The Mystical Marriage & Leonard Cohen

Tonight we have reached the end of the Trinity Season – our readings have been leading us in a spiraling ascent into the heart of God.  So it seems most appropriate tonight as we conclude the season and also the Christian year (one final week) that we think of the final hopes of a Christian.

There are different ways of describing this promised end in God:  salvation, entering the kingdom of heaven, eternal life, the vision of God (the beatific vision), entering into God’s rest (the eternal Sabbath), or the mystical marriage of the soul with God.  Tonight we’ll focus on this last of these descriptions of our final end in God – the mystical marriage.  Leonard Cohen, whom we are also  remembering tonight, has written songs that use this allegory and we will conclude tonight by looking at a few of his songs.

We covered some of this a few months ago at Prayer and Praise when we looked at the sacrament of marriage – the way in which the earthly marriage between a man and woman is to represent or be an image or icon of the marriage between Christ and the Church or God and the soul.  So first a little review…

1 Biblical Imagery

This biblical imagery of spiritual marriage is found throughout the Bible:

  • In the opening chapters of Genesis (2:21-25), God speaks about marriage: A man shall leave his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh – St Paul says that even before speaking about marriage on earth this passage is about the marriage of God and his people (i.e that earthly marriage derives its meaning from this higher form or reality) – this mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32)
  • Through the Prophets, God speaks about Israel as his bride:
    • “…your Maker is your Husband; the Lord of hosts is his name,’ and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit… with great compassion I will gather you… with everlasting love I will have compassion on you (Isaiah 54:4-8) (e.g. Jeremiah 2, 31:31-34; Ezekiel 16; Hosea)
    • In these prophetic writings, when Israel worshipped other gods, God condemns it not as “idolatry” but “adultery”.
  • In the Wisdom literature this marriage language becomes even more explicit
    • The Song of Songs that we heard tonight is the most explicit. There is not one reference to God in the whole book, yet it was added to the Hebrew canon of Scripture, and later the Christian canon, because it was seen by Jewish and Christian compilers of the canon as the story of love between God – the beloved, and the individual soul – the lover (or God and Israel / Christ and the Church).
    • The Wisdom of Solomon – In this book the images are reversed. Here Solomon takes Lady Wisdom as his bride – “I loved her and sought her from my youth, and I desire to take her for my bride, and I became enamored of her beauty…I determined to take her to live with me…I went about seeking how to get her for myself…” [c. 8] Solomon prays to God for her. St Paul speaks of Christ as “the Wisdom of God” [1 Cor 1:24] – so the Fathers always saw Lady Wisdom as a feminine image of the Divine Son (e.g. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job)
  • When Jesus comes into the world he chooses to perform his first miracle at a wedding (Jn 2); he speaks in parables using marriage imagery – e.g. the invitations to the wedding feast (Mt 22; Lk 14), the 10 virgins with lamps awaiting the bridegroom (Mt 25) – John describes himself as the friend of and rejoicing in the presence of the bridegroom (Jn 3:29), Jesus calls himself the bridegroom (e.g. Mt 9:15)!
  • When Jesus dies on the Cross – he is pierced in his side, and what flowed was water and blood – the early Church saw in this a parallel with the creation of woman from Adam’s side – yet in this case, out of His side, by the water and blood, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the Church, Christ’s bride is formed.
  • And, of course, marriage is the description of the culmination of history, in the final chapters of Revelation, I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

So the marriage of God and His people is a theme running from the beginning to end of the Bible – a way of describing our Christian hope, a mystical marriage union with God.

2  What does this mean?  What is the nature of this marriage relationship between God and the soul?

This is where the Song of Solomon is instructive – here we see that God is actually wooing us!

Rosemarie read chapter 3: the woman in Song of Songs is a figure of every human soul longing for God, or of Israel or the Church.  Erik read from chapter 4, the man, who in the Jewish and Christian tradition has always been seen as Solomon and as a figure of God.  The love poetry is definitely an affirmation of the beauty of earthly love, but it is more.  It may be too much to enter into an allegorical interpretation at every point, but the overall theme is there and recognized as such in pre-Christian Jewish commentators and Christian interpreters from the beginnings of the Church (e.g. Origen).  And we see something here quite amazing, that we might not think of:  God’s enjoyment of the beauty of the human soul and body – of our creatureliness – have you ever thought of God being “ravished” by your glances at Him?  Ravished when we turn our hearts, our gaze, towards Him in prayer?  That’s what the text says!  [4:9]

If we’re ever disparaging about our dignity, our self-worth, in God’s eyes, remember the Song of Solomon, and remember God taking flesh and giving His life on the Cross for us, think of the way God adorns us with a garment of love and the jewels of virtues and the crown of righteousness to make us ready for the consummation of spiritual marriage.  (Jesus says, With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you… Lk 22:15)

The soul’s journey towards God is started by God, it is God’s initiative, that longing, that desire is planted in the human soul.

Song of Songs begins with the woman, the lover saying –

“O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine
Your anointing oils are fragrant,
Your name is as ointment poured out;
Therefore do the maidens love you.”

