we can be whole again.
Our uniform of albs is hanging up in a corridor round the corner, but the same crosses hang from our necks. These are ours forever, we’ll carry them with us long after we hang up our albs. And in these few days spent with each other, the most profound moments occur when the string and wood are our identifying markers, not the conspicuous robes of white.
We’re adults – young adults, yes – but we’re grown ups. Between us we’ve collected life experiences and life stories that make us unique but which also bind us together. Wounds run into wounds, laughter meets laughter, prayer follows prayer. But there’s something childlike in us all this evening. We’re pretending to be electric guitars, we’re waving our arms and doing crazy dancing. We’ve mastered the art of sitting and speaking antiphonally, but on this evening, we’re doing a new thing: we’re being free. There’s a stupid grin on my face. I can’t remember the last time my soul felt this free.
And in amidst all this, God is.
I once ‘celebrated’ New Year’s Eve with someone whose brother had terminal cancer, that twelfth chime of Big Ben signaled the year her brother was going to die and with each bong her sobs grew louder. This time of year is always marked with people reflecting on the year that’s been and deciding on their self-improvement regimen for the new one. But sometimes the New Year is just that; it’s a new year, not a new you. Big Ben’s ringing out doesn’t result in some ontological change.
But if there’s one thing I’ve been learning it’s this: work on yourself. It’s a never ending process and you don’t need to wait until January 1 to begin it. And it’s not a process that’s like an upwards trajectory; there’ll be ups and downs and the triumphs will feel small and the setbacks overwhelming. But you don’t do this alone. It’s why God gave us himself and gives himself through other people.
This was my wish for 2017:
It sounds more holy and pious than it actually was. There was no great move of the Holy Spirit behind it. And yet, it came more true than I could ever have imagined it would.
We’ve finished setting the room for lunch and we sit down in two arm chairs to pray. She takes my hand.
‘Is it okay if I pray in my language, so I’m not having to think about what to say in English?’
She speaks. I’ve no idea what she’s saying, but I feel so warm. It’s my turn. She laughs.
‘You just prayed for me the exact words I prayed for you.’
And in that moment, something has happened. Something so ordinary and yet it feels so extraordinary.
We’re all together. One body. One family. And our brave and beautiful brothers and sisters say ‘yes’ and it’s like a celebration deep in my soul. And then another chance to say ‘yes’ again. And it’s terrifying and yet I feel safe. And we say it, one by one.
And Heaven touches earth.
The Father kisses his children. And nothing changes but everything does. You’re no more loved than you were moments before, but you accept it more and love bursts through the caverns of your soul. And those promises you made to those strangers around you, to choose you and to love you, you realise they’re being said to you, but being said to you by friends. And you’re safe. And you’re not alone.
‘I have never left you.’ It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s at once painful and healing. And it’s Heaven touching earth.
‘We’re here for you.’ Do these two community members of mine realise the magnitude of what they’ve said? It’s not a whisper, it’s not a shout, it’s Heaven touching earth.
Heaven touching earth is not just in the spectacular, it’s in the everyday. The act of love, the word of kindness, the laughing and crying and bleeding and scarring. It’s in the bit of Christ that lives in all of us, the bread of community and communion. It’s in the quotidian decisions where the Holy Spirit gently taps on the door.
Heaven touching earth is in the chaplain, after having listened to you complain for ten minutes, uttering six words which change the course of your year. It’s in the couple from church who, without having realised it, have gently dismantled a barrier you’d been holding onto for ages. It’s those glorious teenagers who have stolen your heart, who keep you up at night, and who experience Jesus in such beautiful, childlike ways. It’s five hours after a lunch meeting in a Lebanese restaurant and realising these colleagues you love are actually friends you love. It’s the colleague who cries when she prays because this is her vocation and she’s so in tune with God’s heart. It’s those people you said ‘I choose you’ to. It’s family being family. It’s sitting in the crypt and having a head resting on your shoulder.
It’s the realisation that you didn’t seek out Heaven touching earth. No, it sought out you. ‘Because, Hannah, I have never left you,’ says the Lord.
I’ve recently returned from being on retreat with the Community of St Anselm. The title of it was ‘Life in the Holy Spirit.’ How was it? Hard to describe. And the lessons learnt from it, the moments of divine encounter will be processed more fully over the coming days, weeks, months, maybe even years.
We went down to the beach one day; the part we went to was rocky, the clamber to the sea made even more precarious by the blanket of seaweed. ‘This is a beach?’ Someone used to white sand and sapphire oceans asked. ‘It’s a punishment beach!’ Joked another. Punishment Beach. The promise of beauty and freedom with the reality of the risk of danger and where the only thing which is certain is uncertainty.
Sometimes life with God feels like Punishment Beach. You know it’s meant to be incredible, that the promise of abundant life is for you, and yet you punish yourself with striving, trying to earn the un-earnable, losing sight of the promise of love and slipping on the seaweed of lies that draws your eyes down to the danger, not up to the hope.
And then you join in a prayer prayed through the centuries.
‘Come, Holy Spirit.’
