On Wednesday 21 September Leonard Cohen turned 82.

To celebrate his birthday, Cohen released the single, “You want it darker”. It is the title song for his upcoming album to be released 21 October and is being touted as a dark aching cry of despair. Predictably, I see it as an enigmatic affirmation of faith.

The song starts out sounding like a monastic chant (it is actually the Montreal Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir with cantor Gideon Zelermyer) until Cohen’s deep gravelly voice breaks in like a groan.

Cohen addresses God as “the dealer.” He suggests that, for whatever mysterious reason (Cohen doesn’t speculate about reasons), God seems to have designed life to be as dark as Cohen experiences it to be. This claim resonates with the prophet Jeremiah through whom God is reported to have said,

Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. (Jeremiah 18:11)

Cohen seems willing to accept Jeremiah’s dark words because

it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker

Some commentators hear Cohen protesting against God. But in fact it is God who is the victim. God has been “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.”

Whatever the cause of this “darkness”, the song is primarily a profound gesture of confession. Perhaps on behalf of the whole human race, Cohen acknowledges that, if God wants “it darker,” we humans, to our “shame”, have been only too willing to cooperate and “kill the flame.”

Helpless in the face of the broken reality of the human condition, we humans have lit “A million candles burning for the help that never came.”  Were we expecting God would override the human tendency to take “permission to murder and to maim”? Have we sought some magical solution to suffering that lies outside the demand to face our own “demons” even if they are merely “middle class and tame”?

In the end for Cohen, God is not the culprit, there’s “a paradox to blame.” Like the poet he is, Cohen does not spell out the nature of the “paradox”, nor attempt to bring an easy resolution to the mystery he beholds.

Last month in a letter to his former girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen, who died in late July, Cohen wrote,

Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

Cohen’s consciousness of the inevitability and proximity of death seems to have tuned him to the music of mystery even more acutely than his fans have always known him to be.

“You want it darker,” is not finally a cry of desperation. Cohen does not celebrate the triumph of cynicism or despair.

Cohen affirms that, although, “the story’s still the same,” still “There’s a lover in the story” and “a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame.”

The phrase

Vilified, crucified,

is matched and balanced by the affirmation from the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer commonly recited at the time of death) in which the faithful are instructed to address God as

Magnified, sanctified.

So, despite the horror and the intractable paradox of life, Cohen stands in the face of all that we cannot comprehend and declares,

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name.

Yes Cohen laments the fractured nature of the human condition. But, as difficult and painful as life often is, in the end Cohen is ready to surrender to the “lover in the story.” The refrain rings out with trust,

I’m ready, my lord

And so, in this testament to surrender, Cohen takes himself,

out of the game.

He does not blame, chastise, or condemn; he does not complain or whine. He simply observes. He acknowledges reality and in the face of what is, he affimrs faith in the divine.

Throughout the song, the Hebrew word “Hineni” sounds as a refrain. “Hineni” is Hebrew for “here I am.” It is a frequent response to the presence of God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, most famously in Abraham’s answer to God when God instructs him to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1).

In the face of the inexplicable realities of life, death, and suffering, Cohen does not turn away. He does not flinch. He does not abandon God; he proclaims:

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

As he ages and approaches death, Cohen seems willing to forgive God for the struggle life often is. And, in this act of exonerating the Divine, Cohen encounters perhaps “the healer” and “the glory” his music has always sought.


Addendum (11 October 2016)

When I asked him if he intended his performances to reflect a kind of devotion, he hesitated before he answered. “Does artistic dedication begin to touch on religious devotion?” he said. “I start with artistic dedication. I know that if the spirit is on you it will touch on to the other human receptors. But I dare not begin from the other side. It’s like pronouncing the holy name—you don’t do it. But if you are lucky, and you are graced, and the audience is in a particular salutary condition, then these deeper responses will be produced.”

The new record opens with the title track, “You Want It Darker,” and in the chorus, the singer declares:

Hineni Hineni

I’m ready my Lord.

Hineni is Hebrew for “Here I am,” Abraham’s answer to the summons of God to sacrifice his son Isaac; the song is clearly an announcement of  readiness, a man at the end preparing for his service and devotion. Cohen asked Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor at Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue of his youth in Montreal, to sing the backing vocals. And yet the man sitting in his medical chair was anything but haunted or defeated.

“I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not,” Cohen said. “It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to coöperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.

“What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol.” The divine voice. “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.”


Listen to the song here, and read the lyrics below:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

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
You want it darker
We kill the flame

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
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name


Another musician, thought two decades younger, seems perhaps to be navigating similar terrain to Leonard Cohen. In his long piece at The Atlantic, David Brooks narrates the history of Bruce Springsteen’s own struggle with the darkness. Near the end of the article, Brooks suggests the resolution at which Springsteen has arrived, saying,

Springsteen endured a massive depression after turning 60, and solving the problem of himself is work that he clearly feels isn’t over. He is still trying to keep himself together by writing new music. But he sounds less desperate, less in need of escaping something. “Feeding your children,” he writes, “is an act of great intimacy and I received my rewards, the sounds of forks clattering on breakfast plates, toast popping out of the toaster, and the silent approval of morning ritual.” Springsteen can’t resist reaching for a grander benediction: “There is a love seemingly beyond love, beyond our control, and it will take us through our lives bestowing blessings and curses as they fall.”

The last quote from Springsteen sounds just like Cohen – a love that bestows “blessings and curses” – can I live with such a love? Can I continue to choose faith even when it does not take away all the “curses” and bring only blessings?

These are the questions of faith. They are the questions so beautifully articulated in the moving sermon based on the Book of Job that Terrence Malick put on the lips of the priest in “The Tree of Life.”

Do you trust in God?

Job, too, was close to the Lord. Are your friends and children your security? There is no hiding place in all the world where trouble may not find you. No one knows when sorrow might visit his house, any more than Job did.

The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal.

Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turns His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?