You Want It Darker

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his last album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.


Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. His Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited his Hebrew faith. Or at least its language, worship and narratives as he grasped for meaning at the edge of meaning; and of the grave. It was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death [in 2016] that utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and woke up to write.

His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language (and tones) of the Kaddish, Jewish prayers for the dead. Cohen wants his poetry to find its light beneath the long shadow over the atrocities of history, especially those inflicted on the Jews, intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth. He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in the song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). The first, but not last time it appears in Scripture. It punctuates the song’s relentless, dread reckoning with God’s seemingly complicit flirtation with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. More broadly, it seems to me, Cohen is grappling with the meaning of God’s permissive will — or His ordained will with Abraham — that has allowed death such immense power in the world, above all through the bloodstained hands of His own image, man.

Hineni, which is a word of obedient readiness, is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called; even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word, indeed “wants out” if the Dealer deals thus. He is not content to simply passively submit without protest against death into mystery. He wrestles, brawls with God. Like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33) and Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) and Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14) and Job in his anguish (Job 31) and Jeremiah in the face of plots (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and the psalmists moaning out of the suffering of exile and slaughter. Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice — even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings, prays (?) this song.

When Cohen says “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord” to God, what does he declare himself ready for? Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame” — while it’s easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning, for a Jew the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes quaking dissonance. A shattering and terrifying paradox, really, as image slays image. Genesis 9:5-6. Cain, Abel; and the slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of iconoclastic/image-smashing murderers. Permitted, okay; but permitted to “murder and maim?” Why such horrific latitude? He wonders, grinds within….How does this work in the divine economy? A paradox to blame? Or is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself that is not merely content with some dazzling paradox?

The song is just brilliant. For me, here’s how: It is raw, shocking honesty and protest in the face of the night before the face of God, though not appearing to be rebellion, lays before God cursed evil in an unjustified, un-rationalized state. “Here it is, Lord.” Not cushioned or romanticized or coated or softened, but prayed out of into God. It reminds me so much of absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among the psalms that ends its search for God in total darkness. Lamenting beneath heaven’s dread silence. Or I think of the Book of Lamentations — makes you sweat if you really pray into it. At night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward. Of God, Jeremiah says:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (3:1-14; 17-18)

Such prayer, uttered by those who “descend into hell,” is prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1) in the truest sense. There in the abyss (Psalm 42:7), hope can shine brightest as hope fully blooms only in hopeless spaces where its anchored strength is needed. God cannot redeem what He does not assume, make His own, and He cannot assume what we ourselves do not surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a form of redemption that — St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night — makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed thus on the cross, in His native tongue. Eli! Eli!

I don’t know if Cohen would consider this text a sung (or groaned!) prayer or not, but he is voicing the anguished, tortured prayer of those who sink into the pit, are mired in depression, succumb to the gas chamber, suffer tragic loss, witness the destruction of the innocent — but still turn these upward.

Why have you? Where have you gone? How long, O Lord? Wake up! Such a vision of real faith — Hineni — seeks no facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

I think here of David Bentley Hart’s echo of Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, the monk protests against a kind of God who intentionally “uses” human suffering for His own good ends:

Answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions?

In an article he wrote after the 2004 Tsunami, Hart said:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Cohen shares this same protest that the God who “became sin” Himself took up on a cross, in hell. Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.


14 comments on “You Want It Darker

  1. Pat Dallet says:


    Have you come across this line from Cohen’s Anthem: Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (or something close to that as I recall).

    What a gift your blog is. Thank you.

    Dcn P

    • Thanks so much, Pat. Gorgeous. I did read in an article the link of Anthem’s line to Kabbalah Jewish theodicy, but had forgotten the specific language. God bless you – so good to see your name today! You are a great man. And Deacon-servant!

  2. Jennifer says:

    So interesting! And I can’t wait for Dismas to weigh in!!
    As a Canadian and CBC-junkie I have probably heard at least a dozen hour-long radio documentaries on the life and music of montrealer Leonard Cohen. He is huge (the hugest) on our cultural landscape. (I remember back in university working a summer job with a young woman who carried around a Leoard Cohen poetry book and would read it to me as we drove.)

    A couple things I noticed:
    1) in the first chorus he declares: “i’m out of the game”; but the second time he asks permission “let me out of the game.” WOW!
    A loved one who was visiting us said to me last week he doesn’t go to Church as an adult because, simply, “it’s not really my thing”. Not his thing?! I marveled. No! I said, we go because it’s God’s thing, not ours! It was so eye-opening for me. What has become of the existential search for meaning if the answer is a collective ‘meh’? Are we still human?

    I always saw Cohen to be like many Quebecers of his generation (my family is Quebecois but I grew up outside in Toronto with an obsessive love and longing for Quebec), culturally religious, even very well-educated in his faith, but decidedly very secular/atheistic; rejecting the weight and implications of accepting a life of obedience to the Lord. He grew up in a society in which official religion (especially the Catholic Church) had a very heavy, bureaucratic hand. The “quiet revolution” of the early 1970s in which the yoke of the perceived heavy hand of religion had been lifted was an earthquake of which the tremors of aftershock are still felt. Religiosity was viewed either with contempt; or tolerated as a cultural artefact that would die out with the older, uneducated elders. Relationship with God? What was that? A living, loving God? What? This is not the language of the religious experience there.