Have you ever fallen in love with someone you’ve never met?  Surely the lover must have some knowledge of her beloved, some sight, some sense, so that she is moved to seek Him out.  She describes what she already knows of him.  It is God’s initiative, to reveal Himself, to give us a glimpse of His beauty.

And each one of us has in some way been captured by that beauty, we’ve been enlivened in our faith in some mysterious way, yet we long for so much more – it is our desire stretching out – inspired by God, to seek Him out.

And yet strangely, God stays at a distance, coming close, then withdrawing, making us seek further, deeper, it seems even at the risk for our safety.

The woman says later in the poem,

I opened to my beloved,
But my beloved had turned and gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
The watchmen found me,
As they went about in the city;
They beat me, they wounded me,
They took away my mantle,
Those watchmen of the walls.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem
If you find my beloved,
That you tell him I am sick with love.  [Song of Songs 5:6-8] 

Love is stirred up, yet unfulfilled, not consummated, seeking, unsatisfied until it possesses the beloved, even God!  This pattern is back and forth in the story of Song of Solomon – times of seeking in longing, then finding, then losing, then seeking, then finding.

Does this remind you, at all, of your own spiritual journey?

Why does God “play hard to get”?  There must be some purpose, even some spiritual necessity for this being the way it is?

Perhaps these are some reasons:

  • Our own wills need to be engaged, God inspires our longing, experienced almost as a kind of wounding, because we feel less whole once we know something of Him but he withdraws.
  • for there to be a union of our souls with God, they must be made ready – made holy and made able to enjoy what is beyond the human being to normally enjoy. And this hope of fulfillment, of satisfaction, this engagement of our heart, soul, mind and strength, is what both inspires us to find Him and it also transforms who we are on the way so that when we find God we have been made able to enjoy Him.  We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

3  The Mystical Tradition.

This spiritual marriage as our end in God has been the teaching of the mystical tradition in the Church, and has been a part of the great monastic movements in the Eastern and Western Christian traditions.  I would also suggest that the movement and the steps in that journey to spiritual marriage have formed the choice of readings Sunday by Sunday in the Prayer Book (which date back to the 5th century AD).

So in Trinity season we looked at the movement of the soul towards God and also our transformation – first through the purging of our passions, or the perfecting of our loves (T3-9); second, leading to an inward illumination of our soul by God’s grace, a greater infilling with His Spirit as we are ready to not waste his grace (T10-16); and, finally, leading to a union of our souls with God (T17-23) – that we are thinking God’s thoughts and willing the will of God, recognizing that we are in His presence – knowing/enjoying/experiencing His love, and being a conduit of His love to the world.  In these final weeks of Trinity season we had the two Gospels with parables of the invitation to the marriage feast.  The spiritual life is a call not to just follow out of fear, or out of duty, but it is a call to be in love with God, in a relationship back and forth, being surprised by God continually as the fog is lifted and we see him and as we hear him speaking ever more clearly.

This spiritual path involves a movement out of being absorbed by the external world, to being recollected, a return to ourselves, a movement within, and finally from within to above, to the recovery of our ability to look up and to lovingly behold God and all things in God.  The windows of heaven are re-opened within us.

Some of the famous mystics focused on the spiritual marriage as the goal and end of the spiritual life more than others.

e.g. St. Teresa of Avila, describes the ecstasy of her union:

[I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.] It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

e.g. Here an example from Mechthild of Magdeburg . (a 13th century Beguine nun, the first mystic to write in the German language.)  When asked if she would rather be a Seraphim or a human being, she says she would rather be human because…

The least soul is a daughter of the Father and a sister of the Son and a friend of the Holy Spirit and, indeed, a bride of the Holy Trinity.  When the game is over, then let one see how the scales tip.  The noblest angel, Jesus Christ, who soars above the Seraphim, who is undivided with his Father, him shall I, the least of souls, take in my arms, eat him and drink him, and have my way with him.  This can never happen to the angels.  No matter how high he dwells above me, his Godhead shall never be so distant that I cannot constantly entwine my limbs with him; and so I shall never cool off.  What, then, do I care what the angels experience?

Johannes of Ruysbroek wrote a lengthy treatise called “The Adornment of Spiritual Marriage” where he lays out the steps of the soul’s sanctification in Christ leading to mystical union.

And through the ages this language of rapture and the consummation of love can be found in the Church’s liturgy and sometimes in our hymns …  Eros, the same intense passion found in earthly love, directed heavenward, but in a transformed way, leads to the union of our soul with God.

Dante is the supreme writer of the ascent of the soul as a falling in love with God.  The Divine Comedy is a work he spent his lifetime writing as he tried to understand the relation between his earthly love for Beatrice and how she converted him, and how that love and conversion was related to and led to his love of God.