Formation is never-ending. God is not a God of the gaps when faith and reason kiss each other. Our ‘yes’ is a gift of grace where it’s no longer about living for God but living in Him; where you look for the work of God, not saying I will work for God.
In community, prayers you absent-mindedly prayed before you came are beautifully and joyfully answered. In fear of going down the steep hill, unsure as to whether you’ll make it back up again, someone offers their hand and you realise it’s okay to take it. You take the permission to be vulnerable and in enters God. It stings. He goes deeper. It’s agony. Why now, God? Why here? Because you don’t go into the wounded places alone.
We choose to live transparent lives; we choose to trust. Sometimes you have to bleed in the intimate public that is intentional community. God shows his love for you through other people. The people you laugh with, cry with, share with, listen with, pray with, sing with, serve with, praise with, dance with, be in silence with. And the gift of their trusting you with their story feels like the myhrr laid at Jesus’ feet, a gift, a treasure.
‘What is Jesus saying?’
‘I have never left you.’
‘And do you believe him?’
It’s not about emotions. But it is about trust. And risk. And freedom. You are worthy of love just because of who you are. When you all journey together, you gently wrestle the links of each person’s chains from them. It might be a long journey, but that’s okay. We’re all here, together. We offer our trust and say again ‘I choose you.’
And so at Punishment Beach, I found no punishment. Only mercy, and compassion, the whisper of God and the shouts of my community in chorus: ‘I love you.’
One year since the legendary singer, songwriter, poet, author, and ladies man died, Leonard Cohen’s words are still as haunting and poignant and beautiful as ever. His most famous work, ‘Hallelujah,’ from whose lyrics this blog has stolen its title from, is a theological masterpiece. Let me explain…
My songs have come to me. I’ve had to scrape them out of my heart. They come in pieces at a time and in showers and fragments and if I can put them together into a song and I have something at the end of the excavation I’m just grateful for having it.
Poet, author, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is a multitude of identities. He is simultaneously a caddish lothario and doting father, a writer equally comfortable with the erotic and the esoteric and existential, an obedient Jew and a dabbler in Buddhism. His popularity over his decades-long career had been waning until a song from his 1984 album, Various Positions, was covered by increasingly well-known artists, before becoming an anthem of the reality television show age. Since then, the song has exploded in popularity, inspired much debate and discussion over its meaning or meanings, and has raised Cohen’s profile. The song is ‘Hallelujah.’ It is a multifaceted song, lyrically rich yet melodically relatively simple; it incorporates love and desire with biblical and theological imagery and it is these latter elements in particular which have contributed so significantly to the song’s popularity. This essay seeks to explore the identities of Cohen, especially his religious and philosophical leanings, before exploring how he incorporates biblical and theological ideas into his works. It will then examine the reasons for ‘Hallelujah’s’ popularity and impact, before interrogating the song for its various meanings.
The Formation of Leonard Cohen
Born in 1934 in Montreal, Cohen was the only son of Nathan and Marsha Cohen, and his grandparents were some of the founding families of the Jewish community in Montreal, featuring prominent rabbis and members of the Canadian army. Indeed, Cohen’s father, ‘Lieutenant Nathan Cohen, number 3080887, became one of the first Jewish commissioned officers in the Canadian army,’ and his gun from World War I, a .38, was a source of fascination to his young son. Arguably the most transformative event in Cohen’s childhood was the death of his father when he was only nine years old. ‘Emotion is autobiographical,’ Cohen once commented. His father’s death and the aftermath subsequently permeated some of his work. His first novel, The Favourite Game, whose hero, Laurence, bears a striking resemblance to Cohen, features a scene where Laurence and his sister both steal a look at their father in his coffin and discuss why someone had dyed his moustache black. This version of events also appears in Cohen’s short stories “Ceremonies,” “My Sister’s Birthday,” and “Nursie Told Us The News.”
Leonard’s nanny informed Leonard and [his sister] Esther that they would not be going to school that morning because their father had died in the night. They should be quiet, she said, because their mother was still sleeping. The funeral would take place the following day. “Then the day dawned on me,” Leonard wrote. “But it can’t be tomorrow, Nursie, it’s my sister’s birthday.”
The innocence and poignancy of this detail as it appears in the adolescent Cohen’s first forays into writing is especially moving. Due to the frequency of his father’s ill health in the years preceding his death, tension had arisen between his family unit and Cohen’s paternal uncles, and he recounts the strain on their relationship in The Favourite Game and in his poems ‘Rites’ and ‘Priests 1957.’ From an early age, grief and trauma were hallmarks of Cohen’s life, and have since become permeating themes within his work.
In terms of religion, Cohen’s father ‘was a conservative Jew, not fanatical, without ideology and dogma, whose life was made up of domestic habit and affiliations with the community.’ But for Cohen,
the rituals of the Jewish religion, with their sung recitations, were an early influence, and young Leonard had particularly enjoyed reading the Book of Isaiah at the side of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Klein. The key attraction for Leonard was not [just] spiritual, however, but simply the chance to spend time with his grandfather; the desire to sit at the feet of a holy man transcended the source and nature of the holiness that motivated him.
