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Just some Joseph looking for a manger

Huw Morgan


I still vividly remember the first time I heard Leonard Cohen's music, even though more than 40 years have since passed. It was in the early hours of the morning at the tail end of a party in the spring of 1968. The drinking and the dancing had died down and a number of us were sitting around in various stages of exhaustion and mild inebriation, when someone put Songs of Leonard Cohen on the record player.

I was immediately transfixed. Who was this man who half sang, half spoke these amazing words about love, life, death, sexuality, mystery, longing and everything else in a way that went straight to the heart? In a roomful of adolescents, full of vague intimations of dawning adulthood, who could want more than to have Suzanne take our hands and lead us to the river, where we could touch her perfect body with our minds?

It was the beginning of a fascination that has continued throughout my life. There have been times during my journey when I have felt that his words have given more powerful expression to some of the experiences I have had than anything else I have ever read or heard. Even now, I have only to hear the opening guitar sequence of 'Suzanne' to feel a powerful sense of continuity with my 16-year old self, as though all the intervening years are but a vanished mist.

Generally Cohen has been a minority taste, but over the past year his string of UK concerts and the numerous popular covers of 'Hallelujah' have brought him to a whole new audience. So perhaps it is time for a closer look at the man, his music and his spiritual muse.

A famously reclusive person, little is known about Cohen the man. It is a matter of public record that he was born to a Jewish family in Montreal, Canada in 1934, started out as a poet but began writing songs (initially all in the folk genre) in order to make a living. Despite struggling with depression for much of his early life, he eventually gained a cult following, particularly in Europe, for his consistently high artistic quality. After a promotional tour in 1994 he became a Zen Buddhist monk for five years, before returning to produce Ten New Songs in 2001. Through a career spanning five decades he has persistently explored the depths and mystery of life and love in his songs, always following his own muse rather than pandering to commercial popularity. Ultimately, his writing tells us all we're ever likely to learn about the man who, when in the Zen centre, was given a Dharma name meaning 'silence'.

Cohen's own comments on his writing, when available, are often as enigmatic as the lyrics themselves, so what follows is inevitably a personal interpretation. Apart from his time as a Zen practitioner, it is also worth remembering that he is Jewish, and is clearly well informed about the outlines of the Christian faith, sometimes referring specifically to Christian imagery and rituals. He seems to clearly understand the necessary movements of spiritual growth and to express truth in a way that seems consistent with Christian understanding. He also uses some (Old Testament) Bible stories, and refers explicitly to Jesus a number of times. His more recent albums also begin to explore wider ethical responses to political and environmental concerns, again in ways that overlap with those regarded as Christian.

'We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky, and lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye.'

The search for meaning and significance are recurrent themes in Cohen's songs. This was a drive that took him to explore the depths of hedonistic sexuality as well as spiritual aspects of reality. Consistently throughout his work he expresses a searing honesty about his longings and struggles, which we might regard as one of the fundamental tenets any true spirituality. He sometimes denies having any answers, while affirming the restoring and nurturing power of love, as well as its necessity.

Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter

He also proclaims:

Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

Despite this lack of answers and satisfaction, there's an acceptance of the need to maintain love

So come, my friends, be not afraid.
We are so lightly here.
It is in love that we are made;
In love we disappear.

These lines come from 'Boogie Street' which, by his own explanation, is a metaphor for life itself. He seems to be saying: we may not know what it's all about, but all that matters and endures is love; that alone can give us meaning and purpose. We must be true to this. Be honest about where you are and accept responsibility for it, while maintaining a loving outlook.
It's a good place to begin.

cohen1.jpgBabylon is a recurring theme in Cohen's work. It seems to mean an amalgamation of what earlier generations of Christians might call 'the world and the flesh'. He maintains, however, along with all those who claim to understand spiritual growth, that what is necessary is an embracing, rather than a renunciation, of Babylon. Only in embracing our shadow and moving beyond the denial of it can we truly find our place in God.

