I Heard There Was a Secret Chord
A Process Interpretation of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah
A hymn to souls too carnal to grow old, too secular to give praise, and too baffled to mock faith. - Bernard Avishal in The New Yorker, 2015
He loved the oldest stories, the ones he borrowed from world mythology and the Bible, but retold them in the rhythms of the Beat, of jazz standards and blue comedy…For all of this intertextuality, Cohen never became mired in abstractions. He valued the immediacy of the body too much.” -- Ann Powers, NPR
A Letter to David
Nothing can ruin a good song like trying to interpret it. But you don't really care for interpretations, do you?
You'd rather be thrown into Bathsheba's arms by the light of the moon, tied to a kitchen chair and have your hair cut, with Hallelujah drawn from your lips. Not the happy Hallelujah of an unambiguous triumph. This is what so many expect of you. They want messianic victories in which evil is conquered and good reigns. They want you to be a king of righteousness. But you are drawn to something deeper than victory. You are drawn to the cold and broken Hallelujah of what is beautiful, unattainable, ambiguous, and compelling. A beauty within the beauty.
Your faith in this beauty has always been strong but still, for reasons even you don't understand, you've needed proof, and that's what touched you when saw her bathing on the roof. She was, for you, beauty in the flesh. Did you think she was just yours for the taking? I hope not. Maybe it was the other way around. But she was so much more than mere ideals in your mind; so much more than righteousness and justice.
Righteousness and justice give you a sense of duty, and you have no objection to moral law. But she was closer to another dimension of the Lord's heart: a spacious mercy which accepts the whole of life, the finality and the flowers, with tender care that nothing be lost. A beauty within the beauty. There's a wildness in this mercy, as wild as the sea.
Of course, you've loved and lost more than a few times in your life; and you well know that love is not a victory march. If people knew how often you've lost they might not have made you king. Maybe it is enough that there are moments of intimacy in which the beauty within the beauty is known and shared, a holy spirit moving in you and between you, as you inhale and exhale Hallelujah. Maybe it's only in these moments that you touch the beauty in a special way. People might not approve of your affairs, but at least they can understand your longing. You wouldn't have so much longing without your faith in beauty.
It is said that, in moments of worship and intimacy, you address the beauty as God. Your prayer is not to a God above but rather to a God below, in the very vulnerability of life. It is not something that comes upon you like a blinding light, or even a cry you hear at night. It is the God of Hallelujah.
The truth is, you've been in love with the God of Hallelujah most of your life. You felt it with your friend Jonathan, too. And he felt it with you: "Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself." (I Samuel: 18:1). The eros in your heart is not reducible to fixed boundaries. Nor is the eros in God's heart. This is one reason you love music. It is more spacious than duty. It gives God pleasure.
Yes, in music you hear the tender side of God. Some people imagine God as having a face that can be carved in statues. They are inclined to make graven images of the Lord, if not in stone then at least in their imaginations. They think God is a noun. That's not the way you see things. You find God in feelings not faces. And you love music because music is what feelings sound like. There's even a secret chord you play on the harp that is especially pleasing to the Lord. It has a fourth and a fifth, a minor fall and a major lift. It is almost a longing, a moaning. When you play it the Lord is beckoned into the wildness of divine mercy. The Lord becomes fragile, too.
You worry when people neglect the wildness of God's mercy. And you worry when they forget the cold and broken side of life, too, with which even God shares. They live in their heads but lose their hearts. You want to help your people live with a sense of God's tenderness as well as God's righteousness. You want them to live justly but also mercifully, sensitive to mixed motives and confused aims which both feed and destroy a soul.
You cannot pretend that your affairs have been right or righteous. You have asked the Lord to forgive you many times. Have you asked Bathsheba to forgive you, too? Surely you have, but that's not enough. You had her husband murdered. You will live with this for the rest of your life. No one can unmake the past, not even the Lord. You will need to be honest about this, trying your best to put yourself in the position of Uriah, and this empathy may well be hell for you. You will understand what you did. You will grow to love Uriah and beg him for forgiveness. His Hallelujah is cold and broken, too. Colder than yours.