Above all, Judaism was an identity marker for Cohen, and he was encouraged by his literary heroes and mentors in the Jewish Canadian cluster in Montreal in the mid to late twentieth century, ‘to focus on his Jewish heritage.’ His two most prominent mentors were the writers A.M. Klein and Irving Layton. For the former, Cohen wrote the affecting poem ‘To A Teacher’ reflecting on Klein’s mental breakdown which rendered him mute for the last years of his life. Layton, meanwhile, was a ‘rough and tumble poet rogue, [who] became a substitute father in many ways, a guiding rebel,’ and Cohen learnt as much about writing and Judaism from Layton as he did womanising. What is curious amongst the writers who emerged from Montreal, like Klein, Layton, and Cohen, is the amalgamation of identities they subsumed. They were Canadians but with Eastern European backgrounds, Anglophones in a Francophone area, Jewish but practically so, rather than religiously. His ‘Canadianness’ and his Jewishness inform each other, and Cohen remarked that biblical images in his work ‘come naturally to me because I was brought up in Montreal where there are a lot of symbols of the different religions. I guess my reading of the Bible has contributed, but there has always been that kind of imagery in my world.’Out of all the identity markers, it is Jewishness which persisted in his canons of work and for Cohen, a prolific writer, religion and religiosity has proved to be an enduring influence.
Biblical Reception History in Leonard Cohen
‘”How important do you think your being Jewish is in what you do?”’ asked filmmaker Harry Rasky of Cohen as he filmed a documentary on him. Cohen replied,
”Well, to have had the privilege of knowing an old tradition it has been, I think, decisive in my own life…the Bible is, I guess, the most important book in my life…it was the English Bible, that language, that touched me, those concerns for the way the voice is raised for instance in the songs of lamentations, the sense of grandeur in the prophets, the sense of chaotic revelation in the Book of Revelations. Those kinds of modes of speech, where the heart is beating fast, there is no other book that has that scope. It really touched me, the Jewish liturgy, the sound of the Jewish voice raised in prayer, or adoration or praise, those are the kinds of modes that touched me and informed me.”
There is a fluidity in Cohen’s theological influences; there is a familiarity and fundamentality for him in Jewish traditions and liturgy, but he is similarly influenced by Christian texts, and especially the language and imagery of them. The importance of the Bible in Cohen’s writing cannot be overstated; the images and references from the nuanced to the overt are everywhere, a consistent presence in all his volumes of poetry, as well as in both his novels. In his 1956 collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, thirteen out of the forty-four poems contain explicit religious or biblical imagery or themes. He deals with anti-Semitism in ‘For Wilf and His House,’ yearns for a messiah in ‘Prayer for Messiah,’ and writes of Moses, Job, and David in ‘Saviours.’ In ‘Song of Patience,’ Cohen reflects on Kateri Tekakwitha, the first First Nations saint who, following a quasi-conversion to Catholicism in 1678, practiced a hybrid of Mohawk spirituality with the penance ritual inspired by Catherine of Siena, from whom Kateri took her baptism name, (Kateri is Mohawk transliteration of Catherine). Kateri, who took mortification to its extremes, was a source of fascination to Cohen who used her story as inspiration for his second novel, Beautiful Losers, and in ‘Song of Patience’ describes falling in love with her, she who ‘in her hand she held Christ’s splinter.’ Reflecting on Kateri and her penance rituals, Cohen stated, that
in our age of convulsion, we must “rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol, not just an experiment in sadism or masochism or arrogance. It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where [humanity] is at.”
‘The transcendent and the earthly intermingling was Cohen’s oldest trick;’ in ‘Story of Isaac,’ the Genesis narrative is transformed into a protest against politics and war, and in ‘Suzanne’ the poem’s eponymous hero and her habits are juxtaposed with Christ and his passion. Cohen balances a nihilistic view of the world with a lens of redemption and hope, inspired by the Judaeo-Christian traditions, stating,
in my own work, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that the world isn’t good, that a Messianic age should be brought about, or that we should all live in peace and harmony. What I’m trying to stress is the inner strength that will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you.
Perhaps the zenith of Cohen’s philosophical outlook can be seen in his poem ‘The Anthem’ where he writes, ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’ His perspective is simultaneously nihilistic – everything is broken, and hopeful – but light can still get in. This sense of engaging with or rather confronting the existential is arguably what has made Cohen as successful as he is; his fearlessness in addressing the big questions, laying his soul bare to life’s most painful traumas and anguishes, is something which resonates with people. When these ideas which speak to people are conveyed through popular music, an accessible medium, the impact has the potential to be far-reaching, and of all of Cohen’s pieces of work, there is one song in particular which has achieved this far-reaching impact: ‘Hallelujah.’
I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgment that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect. And it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song.
So began Cohen at a concert in Warsaw in 1985 before introducing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ the version from his studio album and performed at his shows, is an authentic articulation of his personal hallelujahs. His ‘Hallelujah’ articulates his tumultuous love life, his struggles with depression, the grief and trauma from his childhood, and his interesting and at times tempestuous relationships with religion and with God. The result is a modern-day psalm which would not feel out of place in a synagogue or a church and feels intimately Cohen’s yet can also be for the tongues and hearts of other people.
‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ that David played to please the Lord,/ but you don’t really care for music, do you?’ The speaker of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is initially ambiguous in the first stanza; the rhetorical and informal question of ‘do you’ suggests the speaker is reflecting on themselves, perhaps looking back over their past or maybe examining themselves as they are right now. The David of the song is King David, the every-Jew, the Hebrew Bible character who was both blessed by the Lord and triumphed, while also compulsively sinning, including adultery and murder. Using David as a muse is significant because of the importance of David in both Jewish and Christian tradition. David is a character who believers can readily identify with, in both his sinning and in his being blessed and then triumphing, and he is not bound to one tradition, but is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity, especially in the latter where his lineage leads to Jesus.
The verse continues, ‘It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth/ the minor fall,/ the major lift;/ the baffled king composing Hallelujah!’ The reference to David as musician is an intriguing one as it ‘was his musicianship that first earned David a spot in the royal court, the first step toward his rise to power and uniting the Jewish people.’ This honing in on David the musician sets up ‘Hallelujah’ in the Psalmist tradition and, as a musician himself, suggests that Cohen strongly identifies with David not just because of the Jewish tradition he is embedded in, but because of the uniting force of music. In dissecting the structure of the song, ‘the minor fall’ and ‘the major lift,’ Cohen lets the listener into the secrets of song creation and an insight into the relationship between Cohen and David. What is especially striking is that Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has its melody, unlike David’s Psalms where the musical scores have been lost and forgotten over time. Thus, ‘Hallelujah’ is in many ways a complete Psalm, unlike the ones in the Jewish and Christian canons, as sung today it can be brought to life for people in a way that just reading David’s and others Psalms in the scriptures cannot. The image of David is also important in his function as the every-Jew, the man who oscillated constantly between righteousness and sin, but who always maintained God’s favour and who, of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible, holds arguably the biggest influence for Jews. The first verse ends with Cohen describing David as the ‘baffled’ king, the thoroughly human David venerated for his power and royalty, while struggling with sin. ‘Baffled’ is an apt way to describe Cohen’s approach and life over the years, an amalgamation of experiences both sacred and profane, the musician celebrated for his compositions and yet falling into the traps of hedonism.
In the second verse, King David reappears when ‘[he] saw her bathing on the roof;/ her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you,’ referencing ‘the moral low point in David’s life when he steps onto the roof of his palace and spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing across the way.’ This mention of David is then juxtaposed in the latter part of the verse where Cohen alludes to the Hebrew Bible story of Samson and Delilah: ‘She tied you to a kitchen chair/ she broke your throne, she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!’ In many ways this juxtaposition of two icons of the Jewish and Christian tradition is jarring and clumsy and it has the effect of making the meaning of the song somewhat incoherent or perplexing to those not familiar with the details of their narratives in the Hebrew Bible. Both David and Samson experience triumphs and dramatic falls from grace, both experience struggles with their sexuality which leads to David committing murder out of jealousy and Samson losing his strength and then his life. But the enduring legacy of both David and Samson, their reception in popular culture and history, is of figures who stumbled, fell, but ultimately triumphed. In the context of the ‘Hallelujah’ contemporary psalm, the use of David and Samson as lyrical muses contributes to the song’s popularity because David and Samson are figures people readily identify with, but are also characters who inspire hope, hope that redemption or a return of what has been lost is possible. Even in the case of Samson who ultimately lost his life, ‘he kills more people in his death than he did during his lifetime,’ so his final ‘hallelujah’ is ultimately one of triumph.
The third verse is where Cohen’s successors divert from his original. It begins, ‘You say I took the Name in vain;/ I don’t even know the name./ But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?’ In Judaism, the name of God is sacred, to the extent that it is never written down in case someone unaware of its importance should inadvertently say it, because ‘the name has an inherent power, a holiness that comes from the very presence of God as creator and judge.’ There is something intrinsically Jewish in Cohen’s lyrics here, the name of God and its significance is something of peculiar importance to the Jewish tradition and experience, and has been a source of tension between Christians who use the name of God quite readily, as opposed to Jews who revere it. Cohen’s ‘what’s it to you’ here is somewhat defensive; the name of God is a hallmark of the Jewish tradition, and the reception of Judaism and Jewish people throughout world history has generally been one of unwarranted antagonism. Thus, Cohen is defending the Jewish tradition and even more than that, defending his own tradition which matters deeply to him. The verse continues ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word;/ it doesn’t matter which you heard,/ the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!’ The ‘blaze of light in every word’ is ‘the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it.’ The blaze of light is God’s communicating with his people on earth, be it to prophets like Moses dramatically through a burning bush, through the Hebrew Bible for meditation on in both Jewish and Christian tradition, or through the intimacy of God and man in relationship. This relationality between God and believer is what allows for there to be a holy or a broken hallelujah. Cohen’s understanding of hallelujah is that it diverts the person away from nihilism because the hallelujah is for people in whatever their circumstances or experiences at that time. The juxtaposition of holy and broken shows Cohen directly inspired by the scriptures; he states
from what I gather in reading ancient texts, right up to the present, human beings have always been confronted by the same kinds of problems. I think that this world is not a realm that admits to a solution… We have to deal with good and evil continually. With joy and despair, with all the antinomies, all the opposites and contraries. That’s what our life is about.
