Leonard Cohen’s final album ‘You want it Darker’ is brilliant.
It was recorded in his living room because he was too unwell to go anywhere. It seems that, like David Bowie, he saved the best for last, turning the experience of dying into his greatest creative effort.
Then there’s his voice…deeper than ever, summoning sound from the depths of his soul, rasping truths into your ear in a way that makes you feel he’s speaking directly to you.
And although as the title suggests, it is pretty dark, it’s also defiant in a palpably vital way. Leonard is not succumbing, he’s actively welcoming death, “so you want it darker? We kill the flame.”
But the thing about this masterpiece that has fascinated me and provoked some serious thought, are the chorus lyrics in the title track. The meaning of the words, "I'm ready my Lord" are clear enough and caught my attention immediately, I was like ok so he's making his peace with God here but I also noticed Cohen sings some words in another language before that, I didn't understand them, they just seemed important somehow so I looked them up.
It’s actually one word spoken twice, the Hebrew word ‘Hineni’ which translates literally as ‘Here I am’. It is what Moses says to God when he asks him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. It is what Abraham says to God when God asks him to sacrifice his only son. It denotes a state of absolute readiness to give oneself, it is an offer of absolute availability.
“You want it darker’ is Cohen giving himself to God, expressing his absolute readiness for the end of his life. Hineni. Here I am. I’m ready my Lord.
I found this idea utterly beautiful and deeply moving, this expression of a faith so certain, so great that you can hand yourself over to it absolutely. I felt jealous of it in a way, it's such a passionate, selfless, enormous expression of love, it would be an amazing thing to experience and to possess but I don't believe in God so...
Around the same time I caught Krista Tippett’s On Being Interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama. It’s a rich, compassionate conversation, brimming with wisdom, so much so I’ve listened four times and I’m still not done with it - it’s a perspective altering piece of audio.
During the conversation they briefly touch on Ó Tuama's favourite poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner. They only quoted a couple of lines but they were beautiful, powerful lines, so once again I found myself digging about on the internet, searching for more. Here's what I found:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
It’s a poem about belonging, about finding your place in the world. Its message is overwhelmingly comforting and reassuring; none of us are truly lost, even when we feel we are because “wherever you are is called Here.’
But in order to be found you have to surrender to that place, the place called Here, the present moment. You must ‘stand still’ ‘listen’ ‘let it find you.” It struck me that this is a form of Hineni, it’s a way of saying “Here I am, I am ready” but instead of making yourself available to God, you’re making yourself open and available to your location in time and space, to circumstance, to the Universe , to whatever life throws at you.
This ritual, the act that the poem is suggesting, is every bit as beautiful and spiritually nourishing as the religious form of Hineni. It still brings you into a state of perfect openness and availability, it’s just that it doesn’t require that you put faith in anyone other than yourself and the moment in which you exist.
Like Cohen's expression of readiness to hand himself to God, it's actively passive. You have to bring yourself into a state readiness, "Here I am, I am ready" but once you've done that, the rest is out of your hands - the forest, the place called here, knows where you are, it hears you and it will find you.
This morning, as I travelled into work, pondering how I might put all of this into words, I put on another episode of On Being, this time a conversation with Richard Rohr. Towards the end of the interview he said something that seemed to me to get to the very heart of this train of thought, “I think the truly human is always experienced in vulnerability…vulnerability transforms you.”
It seems to me to be intrinsically connected to Hineni which, when you think about it, is an ultimate state of vulnerability. A state where the egotistical, desirous-self is put aside in favour of something softer and more yielding, that allows you to be moulded and shaped for the better by the people, experiences and locations you encounter.
Viewed in this way vulnerability isn't weakness, it's a combination of fragility "Here I am" and strength "I am ready" a state where transformation is guaranteed, where we can experience great love, deep relief and a better understanding of what it is to be human and the best thing about it is that you don't have to believe in God to be transformed by it.