Leonard Cohen died today. He has long been my favourite songwriter and many of his lyrics have resonated with me along my spiritual journey. Cohen was Jewish but he loved Jesus and spent years as a monk in a Buddhist monastery. Religious themes run throughout his songs and Mormons will recognise many scriptural references in his lyrics. My favourite is his “If It Be Your Will.”

…If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you…
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will…

“If It Be Your Will” puts a darker, Job-like twist on the unshakable Mormon faith to “go and do the thing the Lord commands.” It introduces the resignation of “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” and depicts mankind as “burning hearts in hell..dressed in rags of light,” awaiting God’s grace, but only if it is God’s will to give it. This perfectly captures the original spirit of the word “grace,” not as a sure reward for righteousness, but a divine gift which may or may not always come.

Cohen’s most famous song “Hallelujah,” is a blasphemous 20th century take on Biblical psalmody. It questions, “what’s it to you…the holy or the broken Hallelujah?” Given the fact that the ancient psalmist David was one of the most broken sinners of all, I think Cohen’s broken song of praise appropriately carries on on the psalmic tradition:

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

600px-leonard_cohen_2181 Cohen frequently conflates sexual and religious longings. King David’s love for God and his sexuality are connected, both eliciting a “hallelujah.” The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson once said that the desire for alcohol is a low-level search for God. I think sexual longings could be interpreted the same way. Mormons don’t often emphasise sexual metaphors in scripture, such as Christ the Bridegroom. But  I’ve blogged about how the Bridegroom metaphor offers us a way to re-conceptualise our relationship with God in a way that could invite greater intimacy. Cohen’s famous “Suzanne” carries the sex/religion metaphor further:

You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

You want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with his mind

Mormons should enjoy Cohen’s exquisite “Dance Me To the End of Love,” a rare love song which promotes both marriage and children!

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love…

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love…

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

“Everybody Knows” is a catchy song about humankind’s apocalyptic forebodings. It contains a number of religious themes: the Parable of the Talents, plagues of the Last Days, and the “bloody cross on Calvary.”

Everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what you’ve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach in Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows

And finally Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” evokes the human struggle for authenticity and freedom in the face of personal failings. This imperfect struggle wrecks havoc on the world around us: “like a beast with his horn I have torn everyone who reached out for me.” But like the returning prodigal, Cohen’s lyric ends with a desperate, penitent promise: “I swear by this song and by all that I have done wrong I will make it all up to thee.”

Like a bird on the wirec12c2cd72776fb89a9f182b66fd7cf5a_350__2
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…

Like a baby, stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

Take some time away from your post-election blues to explore Cohen’s oeuvre. In the Cohen documentary “I’m Your Man,” transgender singer Antony gives a moving rendition of “If It Be Your Will.”