In ‘Hallelujah,’ Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph, taking the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrating how the stories in the scriptures are not unique experiences for human beings. As Cohen says,
now that is the biblical landscape? It is the victory of experience. That’s what the Bible celebrates. The victory of experience. So the experience of these things is absolutely necessary, as well as a teaching that enables the student to manifest, to experience these episodes that are burning through the Bible, that are now relegated to the realm of miracles or superstition, or something that can’t happen to you.
Cohen’s final stanza is the most powerful and poignant. In rawness he writes, ‘I did my best; it wasn’t much.’ At first glance, it seems Cohen has gone back on his previous idea about the holy and the broken hallelujah, and is instead honing in on his brokenness, a current of despair emerging. Then the lyrics are ‘And even though it all went wrong,/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!’ As the climax of the song, its power is in its honesty and vulnerability, the authenticity of Cohen’s response to the experiences of his life and the power of God in relation to it all. Cohen embraces brokenness, but because of hallelujah, he does not wallow in it;
finally, there’s no conflict between things, finally, everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.
Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting, the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting. But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing despite pain which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.
‘Hallelujah’ is not just powerful because of the way it interweaves contemporary experiences with biblical narratives and theological concepts. Its inherent power and therefore popularity comes from the word which appears a minimum of twenty times in Cohen’s song: hallelujah. ‘’Hallelujah’ is the kind of song that seems as if it has always been written, of course, that is partly because its main theme, the chorus ‘hallelujah’ has indeed always been written.’ An ancient Hebrew word meaning praise the LORD, (YHWH), its strength is in its familiarity. It has connotations of the sacred but has been absorbed into general vernacular so that it does not sound out of place in the context of the more profane. The hallelujahs of Cohen’s songs have a fluidity of meaning, they embody nuance and connotation and allow people to express through the word ‘hallelujah’ whatever emotion they need to at that particular point; ‘its unknowable essence leaves [it] wide open for interpretation, but crucially… the core of the song, its tense conviction, remains intact.’ Although the biblical significance is perhaps distorted in the song’s subsequent reception, it attests to the power of the Bible, and therefore of God as inspiration, as the base for human responses to the world. Quite simply, ‘there is no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both. It serves as a prayer, perhaps the great prayer of the modern age, regardless of one’s relationship to God.’ But it is still a prayer, it is still biblical language, it is still the stem of God’s name which people are calling out when they sing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen reflects on the power of the name, and the name appears in the word that people have latched on to and respond to overwhelmingly.
The Impact of ‘Hallelujah’
‘Hallelujah’ nearly never became a global phenomenon; Cohen’s American record label did not want to include the song on his 1984 album Various Positions, it is one song from ‘one of his least successful albums, recorded during what was probably the lowest point in his career, [which has] wriggled out from obscurity and transcended the rest of his work.’ There have been a multitude of covers of ‘Hallelujah,’ the most famous versions including those by Jeff Buckley in 1994, k d lang in 2004, and Rufus Wainright in 2001; several television networks in the United States used the song as a background to coverage following the September 11 attacks and, more recently, it was performed in the Hope for Haiti television appeal and played during a tribute honouring the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings at Fenway Park before the Red Sox played their first home game following the tragedy. It has appeared on the soundtracks for films and television shows including The West Wing, House, and Shrek, prompting Cohen to ask for a moratorium on using the song. There is something peculiar to ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests why it has been received the way it has.
First, ‘Hallelujah’ is, in a sense, everyone’s song. Depending upon the interview, Cohen has admitted to writing in the region of eighty verses for ‘Hallelujah,’ and the version that appears on his album and which he performs live, differs from the versions popularised by Buckley, lang, Wainright, and others who cover the song. The song
contains a multiplicity of positions. It is a song about the reasons for song writing, (to attract women; to please God) and about the mechanics of song writing, (‘it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…’), about the power of the word and of the Word, about wanting sex, about having sex and about the war of the sexes. It is also a song about total surrender and total affirmation.
