Leonard Cohen’s omnipresent “Hallelujah” ranks high among the songs thoughtful Christian friends love to rebuke, second only to John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
The criticism often rings true—especially regarding when and where the song plays. To borrow Cohen’s own parlance, “Hallelujah” is not a funeral march or noble hymn; it’s a tone poem about someone who loses himself in the thin places between desire and healing.
For all the fault worth finding, Cohen serves us by investigating the language of love, offering a set of positive and negative statements near the song’s end. Time and experience prove him right about what love isn’t—“a victory march,” the province of “somebody who’s seen the light”—and what it resembles.
Perhaps “a cold and ... a broken Hallelujah” sells love short, but the phrase inches toward truth about the frailty of the freight we carry inside.
Over the next week, a routine give-and-take will resume. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, many will ascend the nearest hilltop or platform to declare their love—while just as many will stop their ears. I appreciate the latter impulse. Quieting this seemingly joyful noise might ease the sting of lack or stanch wounds yet to heal; dampening the sound sometimes serves as a rightful act of protest against narrow word pictures too carelessly offered.
And yet we need to keep talking about love. Like every great force, it requires defining and refining, demythologizing and elevating.
I’m just not the guy to do it.
Twenty years ago, I knew many words for love—big, ten-dollar words with syllables to spare. I wrote them all in capital letters, and set many to music for girls I never married.
I treat love like I treat God himself—98 percent sure it exists, two percent sure of its substance.
Today, I resemble the songwriter David Gray, when he sings in all his British bittersweetness, “Honey, now if I’m honest, I still don’t know what love is.” I treat love like I treat God himself—98 percent sure it exists, two percent sure of its substance.
My son, who obsesses over anything he loves, watched our wedding DVD till it broke. The day, all blurred edges and impressions anyway, must be reconstructed by memory. For all that remains obscured by haze, I remember how we talked about love. We were the type to write our own vows—long, rambling vows about what our love already knew how to do.
We breathed out words like cherish and honor, respect and sacrifice. Underneath them, even more unspoken subtext. Love burns; love sticks; love sweeps you up and along. We knew which words to say, but knew the words themselves like acquaintances. We spoke in general terms when love, as the 16 years since bear out, gets pretty damn specific.
Show mercy on a couple of twenty-somethings, but we succumb to the same temptations at every age. Laboring to become fluent, we make love a noun or verb but rarely join those parts of speech. Love alights on a who or when, maybe the occasional how. But we need every bit of syntax we know to describe and document love’s work; even then, we only draw so close.
My wife and I have been in love for nearly 20 years. Time passes, scales shift and in a matter of two years, “we” will be as old as “me.” As much of my life next to her as without her. The love she manifests in many verbs makes me slow to speak, careful to call its name.
I won’t filibuster on behalf of us, but I won’t punctuate the sentence either. The words I might muster are small and soft, existing outside any regular meter. I only know how to testify to the action words she makes flesh.
Her love waits—not in the way we once meant with rings and rallies. Often she waits for me to figure out what she already knows. Her love bends to meet me where I am; it cries, in shivers and sobs, over how the past and future impinge upon the present.
Her love surprises me by assenting to experience Twin Peaks, a show I never expected her to watch as long we both shall live—then adoring it, working it into inside jokes. Her love stays, even though she knows me more completely than I know myself.
Her love believes the best about me, even as sinful patterns and mental health records raise their objections.
Her love believes the best about me, even as sinful patterns and mental health records raise their objections. In this way, she reminds me that the greatest of these might be love, but real love imitates faith—staking everything on the evidence of things unseen.
Bright-eyed bridesmaids recite 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings, yet maybe eight people in the church know what those words mean—over the years, down in the marrow. We talked and talked (and talked) at our wedding, but only one person came close to articulating the language of love.
About 20 minutes before becoming my family, my wife’s brother sang a song called “Fortunate.” The spare but soulful ballad wasn’t about us—not yet. He sang what he knew, of watching his wife wake backlit by the morning, of her day-in, day-out faithfulness in loving their babies. Like anyone who starts to understand love, he stopped talking and started testifying.
My wife lives out this language. And like a wretch waking up to grace, I gladly bear witness to love’s activity in a space as small as the human heart.
Saying—or singing—what love isn’t only leads us halfway. Only assigning one part of speech divides its fullness and leaves others outside looking in. Expanding the vocabulary, lining up verb after verb, draws more into the conversation. Talking about where we see love, and what it delights to do, isn’t only for the partnered. This language translates to any situation, loosing us to speak a better hallelujah.