sweet intensity with leonard cohen...

For the past week I  have found myself going deeper into a long standing yet rarely considered interest in the music and motivation of Leonard Cohen. When I began playing the guitar I was smitten by "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," "Bird on a Wire" and "Song of Isaac." There was such sweet intensity in every verse that listening became intentional. Sacramental. I soon found that I could only endure small portions. Like watching a Bergman film or savoring the exquisite flavors of the banquet table, my whole self was required for this music with no casual encounters allowed!

With minor exceptions, I favored Cohen's own renderings of his music more nuanced and passionate than the prettier cover versions.  Yes, we all give thanks to Judy Collins for her take on "Suzanne" - that guitar foundation is still enchanting - and her live take on "Joan of Arc" is arguably the most achingly beautiful recording of this song in the whole of creation. It fully captures the paradox of "beautiful losers" who learn of life and love by failure. The 
universe is unanimous, too in decreeing Jeff Buckley the owner of "Hallelujah" while Madeline Peyroux brings glory to "Dance Me to the End of Love." Nevertheless, whether it is the early semi-acoustic songs or the later full blown gypsy jazz, world music travelling circus approach: Leonard's own voice takes his songs to places no one else can even imagine. Others may make the artist's music more marketable than the original, but no one can reveal the truth of these songs better than the master himself.

Notice how Cohen uses women's voices here rather than inanimate musical instruments  like violins or organ to fill out the sounds of this performance: the combination of simple guitar playing minor chords against his own stark voice while surrounding the lyrics with the
angelic warmth of Sonia Washburn and Jennifer Warren voices creates an ecstatic tension aching to be released. In an updated manner, Cohen does much the same thing - adding synthesizers and a larger band to the equation - but still juxtaposing the heavenly harmonies of his female singers with his own earthy gravitas. What a smorgasboard of paradox!
One of the things I cherish most about Cohen's music is its spirituality:  it is fully embodied with heaven embracing earth, spirit dancing with flesh, and suffering as fully realized as joy and justice.  He may claim to be sentimental - affirming only a half truth - but there is nothing sentimental to his lyrics or sound. Like an Old Testament prophet at prayer, Cohen honors both the going out in sorrow and the return in joy where the trees sing and the mountains shout and shadows are no less real than light.  Like he proclaims:  this is soul music like unto "the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount that I don't pretend to understand at all..."

Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of paradoxical spirituality as a maturing faith. Sadly, it is not one the Church often honors nor one that adolescent fundamentalists of any hue easily accept. In a reflection on the wisdom of the Cross, Rohr confesses:

I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is precisely suffering love. If Jesus is the living “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and if there is this much suffering in the world, then God is in some very real way suffering. God is not watching it, but in it! Did your church ever tell you that? How else can we understand the revelation of the cross and that our central Christian image is a naked, bleeding, suffering man? Christians strangely worship a suffering God, largely without realizing it; and Christian mystics even say that there is only one cosmic suffering, and we all share in it, as Paul also seems to intuit (Colossians 1:24).

Many of the happiest and most peaceful people I know love this “crucified God” who walks with crucified people, and thus reveals and “redeems” their plight as God’s own. For them, Jesus is not observing human suffering from a distance; he is somehow in human suffering with us and for us. He includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth”  (Romans 8:22). We “make up in our own bodies all that still has to be undergone for the sake of the Whole Body” (Colossians 1:24). The genius of Jesus’ ministry is his revelation that God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself, not to wound you but in fact to bring you to God. There are no dead ends. Everything can be transmuted and everything can be used.

Clearly this is why Cohen's music speaks more deeply to me at this moment in life:  there are NO dead ends - everything from agony to laughter - is being used to move us into the embrace of grace.


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