Furthermore, ‘because Cohen’s original version remained obscure, there was no fixed idea of how it should sound. When you come to record ‘Hallelujah’ you do not have the spectre of a definitive take.’ Because there is freedom to have a favourite version, this allows ‘Hallelujah’ to be a song for different contexts; if you are feeling morose you can turn to Wainright, if you need the uplifting injection of a gospel take, there is X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s version. Second, part of the reason why the song is free to be interpreted and covered so readily is because of the subject matter. The traditional cover version of ‘Hallelujah’ combines biblical imagery, generally familiar in a Western context, with universal questions about love and life. Jeff Buckley, whose version of ‘Hallelujah’ is arguably more famous than Cohen’s, said of the song, ‘whoever listens closely to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It is an ode to life and love.’ The “layman’s” ‘Hallelujah’ begins the same as Cohen’s: the secret chord, the bathing on the roof, and the cut hair. Then it turns decidedly more classic love song with erotic undertones. There is the despair that can only be articulated out of desire, such as ‘I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,/ but love is not a victory march,/ it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The next verse features an even more explicit sexual allusion, ‘There was a time when you let me know/ what’s really going on below/ but now you never show it to me, do you?/ I remember when I moved in you,/ and the holy dove was moving too,/ and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!’ There is something jarring about using the image of the holy dove, which is so embedded in ideas of the Holy Spirit and transcendental power, with the acts of intercourse and orgasm; but it also works. It combines the base human quest for intimacy and ecstasy with the existential. The power of the language comes from the vaguely theological imagery while the subject matter is knowable and liveable; yes it is a manipulation of biblical concepts, but it has been used in a context of relevance, biblical reception history for those seeking their sexual desire to be quenched; familiar language for familiar feelings.
The cover version of the song climaxes the lines of the final verse: ‘Now maybe there’s a God above/ but all I ever learned from love/ is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you./ And it’s no complaint you hear tonight,/ and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light – / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The familiar-sounding biblical language is still there and, coupled with the non-committal ‘maybe’ in relation to God’s existence, it articulates a common emotion, a common thought. But as well as being non-committal, the ‘maybe’ can also mean ‘so what?’ Does it matter if there is a God above when in the present there is human love, sex, and emotion? There is a sense that the biblical imagery and language should jar with the sexually-charged subject matter but, once again, the religious language lends itself to communicating the raw emotion associated with lust and love. As a love and lust song, ‘Hallelujah’s’ biblical and religious undertones serve to elevate the subject matter and put a unique spin on the classic love song. The use of religious imagery gives a sense of communicating with something ‘other,’ which makes the song stand out in a quagmire of clichés that popular music charts often can be.
‘Religious ambiguous songs have an added advantage – belief in belief…and so if you can write good religious lyrics – lyrics that are both well-written and yet sufficiently ambiguous – those lyrics will benefit from this belief in belief.’ In many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ resonates so strongly with people because of its title and its anthemic, prayer-like refrain: Hallelujah. It is explicitly religious, biblical, theological language; even if you cannot explain what it means in Hebrew or how it is used in scriptures and liturgy, you can at least give a rough sense of its meaning. Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Jerusalem’s Nava Tehilia Synagogue, who used the song for her daughter’s bat mitzvah as well as when conducting other religious services, states that ‘Hallelujah…is not a hymn of the believer – it’s a hymn of the one who is full of doubt, a hymn of the heretic.’ When ‘Hallelujah’ is juxtaposed with ‘maybe there’s a God above’ it enables the song to have fluidity in religious leanings; it can be a song for the doubter and the believer. The Jewish-Christian language, in a Western context, is compatible with an infinite number of interpretations and can appeal to a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious beliefs. When Alexandra Burke released the song as her X Factor winner’s single in competition for the sought-after Christmas Number One, its familiarity of religiosity made it a triumphant single for the winner of the most-watched television reality show and a fitting song for the charts during a festive period when Christian religiosity peaks in its exposure and in people’s religious practices; in many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ was guilt-free consumerism in the Christmas period because it could be received as being a religious song.
The cover version of ‘Hallelujah,’ the love song that works as a gospel song, is biblical reception history for the age of fading religious literacy. It combines religious language, which sounds right, with scenarios and emotions which are common to human experience. The sense of doubt about God’s existence with the biblical references which feel familiar are what have enabled the song to transcend artists and genres and to feel acceptable against numerous backdrops. ‘Hallelujah’ works against images of terrorism and a global outpouring of grief such as 9/11, just as it works as the climax of reality television shows, secondary plots in animated children’s films like Shrek, and as erotically-charged songs on the albums of alternative artists like Buckley and lang. The word ‘hallelujah’ is accessible in its familiarity, its religious connotations make it feel like you are singing something profound, it allows you to be formally religious without the commitment of being an actual believer, you can be a doubter and a lover, a believer and a fighter. Religious language should, theoretically, alienate people for whom the religious language is not theirs, but the opposite has happened with ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests there is something peculiar to Cohen’s song that has subverted expectations. ‘Hallelujah’ has become ‘the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text,’ but more than that, it has become the popular music version of sacred music, of liturgical chant. ‘Hallelujah’ is a prime example of biblical reception history for the modern age because, at face value, it communicates something more than it lyrically means when you dissect the popularised version. The song as a whole, the tune and the biblical references combined, are what make the song powerful and enduring and applicable for a multitude of contexts and people. The power of the popularised ‘Hallelujah’ lies in its approachability and adaptability. The repeated ‘hallelujah’ is not alienating but embracing and because the song as a whole feels like communicating something ‘other,’ every breath you draw really is hallelujah – whatever it may mean for you.
