God Bless this mess is what Parker Palmer, a friend of ours in the US, uttered once when we lived together at a Quaker study center in Philadelphia in the beginning of the 1980s. I have often used that phrase when I feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges and demands – everything just feels like a mess.
Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah has the same liberating and southing effect on me. It is so amazingly good and comforting in its nakedness and brutality and every time I hear it its like Cohen brings together the experiences of being alive with all that it means. This morning when it was played on the radio I started thinking about the words (again) and talked to Jonathan about our understandings of the lyrics. I have always seen it as a song about life, love and our time on earth. I played it right after my mother had died in a car accident two years ago and it comforted me during the worst weeks. I always put the volume on high when its plays on the radio (since I know the neighbor likes it too) and every time it touches something deep inside of me
I have seen Cohen live twice – once in Helsingfors in the 1990s and 3 years ago on his European tour in Zürich. His humble appearance spreads through the room and when he sings Hallelujah alive its hard to say if its a feeling of torture or pleasure – both brutal and very gentle. It also somehow gives me an experience of connectedness – a universal feeling of being human.
The biblical references can be of help when writing about these things in a culture in which we get the bible stories and its symbolic language with our mother’s milk (as we say in Swedish). Cohen uses biblical metaphors in more than one song. I checked if Cohen himself had said something about the song. In an interview with Neil McCormick at The Telegraph he says that it took 5 years to write Hallelujah and it has 80 verses: “I filled two notebooks with the song, and I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, “I can’t finish this song.”
“Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.
“That’s what it’s all about. It says that none of this – you’re not going to be able to work this thing out – you’re not going to be able to set – this realm does not admit to revolution – there’s no solution to this mess. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say ‘Look, I don’t understand a f***ing thing at all – Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.” (The Telegraph)