I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived; Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.

This could be saying that only the union of Bethlehem and Babylon (our higher and lower natures), will get us beyond the desires of the flesh, enabling us to see the vanquishing of evil (the serpent eating its tail).

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon

Here it seems Babylon is equated with sexual expression, while it is also acknowledged that this can be an 'olive branch' and a 'homeward dove' (images from Genesis), something that is wholesome and holy. Another album contains a whole song around the theme of finding oneself and God in Babylon - indeed it is there that God hunts us down:

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there.
Who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on:
By the rivers dark
In Babylon

Another line in the same song - 'Though I take my song from a withered limb, both song and tree they sing for him' - is surely acknowledging that it is in our broken humanity that God finds us. And if we forget Babylon, the place of God's finding us, then we lose the blessing that comes from realising that our hearts are not our own. We have to belong in Babylon (be truly human) before God can 'strike our hearts with [his] deadly force' and 'throw our wedding rings' (human allegiances and deceits) to the wind.

'My father's hand was trembling with the beauty of the word'
Two of Cohen's songs are explicit references to Old Testament stories. 'The Story of Isaac' from which the above line is taken is a fairly straight recounting of the biblical narrative.
The other is the now well known 'Hallelujah', which refers to David's adultery with Bathsheba:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Again Cohen seems to be saying that it is our acknowledgement of brokenness and failure that enables us to come before God with integrity and honesty. Then we tremble and rejoice at 'the beauty of the word'.
There are also several references to Jesus, the most explicit and Gospel-orientated being the second verse of the famous 'Suzanne', which goes on:

And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said 'All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them'

Indeed, only 'drowning' men see their need of salvation, and 'Christ' sinks beneath the wisdom of most human cultures most of the time. He was forsaken by the Father on His 'lonely wooden tower'. On a later album is this:

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

This song is one of Cohen's earliest explicit commentaries on social and political issues - this verse seems to refer to the secularisation of the institutional church, that's moved from Calvary (where Jesus died for the world) to Malibu (a materialistic surfer's paradise).

Then there is Cohen's bleak depiction of the post-modern world we are now entering:

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ
or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another foetus now
We don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby:
it is murder

This song refers to Christ (and repentance) as part of a former era, now superceded by a future with no meanings, in which nothing can be measured because there's no yardstick, and in which 'the order of the soul' is overturned.

On the same album is another song on much the same theme, about the end of the modern era, in which Christ and the devil are referred to:

And the whole damn place goes crazy twice
and it's once for the devil and once for Christ
but the Boss don't like these dizzy heights
we're busted in the blinding lights,
busted in the blinding lights

Closing Time is the beginning of the end of Western Civilisation.
Finally, there is a reference to Christ in a more recent album, in a song that seems to be about the spiritually deadening materialism of the developed nations:

For the millions in a prison,
That wealth has set apart -
For the Christ who has not risen,
From the caverns of the heart -

'What's left of our religion' (the Judeo-Christian tradition) is needed to enable the lights in the 'land of plenty' (the affluent West) to shine on the truth (that wealth is not the answer to man's longings). Christ who still remains in 'the caverns of the heart' of our culture, needs to rise again to save us from our pre-occupation with material prosperity.

Cohen's more recent albums begin to make explicit comments on current socio-political events, from a perspective that indicates concern for truth and justice, often using lines that could well be used by Christians.

Now you can say that I've grown bitter but of this you may
  be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor
And there's a mighty judgement coming, but I may be wrong

A mighty judgement coming for the exploitation of the poor by the rich? This is the second song on the same album that refers to issues of wealth, poverty and injustice.
On the same album is this:

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Is he saying here that 'the birth betrayed, the marriage spent' is the failure of the Church to live up to following Jesus (his birth betrayed, the church as his bride unfaithful), and that now 'the killers in high places say their prayers out loud' with no censure from the followers of Jesus?

