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How Leonard Cohen Reminds Me to Thirst for God

leonard cohen review

One afternoon I listened to Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” song while sipping water diligently. “The splinters that you carry, the cross you left behind… come healing of the body, come healing of the mind,” he sung. It seemed suitable to listen to Cohen pray-singing for the coming of healing while I tried to increase water intake and become a healthier person. Since then, the notions of Cohen and dehydration fused in my mind. Now, when I think of Cohen, the notion of how not only our bodies but also our souls can be “dehydrated” comes to mind as well.

Thirsting for God

Dehydration occurs when the body is losing more fluid than it is taking in, resulting in the body’s normal functions suffering. Our bodies thirst for water, and we know it is a life-force that we desperately need. Yet somehow we still don’t feel like drinking enough of it. Interestingly, when you listen carefully to Leonard Cohen’s music, it can sound like he is also dehydrated, in a different sense. The spiritual questions that evaporate from his lyrics seem to be greater than the spiritual answers he takes in.

Cohen does not shy from God. He often actively searches for Him, and his lyrics beautifully take the listener on journeys of love, loss, and the need for forgiveness. My first encounter with Cohen’s music was in high school through the song, “Alexandra Leaving.” Unaware at the time that it was based on Constantine Cavafy’s poem, “God Abandons Antony,” I just listened, mesmerized, while Cohen sang:

And you who were bewildered by a meaning
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

The song communicates a troubling sense of loss, of someone or something still physically present, perhaps, but not fully there. Listeners cannot help but analyze with Cohen the question of whether to resign, how to make peace, and where to start in formulating a response to confusion or pain.

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Leonard Cohen Reminds Me of My Longing for God

Other of his songs—“Anthem,” “If It Be Your Will,” “Suzanne,” “Almost Like the Blues”—more explicitly deal with spiritual themes and manifest how much Cohen’s soul thirsts for infinite goodness, which he knows is found in God. Equally clear from his songs, however, is that it can be a struggle to gulp down the water of faith, a struggle to find and express satiation.

In his Old Ideas album, for example, Cohen begins and ends a song with words from the point of view of God looking down at him. God, Cohen imagines, says:

I love to speak with Leonard…
He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat…
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete.

These ironic words from Cohen’s imagination speak of God’s love and are hopeful overall. God wants a relationship with him and he, Leonard, is listening and responding. But Cohen’s image here, and his songs in general, also carry a sense of reluctance in abandoning distractions and giving full attention to spiritual thirst. Generally, his lyrics don’t give us the impression that he has been able to swallow the holy water of God’s goodness and find full health. There are the marks of dehydration—of intense thirst for God—in his music, but sometimes, like us, he’s not drinking.

Are We Drinking the Water of Life?

My point is not to criticize Leonard Cohen. The man is worthy of respect and means a great deal to me personally as a songwriter. In fact, Cohen’s “dehydration”—the desire and need for a deeper understanding of and relationship with God that is evident in his lyrics— is a significant part of what makes him so persuasive to his listeners.

In his dehydration, we recognize our dehydration. We feel a bit more empowered to carry on, knowing that others have journeyed this wandering path before. We are all in need of the hydration of grace. Sometimes encountering another’s thirst reminds us that we need to turn to God, “the source of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13). While it may not be Leonard Cohen, what artists or other figures in your life remind you of this reality?

Dehydration and the Saints

This idea of dehydrated personalities is all the more striking in light of the spiritual doctrine of the Catholic Saint and mystic Elizabeth of the Trinity, whose spirituality was marked by a powerful sense of God living within us. Elizabeth speaks of the soul who permits “the divine Being to satisfy within it His craving to communicate all He is and has.”

She prays to be this soul, saying:

Keep me there (in the heart) all absorbed in Thee, in living faith, adoring Thee and wholly yielded up to Thy creative action.

Elizabeth offers us an example of how thirst can lead to a total absorption in God’s friendship that almost makes all other distractions disappear.

Come to the Water

Few souls, of course, are so remarkably absorbed with God’s presence that they can speak authentically of living Heaven on earth. Cohen’s lyrics are quite different than Elizabeth’s spiritual doctrine. But perhaps his work can be a stepping stone toward the radical consumption of God’s love that Elizabeth demonstrates. These figures stand at varying points along the road of thirst, generously pointing us toward hope. As they eloquently and vulnerably share their own journeys toward hydration, this makes them accessible for the rest of us with thirsty souls.

There’s no getting rid of thirst in the human experience— thirst for laughter that lasts, thirst for meaning in the motions of life, thirst for an ultimate answer to anguish in our hearts.

But there are many different kinds of thirst. There’s physical human thirst, which is essential to our wellness as a body-soul composite. There’s also Cohen’s thirst, the thirst of a man who has a strong sense of the spiritual realm yet seems to struggle sometimes to lift the chalice to drink. And there’s the thirst of the great Christian Saints and martyrs, who have tasted the blood of the New Covenant and become thirstier still, even as they have become full.

Let’s let all kinds of thirst remind us of the possibility that—if we turn away from the temptation to direct our thirst toward earthly sensations that never satisfy—our thirst can be quenched by God’s presence, and yet somehow increase at the same time, stretching us in our desire and capacity for living water.

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Savanna Buckner is a freelance writer finishing her M.B.A. with Walsh University. Previously, she served as a missionary teacher at a junior college in Belize. She loves art, entrepreneurial projects, and volunteering at Montessori schools.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Marietta
    March 28, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Love this! I’m not familiar with Cohen’s other work, but I sing Hallelujah to my babies while I’m walking/rocking/bouncing them when they’re fussy (thanks, Shrek!). Every verse (even the PG-13 one, which I skip 😉) speaks to that (dehydrated) moment when you have nothing left, and so–you praise God.

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