Monday, 14 November 2016


Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon, has declared the overused word hallelujah rescued from being "just a religious word" by poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen who died on November 7. 

Discussing the legendary hit song on a BBC documentary, the bishop said, "We're broken human beings all of us, so stop pretending. We can all use hallelujah because it comes from being open and transparent before God and the world while saying 'This is how it is mate' "

In death Cohen's timing was impeccable.  He couldn’t have wished for a better week in which to have an inevitable global focus on a powerful body of work – poetry and song – that stretched from the early 60s to a week in which....  

Donald Trump defied the pundits to become ‘President Elect’. 

Hillary Clinton supporters wept and demonstrated.

South Africa's Jacob Zuma survived yet another 'No Confidence Vote' as our young people marched for free higher education. 'Corruption' and 'State Capture' loomed large.    

Planet Turmoil
In short, my world was in turmoil.  My spirituality was in tatters. I was angry and disappointed. 

My solace came  as tributes poured in for the 82-year-old poet, composer and singer, I was reminded of how his hit song Hallelujah had impacted on my spiritual journey, particularly as I began my middle-aged venture into Anglicanism and priesthood.

West Wing and Shrek
Even if you are not a Cohen fan chances are you have heard the song, albeit on the popular West Wing series, watching Shrek with your kids or perhaps sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi or Bono, who declared it “the best song in the world”.

Here's a short version of the lyrics:

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

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

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?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

The perfect and the broken
Incidentally, the song is broadcast at 2am every Saturday by the Israeli Defence Force's radio channel and Cohen once said of the song's meaning: "It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value."

Not a born and bred Anglican, I don’t hum hymns under my breath when washing the dishes and Cohen’s Hallelujah was the only ‘hymn’ in my arsenal when I knocked at the Church’s door. 

It would carry me through my questioning of why the Almighty needed praise. And it's interesting to note how often Cohen’s ‘psalm’ has been the focus of sermons within Judaism, Christianity and even Buddhism. (Cohen was a Buddhist monk for a time and re-entered the music world when he felt he had attained sufficient spiritual discipline.)

As Rabbi Michael Sternfield remarked at Chicago Sinai Congregation on the Day of Atonement in 2008, “One of the most overworked words in the Bibles of both Judaism and Christianity is ‘Hallelujah’, which literally means, ‘Praise God’. Even after all these years I still can’t understand why we need to praise God so much. Could God possible be so insecure that God needs to be told how great God is? Or worse, do we really believe that God is susceptible to flattery?”

Interestingly in the Jewish faith Hallelujah is a commandment to praise. In the Christian tradition, it is a word of praise.

The rabbi added that the more he listened to Cohen’s Hallelujah, “I have come to recognise the struggles many of us go through, especially on a night such as this, when we are expected to praise God but our hearts may not be in it”.

A reluctant song of praise
I agree with Rabbi Michael – Cohen’s Hallelujah is a reluctant song of praise, expressing gratitude in the midst of sorrow (and my political angst) it serves this broken time, our failures and disappointments. Maybe it’s not a song for the young who march in our cities but it resonates with my life experiences.

It also fits well with a rabbinic legend that when Moses descended from the mountain carrying the tablets with God’s Commandments. He was so distraught by how his people had behaved during his absence that he threw the tablets to the ground where they smashed into countless fragments. 

When the people repented of their idolatry new tablets were made. Legend tells us both sets were then placed in the Ark and Rabbi Michael suggests that the Ark of the Covenant is our hearts which hold both the whole and the shattered elements of our lives.

As the rabbi emphasised, “In spite of all the pain and sadness we have known, still life is good, every day is a blessing and therefore we praise and express gratitude to God, even in our darkest hours.”

Birth of the blues

Bono, singer and Christian, once shared that the invocation of David resonated because, “I’ve thought a lot about him. He was a harp player and the first God heckler ….’Why hast thou forsaken me?’ That’s the beginning of the blues.”

Maybe it’s a good time for those of us battered by recent events to do some heckling of our own.

You will find a stack of erudite comments about Hallelujah’s musical composition on Google if you are interested. For me the comfort is in the poetry and Cohen’s assurance: “This world is full of conflicts and 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.”

Flowers for Hitler
Perhaps the pollsters who were embarrassed by Donald Trump’s win should reflect on Cohen’s poem Flowers for Hitler

I quote: “what is most original in a man's nature is often that which is most desperate. thus, new systems are forced on the world by men who simply cannot bear the pain of living with what is. Creators care nothing for their systems except that they be unique. if Hitler had been born in Nazi Germany he wouldn't have been content to enjoy the atmosphere.”

As the poet pointed out, what’s the use of decrying the Holocaust, a Trump win or racism, if in our own lives we are cruel to others?  If at our own dinner tables we are guilty of denigrated those who are different from us?

To the end
In October 2016, mere weeks before his death, Cohen released the album You Want It Darker. Severe back issues made it difficult for him to leave home so his son Adam placed a microphone on his dining room table and recorded him on a laptop. The album was met with rave reviews as the 82-year-old lived up to his maxim of never retiring.
Adam says he continued composing to the very end and died with his sense of humour intact.  Earlier, he reportedly said “I am ready to die," and added, "I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me."
Typically, when that crisis passed, he confessed to a tendency to exaggerate," "I’ve always been into self-dramatisation, I intend to live forever.”

Despite his Zen leanings the songwriter requested that he be laid to rest "in a traditional Jewish rite beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.” 

Maybe it’s a good time for those of us battered by recent events to examine who we are. to shout out “Hallelujah” and to heckle God for the strength to change our world.

Pass the safety pin
One last thought, I’ve decided to subscribe to the ‘Safety Pin movement’.

 Huffington Post reports:
In the wake of Donald Trump's election, many groups in the US, including African Americans, Muslims and women, are feeling scared and uneasy.
Trump, who has said he would ban all Muslims from entering the US, made sexist and insulting comments about women and racist comments about people of color in America, is a frightening prospect for many Americans who believe he is unfit for office.
So, while protests rage on across the country, one movement is using a simple yet powerful symbol to show their support for anyone who is fearful of what is to come.
By fastening a safety pin to their clothing, people are declaring themselves allies to groups who have been maligned by Trump, to show that they stand in solidarity with anyone who might be afraid.
Who knows what Donald Trump will do. Meanwhile, in South Africa the safety pin is fast emerging as a sign of solidarity against racism.
Hallelujah! That works for me.

Just in case you haven't heard Hallelujah or you would like to hear it again, here's the link:

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