‘I don’t go looking for joy. I don’t go around looking for melancholy either.’ ‘Hallelujah’ has connected the sacred with the profane, drawing on how this intersects in biblical narratives, how this translates theologically, and how this can be expressed in contemporary situations and experiences. The song is an interweaving of hope and despair, triumph and failure, joy and melancholy, with a constant repetition of the word ‘hallelujah.’ The song is popular because the refrain resonates with people from all backgrounds, in its reception from Cohen through to Simon Cowell and The X Factor, it is the name of God which holds the song together and which has ensured its legacy as a go-to song for all sort of occasions for the entire spectrum of human emotions. That there is something in the word ‘hallelujah’ which appeals to people, which lends itself to expressions of gospel-style triumph through to the very depths of despair as articulated in some of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is important, but so is that even in the secular it still articulates something deeper, something profound, some sense of expressing something other or beyond, or deeper, beyond oneself. In its later incarnations, ‘Hallelujah’ is biblical reception history tweaked, while in Cohen’s original version it feels like it has a more authentic reception of Jewish narratives and theology. But the use or misuse of the Bible somehow feels irrelevant when the song’s entire reception success is on the word which incorporates the name of God. Something of the tradition remains and resonates with people, however they choose to respond to the question of faith. This is ‘Hallelujah’s’ power: it calls upon the name of God. In Cohen recognising that it can all go wrong and that there is still the chance to get up again and stand, he has written a song which defers the strength needed to get through the worst of circumstances through calling on the name of God. Today, this may translate as calling on something greater than oneself, but it is still calling on something or one greater, and when they choose ‘Hallelujah’ to articulate that call, it is God they call on.
 Cohen quoted in Walker, B., ‘Complexities and Mr Cohen,’ Sounds, March 4 1972, http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/sounds2.html accessed 07/04/15.  Simmons, S., I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.8.  Cohen quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen Hallelujah: A New Biography, (Surrey: Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43.  Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.25.  Simmons, (2012), p.13.  Ibid., p.8.  Footman, (2009), p.17  Ibid., p.22.  Rasky, H., The Song of Leonard Cohen: A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film, (London: Souvenir Press, 2001), p.16.  Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Leonard Cohen: The Profits of Doom,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.207.  Rasky, (2001), p.74.  Ibid., p.74.  Cohen, L., Let Us Compare Mythologies, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1956), p.15.  Cohen quoted in Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.44.  Leibovitz, L., A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, (Dingwall: Sandstone Press Ltd, 2014), p.150.  Cohen quoted in O’Brian, R., ‘Songs and Thoughts of Leonard Cohen,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.184.  Cohen, L., Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), p.373.  Cohen quoted in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.171.  See Appendix 1. All further quotations from this song are from this version.  Light, (2012), p.19.  Telushkin, J., Jewish Literacy, (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 2001), p.67.  Ibid., p.60.  Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.40.  Light, (2012), p.24.  Cohen quoted in O’Brian, (2014), p.184.  Cohen quoted in Kurzweil, A., ‘I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.387.  Cohen quoted in Footman, (2009), p.209.  Scharen, (2011), p.45.  Light, (2012), p.222.  Ibid., p.228.  Footman, (2009), p.198.  Kreps, D., ‘Leonard Cohen Asks for Brief Halt to New Covers of “Hallelujah,”’ Rolling Stone, 2009. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-asks-for-brief-halt-to-new-covers-of-hallelujah-20090710 accessed 07/03/15.  Simmons, (2012), p.338.  Footman, (2009), p.200.  Buckley quoted in Light, A., The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” (New York: Atria Books, 2012), p.1.  Stone, P., ‘The Happy Memes of “Hallelujah”’ in Holt, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, (New York: Open Court Publishing, 2014), p.250.  Ibid., p.250.  Simmons, (2012), p.347.  Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Depressing? Who? Me?’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p56.
A friend of mine (and I genuinely do mean a friend, this isn’t a story about me that I’m embarrassed to admit is about me) was waxing her moustache. She applied the wax strip, smoothed it down, and prepared to pull. She began to pull it, decided it was too painful, so left it and went to bed. The next morning she woke up, had wax which had hunkered down and brought in several strands of hair from her head for good measure but had decided to divorce the strip of paper. That her face is now wax free (also hair free) is the result of perseverance and repeated exclamations of pain.
What is my point? Other than wanting to stress that this is not a personal anecdote because I am a boss at willingly ripping hair out of my body in acquiescence to patriarchal aesthetic standards. My point is this: unity hurts, but not as much disunity does.
It’s Reformation Day (if you’re a church history nerd). It’s also Hallowe’en (if you’re into chocolate and exceptional grammar). This year Reformation Day is a bit of a big deal because it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There was a time when I could tell you a lot about the 95 theses, but that time was a first year undergraduate module on medieval and reformation theology and over time, the nuances of reformation history have been replaced by other, more exciting (and useful) theological facts. Anyway, long story rendered exceedingly short and majorly simplified: there was a colossal church schism in the West and, much like the schism with the East, our ecclesiology since then has been an almighty spit in the face of the call to be the Body of Christ. (I told you this was over-simplified, please don’t shout at me, I’m a theological ethicist, not a church history expert).