The last song on his last but one album returns to the theme of disillusion with material prosperity, saying that he 'can't buy it any more':

I know I said I'd meet you,
I'd meet you at the store,
But I can't buy it, baby.
I can't buy it anymore.

'The store' here surely represents the whole consumerist obsession of Western culture, which Cohen is saying he can no longer be part of, while not claiming any moral high ground or spiritual vision in doing so.

Running through his work is the theme that the meaning of life is ultimately to be found in love, but that true spiritual love (for God) is only found after the trappings and desires of the world and the flesh have been painfully stripped away, and that this is essentially God's work. This is first expressed in 'Joan of Arc':

It was deep into his fiery heart
he took the dust of Joan of Arc,
and then she clearly understood
if he was fire, oh then she must be wood.
I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?

This song is about the need for our solitude and pride to be consumed by the fire of God's love, and it has a striking resemblence to the writing of the 14th-century English mystic, Richard Rolle. The last line also seems to echo TS Eliot's statement that 'humankind cannot bear very much reality'.

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

Here Cohen seems to have written a prayer for deliverance from the violent nature of the human heart. Then there is an explicit plea for God to reveal himself to Cohen's soul:

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

Lines from this song 'The thorn of the night in your bosom, the spear of the age in your side' are surely a reference to Christ, whom Cohen pleads to 'come forth from the cloud of unknowing' (another reference to 14th-century English Christian mysticism). There is also a further reference to TS Eliot's poetry in the us of the metaphor of the fire and the rose. 'The holy one dreams of ... a letter's death' is perhaps suggesting that God wants people to get beyond the written word (the scriptures) and 'bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh' - see the reality of Christ (God) incarnate. The 'continuous stutter' suggests the imperfection, but continuing possibility, of seeing the incarnate Christ in today's world.

The song that expresses most clearly Cohen's view that it is our brokenness and imperfection that allow God's love and light into our lives is one called 'Anthem', in which he says:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

The song also says: 'Every heart, every heart to love will come but like a refugee'. It is only when we've explored all other avenues that we are driven finally into the love of God, as a refugee.

To sum up, we have seen that the search for meaning and significance is a recurrent theme for Cohen, and that he considers this to be found (if at all) in love, but this is clearly more than just human love relationships as many of his songs clearly refer to transcendent aspects of love for a personal God. He is determined that spiritual growth comes from acceptance of our broken and flawed humanity and its expressions (Babylon), and that these have to be integrated into our spiritual quest and not denied and repressed. His Jewish heritage means he is familiar with Old Testament stories and he uses them as the basis for songs. Jesus and Christ are referred to consistently throughout his work in ways that indicate respect and understanding for the person and ministry of Jesus. His later work indicates a widening appreciation of social dimensions of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its loss in contemporary Western culture. He seems also to be aware of the Christian understanding of experiences of union with God as a few of his songs refer to this in a powerful poetic way.

And yet, for all this, the singer and his songs remain something of an enigma. As he said at the very beginning:

I told you when I came I was a stranger

It is as if he wants to remain outside any definition, tantalising us with glimpses of profound spiritual insight that are always beyond our clear grasp. Perhaps this helps us understand our own alienation from God and one another.

The door is open you can't close your shelter
You try the handle of the road
It opens do not be afraid
It's you my love, you who are the stranger

The road, the journey, the highway, curves ahead of us all, as we travel homeward to God. We know that He is our only true home and destiny, but still we seem unable to resist looking for shelters in this material world, even though we know they will leave us empty and disappointed. Cohen surely describes, with remarkable poetic accuracy, the whole human quest for God here. In the end, aren't we all, 'just some Joseph looking for a manger'?

And then sweeping up the jokers that he left behind
you find he did not leave you very much
not even laughter
Like any dealer he was watching for the card
that is so high and wild
he'll never need to deal another
He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.