I’m a bit young to know Leonard Cohen’s music well. But since his death I’ve discovered his final album, released last month and a profound insight into the wrestlings of a man staring death in the face.
Cohen was deeply spiritual, with Jewish heritage and a grasp of concepts from across different faith traditions. His final album pulls together the threads of a lifelong relationship with the spiritual, as he addresses, argues with and gives in to God, swinging like a pendulum between anger and contentment, questioning and acceptance. In the dying words of the album there is little resolution, with the wistful line, addressed to God: “I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine”. Cohen’s final words after a lifetime of grappling with God through song.
This album is full of vocational darkness, which I’ve written about before. We might think of God like a fairy godmother – a myth who makes all our dreams come true and keeps us living in cloud cuckoo land. The truth is far harder.
Vocational darkness is the cloud that settles when we say “yes” to God. Becoming who we are made to be – realising our full potential – these are painful journeys. The gateways and bridges to contentment and fulfilment have names such as sacrifice, cost, grief, pain and death. There is deep joy and peace to be found with God. But not without cost.
Death is the ultimate vocational journey. None of us knows exactly what happens beyond it. But I am confident that death is transformational, redemptive and an ultimate fulfilment of who we are – somehow. Only after will we know.
Cohen puts this vocational darkness at the heart of his title track: You Want it Darker.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls this a song for our time, in a 10 minute reflection well worth listening to.
Surrounded, as we are in the West, by fearful uncertainty and anguished disillusionment, here is a song of challenge and protest and prophecy.
Cohen rails against God:
Why are we so broken?
How have we, created in the image of God, become so ugly and disfigured?
God how could you let this happen?
And within his anger is disillusionment about his own place in the world:
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame.
How many times have these prayers been cried out in the privacy of our hearts?
God, am I in or not?
Do you want me, or not?
Am I willing, or not?
Why don’t you answer me, heal me, glorify me?
If we have asked these dark questions, then we’re not alone. Through scripture and tradition, good and holy men and women have wrestled with the same doubts. Cohen is the latest in a long line of those who wrestle with God.
And then comes his response to God. Hineni, he says. A Hebrew word owned by Moses and Abraham and Samuel and Isaiah. All responding to their own vocational darkness.
Here I am.
I don’t understand or I don’t agree or I don’t know… but I’m ready.
Here I am.
Cohen gives us glimpses of the invitation to respond to God. Hineni, he challenges us to say.
It’s a tough word. A mirror. It draws our questions and doubts away from God and back to ourselves. It is not God who is responsible for the terror of our world. It’s us. We might do it in God’s name but it’s still we who do it.
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame.
How could we let this happen?
There is an antidote to the world’s suffering. It’s the work of good, compassionate, courageous men and women who are committed to responding to their own vocational darkness and bringing about change. The hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Frankly, it’s easier to ask the questions without being bothered to find the answer.
The answer, Cohen says, is hineni. Here I am. I’m ready. Use me.