As it’s the 500th anniversary, there’s been much more of a buzz around Reformation Day than perhaps there usually is. Across my networks, opinion is slightly divided. My broadly Protestant Facebook friends are very happy about the Reformation and my more Catholic-leaning Twitter world is slightly less enthusiastic.
Say a miracle was to happen and Rome and everyone else reunited, and then West reunited with East, it would be amazing! Wouldn’t it? The church coming together as one body… although, if you’re an ordained woman or an ordained man who would want to say “ordained woman,” how idyllic will unity be in that instance? Can you even get unity through that chasm?
There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. In genuine unity, you see that every human being is in the image of Christ, you capture just a glimpse of God’s love for them, and your care and compassion for them becomes consuming and forever unfulfilled to completion due to the postlapsarian condition. I’ve only been in the Community of St Anselm for a few weeks, but that vow I made ‘I choose you’ to my fellow community members has unequivocally become ‘I love you.’
On my lunch break, I think about the resident members sharing the peace with one another before they celebrate the Eucharist. As the majority of my colleagues come into the office around 9am, my mind is drawn to my fellow non-resident members going into their various places of work. Through Twitter, I see where in the world my Abbot is and I pray for him. My Sharing Group WhatsApp buzzes and I am reminded of these people who opened their lives to me and I to them and the humbling yet empowering privilege that is. I scroll through the notes on my phone and come across the words written down after time with my spiritual companion, words straight from God that sear through my inner being, the fire of divine love. And then I remember that even though our ultimate authority is on the throne, in this temporal realm she belongs to Rome while I belong to Canterbury, that whenever someone says ‘we all share in one bread,’ I can no longer say that without feeling crippling pain because she and I cannot share in one bread.
There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. Ask the God who hung on a cross until he died.
Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.
I liked the Eucharist a heck of a lot more than I did before I donned an alb, took a cross, and said ‘I choose you.’
Disunity destroys your ability to see the image of Christ in another. Disunity distorts what truly matters, it values things over people. Disunity revels in jealousy and greed and anger. Disunity treats the cross like a game of capture the flag. Disunity says ‘this is my body, broken for some of you.’ Disunity would have been a full stop after the gates of Eden closed. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens. God makes us garments and clothes us. He covers our shame but we still feel acutely that shame. But I’d rather feel that than death. Disunity brings death.
Unity hurts; to turn to the person who has wounded you and say ‘peace be with you’ can be utter agony. But disunity, it might feel gratifying now, it might shirk the responsibility of reconciliation in the present, it might seem like all you are missing is a toe here and a finger there, but the end result is a pain unendurable.
Yesterday was the commitment service for the Community of St Anselm. It was wonderful and moving and inspiring and humbling. There are so many things to pick out from it to reflect on, but forgive me for being selfish and wanting to keep some of those things between me, God, and my brothers and sisters in the Community. One of the things that has struck me when speaking to people who’ve been in the Community in previous years is that they have talked a lot about how brilliant and transformative the experience has been, but they have kept the finer, more intimate details to themselves, and I find myself very sympathetic to this. In what I’m sure will be a year of challenge and change, some things God says are just too intimate and precious to cast out in the abyss of the internet.
But here are a few reflections on yesterday:
Joy. One of the things I love about our Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is how he exudes joy. After we had processed out following the service, he smile was wide and his enthusiasm was infectious. There was a real sense of joy among us all and for me, the joy had trumped the anxiety I initially felt.
On the train down to London, I was re-reading the Rule of Life and the person sat next to me, a lady from Minnesota, asked me what on earth it was, so I explained all about the Community. Her questions were things like ‘so you have to think about religious things all the time?’ ‘You have to cut yourself off from the world?’ ‘You have to follow all these rules?’ And there is a certain amount of limiting myself involved in this year: sacrifice of time and money, the journey of descents, committing to community life and the quotidian recognition of my sin, their sin, my repentance, their repentance, my ‘I choose you,’ their ‘I choose you.’ But the kenotically-transfigured life can be a conduit of deep joy. And the service revealed just a glimpse of that.
Trust. We committed to trust God, to trust each other, to trust those who lead our Community. Trust is hard. Trust is risky. Trust is life-giving. To choose to trust someone and to have someone choose to trust us is a remarkable thing. The cross we now all wear around our necks is a sign of that committing to trust made tangible. In the service, the words preceding being given our crosses were these:
Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Members of the Community of St Anselm, I invite each of you to take this cross and wear it as a constant reminder of your obedience to his command. Put it on each morning as a sign, each day, that you will choose this path. Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying.Carry the cross outside these walls and share God’s deep love, proclaiming his kingdom in word and deed.
Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Dare to trust the God who saved you and saved the world. Dare to trust.
Love. When our Dean preached a homily at our first eucharist service a few days ago, he said he had asked God what he wanted to say to us. ‘Tell them ‘I love you.”
No truer words have ever been spoken.
No better words have ever been heard.
Here’s to a year of joy, here’s to a year of risk. Here’s to a year of God saying ‘I love you’ as we say the same to one another. Here’s to a year which sets the course for a lifetime. Here’s to a year in God’s time.