Cohen’s Hallelujah: Can it ever be truly holy?

November 16, 2016

An interesting article came across the wire today. Vale Leonard Cohen, high priest of erotic romanticism: The iconic Canadian musician wrote great songs, but does anyone listen to the lyrics?

Reading it renews my cartoon-like desire to dawn a blue cape and swoop down to challenge those people who want to christen Cohen’s song, Hallelujah (from the album Various Positions, 1984) and use it for Praise and Worship or even Holy Mass. Like the article’s author, Xavier Symons, I too wish people would listen to the lyrics with a modicum of discernment.

Here is an example:

Well there was a time when you let me know/what’s really going on below/but now you never show that to do me do you/But remember when I moved in you/and the holy dove was moving too/and every breath we drew was hallelujah”

Mr. Cohen’s use of the word “Hallelujah” was poetic license for sexual climax, the mingling of sexual liberation with biblical motifs. Sex for him was a spiritual act. Perhaps even an act of worship as this article suggest:

People may trim the song, as they do so often, and freely adapt it to suit their venues and church ministries. But we should be absolutely clear. Mr. Cohen had intended the song to carry a certain message. And I wonder — can a song ever be something other than its author’s seminal intention? Can Cohen’s Hallelujah ever truly be holy?

But perhaps its just me. For example, I will never sing, Amazing Grace, which intends to carry the Westminster Confession of Faith, a cornerstone to Calvinist Reformed doctrine. “The wretch” echoes the idea of total depravity which goes against basic Catholic teaching about the nature of sin.

CCC #396-409 sums up the difference between the Catholic view of man’s fallen state and the Calvinist view of total depravity:

405. Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin — an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence.” Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

Having said all that, I wish to point out that in his later years, a time of illness and profound reflection, Mr. Cohen explored authentic religious themes and a poetic dialog with God. Songs such as Come Healing and Thy Will Be Done reflect an honest searching and deep insight. He was indeed on a grand journey, the journey of a soul. His music, or rather his poetry set to music, meandered along illumined paths and through the dark alleys of humanity. As Dawn Eden Goldstein recently pointed out on her Twitter feed, devotion to St. Kateri was a part of Leonard Cohen’s walk.

May St. Kateri intercede for him. Requiem in pace.

A Jesuit friend just sent me this undated quote, from Cohen the “secular Jew”.

“As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.” — Leonard Cohen |

A powerful insight from a man with penetrating insight and the gift of poetic prose.

Still, in the end, I don’t believe the song, Hallelujah, can ever truly be holy as it was not intended to give praise to God. Let us remain vigilant and not now sprinkle the sour message of Cohen’s earlier compositions (via the use of hijacked religious imagery) with the sweetness of his authentic later realization that in the end we stand before God Almighty, love Himself.

Let all the earth adore thee, and sing to thee: let it sing a psalm to thy name.
Psalm 66:4


worshipping God



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