It is good that Bathsheba married you. Let her teach you in the arts of mercy and wisdom. We are sorry that the child born from your intimacy perished so early from a disease. Please know that the punishment was not from the Lord. The Lord does not work this way. The Lord is all-loving but not all-powerful, and on the side of each life and every life, all the time, everywhere. That's why there's so much brokenness in the Lord, too. There are cruelties in the world that even the Lord cannot prevent. Redeem? Yes. But prevent? No. Divine anger is another name for divine pain. Every time we harm others or ourselves we take a little piece of the Lord's heart.
Stories are going to be told of your love affair. Some will even be canonized. Let us hope that someone will tell the whole story from Bathsheba's perspective, from Uriah's perspective, and from the child's perspective. Their stories dwell in the Lords's heart as tenderly as your own. Perhaps there is an ultimate weaving together of stories so that they fit together into a kind of harmony, not unlike the harmonies you hear when you play your harp. You may think that when you play the chords it is you playing and the Lord listening. But in some of them it is the Lord playing through you, so that you can hear the mercy and feel the beauty.
You have let your hair grow out again. You've given up on getting haircuts while tied to chairs. Thank the Lord.
May you stand before the Lord of Song for as long as you can, guiding people in the ways of mercy as well as righteousness, hoping that in your words people might sometimes hear the blaze of a longing that blazes in their words, too. It leans out forever and it leans out for love. In your infidelities there was a leaning, too. That's why we love you.
-- Jay McDaniel
Lyrics to Hallelujah
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
There was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
The Woman On the Roof
Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and afterward of David, by whom she gave birth to Solomon, who succeeded David as king. (United Kingdom of Israel and Judah).
Jean-Léon Gérôme's depiction of Bathsheba bathing as viewed from David's perspective. The story of David's seduction of Bathsheba, told in 2 Samuel 11, is omitted in Chronicles. The story is told that David, while walking on the roof of his palace, saw Bathsheba, who was then the wife of Uriah, having a bath. He immediately desired her and later made her pregnant.
In an effort to conceal his sin, David summoned Uriah from the army (with whom he was on campaign) in the hope that Uriah would re-consummate his marriage and think that the child was his. Uriah was unwilling to violate the ancient kingdom rule applying to warriors in active service. Rather than go home to his own bed, he preferred to remain with the palace troops.
After repeated efforts to convince Uriah to have sex with Bathsheba, the king gave the order to his general, Joab, that Uriah should be placed in the front lines of the battle, where it was the most dangerous, and left to the hands of the enemy (where he was more likely to die). David had Uriah himself carry the message that ordered his death. After Uriah was dead, David made the now widowed Bathsheba his wife. David's action was displeasing to the Lord, who accordingly sent Nathan the prophet to reprove the king.
After relating the parable of the rich man who took away the one little ewe lamb of his poor neighbor (II Samuel 12:1-6), and exciting the king's anger against the unrighteous act, the prophet applied the case directly to David's action with regard to Bathsheba.
The king at once confessed his sin and expressed sincere repentance. Bathsheba's child by David was struck with a severe illness and died a few days after birth, which the king accepted as his punishment.
Spirit and Flesh
Like many people, I love Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. I ask the reader's indulgence if I use many phrases from the song in my short appreciation offered above. And the idea of us leaning toward love comes from another of Cohen's songs: Suzanne.
I also ask the reader's indulgence in using so many ideas from process theology without saying "process theology." Actually, I take it back. I think it is important to liberate process theology from the phrase "process theology."
But more importantly, like many people, I wrote the piece because I understand those whose longing for love, for intimacy, leads them to make decisions and act in ways that harm others. From a process perspective it is important to recognize the harm and also to recognize the motivations, sometimes quite good, that lead the harm. I trust that the Lord in whose heart our lives unfold, breath by breath, somehow absorbs the whole of it with a tender care that nothing be lost.
I am also aware that stories of love and lust always have many sides, each told from the point of view of one of the partners. David's longings and Bathsheba's longings were different. Part of faith in God is the hope that, amid our fragmented stories, a deeper narrative emerges, in the very heart of God, which contains within it a hidden Hallelujah that includes the minor chords and the major lifts. In moments of intimacy, when soul meets soul, there is indeed a taste of this Hallelujah. There is no need to hide from flesh in seeking the spirit. The flesh is spirit, too.
-- Jay McDaniel