    I hear in Leonard Cohen someone who embraced, put some measure of hope in, and explored this new, liberal world with all its promises of freedom from suffering and the shackles of religious obedience but was never entirely convinced.

    He realizes he can’t give himself permission to be out of the game. It’s not his choice. God is the dealer but he also is the guard at the casino door, what a sinking realization! (Resistance is futile?)

    2) “There’s a lover in the story but the story’s still the same. There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame, but it’s written in the scriptures and it’s not some idle claim….”

    He does wrestle, like you say, but he can’t outright reject this. God’s darkest truth is still greater than our lightest aspirations. Our lullabies, the simple assuring child-sized stories we tell. Insufficient or powerfully truthful in their simplicity? But is the story still the same, with or without the lover, Mr. Cohen? Is that not our Gospel proclamation? That the story is NOT the same? Does not our hope hinge on this lover? Can the story exist at all without the lover who himself is the author?

    “A million candles burning for the love that never came” . Heart-wrenching in its hopelessness. Did the love never come?

    “They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim; i struggled with some demons, they were middle-class and tame; I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim”

    Is he comparing with perhaps some sense of guilt, the mildnes, minimalism of his suffering in light of that of his people, or is he acknowledging the insipidness of real noon-day demons who get us in our mundane busy-ness; who keep our souls lulled to sleep? Is he questioning what is it better to live: A dull, safe, protected soul-dampening life or a painful, agonizing existence yet soaring life of the ecstasy of a soul on fire?
    Does God want it darker so that we can see the true light? I think of how astounding it is to look at the night sky here away from the city lights after most of my life living in a big city with a constant flow. It was never truly dark outside yet you caught only a glimpse of the stars….you knew they were there but had no idea if the layer upon layer of starlight. Now I see!

    “[Here I am Lord], I’m ready my Lord.” May it be so!

    • Thanks, Jennifer, for this fascinating background and personal encounter with the lyrics. Wow! I knew not! This is the beauty and genius of human ideas communicated through poetry, metaphor, song, that they open within themselves ample space for others to enter and discover new aspects of existence and meaning, and not feel only one sense foisted on them. And you helped me discover new ones! As this song sits in the Jewish tradition of Lament, it, like all laments within and out of faith, allows those who enter the darker nights of human existence, of faith itself, to come to terms with the Lover in a world where human cruelty can surpass the human imagination’s capacity to process and categorize. The night I woke up to write this, I read a few chapters from the Book of Lamentations and it opened new senses to me. I wish we read through the whole Book in the Lectionary, and not just at funerals. It’s so human and gritty! Thank God for music, for poetry, for metaphors, for the biblical and inspired warrant to rage, rage against the dying of the light with the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ! God bless you for making time to share here your new insights, always! Immensely enriching, always. Peace and all good, tjmfjn

    • PS May it be so!
      PPS I want to see you Canadian sky! We have none at night! 🙂

  3. Jennifer says:

    Oh! It’s the feast of my beloved St. Mary Magdalene! How did I forget??? The readings for today’s Mass jump off the page in light of your post. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

  4. Fr. Dustin says:

    My word! Dr. Neal this is a profound midrash, or perhaps a riff, of Cohen’s song on quite the fortuitous Feast of the Magdalene! Thank you for hearing these prayers through Cohen’s music. May we ever be open to hearing the anguished cry of those in dire straits. I think of how Saint John the 23rd open the windows, in part, or at least I like to imagine he figuratively did, so that our Church may hear the cries of our anguished world and reawaken Her universal mission bequeathed by the stricken savior on the cross. May the Church always hear such prayers from the depths that indeed shake the foundations of creation.

  5. “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

  6. DismasDancing says:

    Brother Tom, Sister Jen,

    Early on in my Marine Corps days, Providence blessed me with a few outstanding mentors. My own human father was not only a good man, but an awesome mentor. As a typical “son”, however, his magnificent wisdom was lost on me until my non-related bosses and fellow Marines reminded me of/confirmed lessons Dad taught me early on. The Corps was once known for a pretty steep progression in its rank structure pyramid such that young, less-experienced officers were regularly called upon to participate in major operations’ planning and decision-making sessions where sister-service officers were much more “experienced”. When we “greenhorn” Jarheads showed up, we were often disparaged because of our relative lack of operational “juice”. These were fantastic opportunities for us “junior” officers to grow up–quickly. We learned so much by osmosis: simply listening and observing—to both the good stuff and to the not-so-good.

    An axiom I was privileged to learn early was one I still follow and shall exercise re this post:

    “In any discussion, ‘It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and let folks think you’re ignorant than to open your mouth and prove it!’”

    Your post itself and the back and forth comments between the two of you are, in themselves, informative, faith-filled, genuine, heartfelt, serving beautifully as a fitting tribute to a man who, in my view, saw his God in almost everything he composed. His music fascinates me. Awesome Bro Tom! Fr. Dustin speaks for me in his comments re the basic post. Jen, there isn’t a thing I can add to yours without “opening my mouth”, from which I shall demur. Nicely done, Jen! And thanks.

    Still, I’ll offer this from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me…” Without the beauty of God’s creation “in the lilies” and the sounds of music (like Cohen’s) to which David danced before the Lord, how would/could we wretched souls ever be able to contemplate the things The Lord our God has prepared for His faithful? Wow! You guys have filled my week with lots of smiles and much hope. Peace and blessings my dear friends.

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