4. Leonard Cohen

We close tonight by looking a song by Leonard Cohen.  Cohen was born and raised in Montreal, an observant Jew, who remained faithful to his Judaism while he practiced Zen Buddhism as a monk for a few years in his 60s.  He did look to other religious sources for inspiration, including Jesus, and from his early days his songs have often made direct illusions to Christian themes or words.  Another reason that his songs can make connections for Christians is that in the mystical tradition of Judaism there are common themes of the marriage of God and his people or his creation.

My choice of this song tonight is not to say I think all of Cohen writings are orthodox, in fact I think sometimes he strays in an unhelpful Buddhist direction.  But I think it is interesting for us to find this mystical strain surprisingly showing up in pop culture, it is the ultimate longing of every human heart.

I’ve enjoyed especially Cohen’s album 10 New Songs, some of which are written in collaboration with the singer Sharon Robinson.  I’m sure many people think these are romantic poems between a man and woman, but like the Song of Songs I think they are usually pointing us higher, that they are deliberately a bit hidden, though some less so, as in the case of Alexandra Leaving.  We’ll look through this song and I’ll suggest how I read it – I accept that I may be imposing too much of a Christian emphasis on it, but I don’t think Cohen would mind.  I think he is someone longing for Christ and who when he sees him will rejoice.

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,

They slip between the sentries of the heart.

The Ascension
(or the experience of His leaving in Song of Solomon)
Christ and the Holy Spirit?
and Pentecost (is this his slipping away or his coming in)

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure

There is a relation between pleasure and the divine love.
Every earthly pleasure in itself is a sign of God’s love and pointing us
(lifting us, moving us beyond ourselves, a little ‘ec’stacy). Love lifts us.
Desire, eros, lifts them, desire for simple/pure pleasure, joy
God is without form (body, parts)
God as a community of love, God loves Himself

They fall among the voices and the wine.

Again, is it a kind of Pentecost? A congregation, is it Eucharistic,
or any earthly celebration (where 2 or 3 are gathered in my Name…)?

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –

We want to keep God away, not believe His imminence,
we explain away, a vision, a strange coincidence.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Is it a double negative? – i.e. She’s not leaving.
I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counselor,
to be with you forever… you know him,
for he dwells with you, and will be in you. John 14

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.

The language of mystical marriage

Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

Again the rationalizing away God’s presence

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window.  Drink it in.

Exquisite music.  Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

The opening within our souls to the vision above.
The way in which our faith is renewed through our encounters
with the divine, the glimpses of the glory

And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

The language of the consummation of mystical marriage –
through baptism, holy communion
(“that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us!”)

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked –
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect.

Jesus says the fields are white for the harvest,
there is so much preparation of our souls for an encounter
Yet our unhelpful certainties, our not waiting or trusting wrecks possibilities
Again we hide ourselves in the garden from God, reason away…

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –

If we see Christ as the great Mystery, the Logos,
the hidden Reason behind the Cosmos
Who he is, the Mystery, was both put to death (broken)
and revealed in his death (the code broken)
and then raised resurrection

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

She will never leave you!

Here’s one more from that album which uses the language of lover and beloved which I think is pointing to the mystical marriage of the soul with God.

You have loved enough

I said I’d be your lover.
You laughed at what I said.

Is there a sort of impertinence, or perhaps boldness in this assertion
that God finds funny (or sweet) 🙂 ?

I lost my job forever.
I was counted with the dead.

I swept the marble chambers,
But you sent me down below.

Jesus told the Pharisees they were white washed tombs
full of dead men’s bones because they focused only on outward appearances.
God wants us to look within, to go deeper,

You kept me from believing
Until you let me know:


That I am not the one who loves
It’s love that seizes me.

This is the Gospel – not that we loved him but that he loved us…

When hatred with his package comes,
You forbid delivery.

When we’re seized by love, we reject hatred, we only want love.

And when the hunger for your touch
Rises from the hunger,

This is eros reaching out, desire unsatisfied, hunger,
that is increased by the touch of God’s love, God’s “hunger”.

You whisper, “You have loved enough,
Now let me be the Lover.”

God responds to our reaching out
and graces us with spiritual consolations

I swept the marble chambers,
But you sent me down below.
You kept me from believing
Until you let me know:

That I am not the one who loves
It’s love that chooses me.
When hatred with his package comes,
You forbid delivery.

And when the hunger for your touch
Rises from the hunger

By the Rivers Dark

(Here God hunts out the soul as it falls away into the world, again brings in marriage imagery and the wounding of love – it is of course inspired by Ps 137.)

By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
In Babylon.

And I did forget
My holy song
And I had no strength
In Babylon.

By the rivers dark
Where I could not see
Who was waiting there
Who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip
And he cut my heart.
So I could not drink
From the river dark.

And he covered me,
And I saw within,
My lawless heart
And my wedding ring,

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me. 

By the rivers dark
I panicked on.
I belonged at last
To Babylon. 

Then he struck my heart
With a deadly force,
And he said, ‘This heart
It is not yours.’

And he gave the wind
My wedding ring
And he circled us
With everything.

By the rivers dark,
In a wounded dawn,
I live my life
In Babylon.

Though I take my song
From a withered limb,
Both song and tree,
They sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid
And the blessing gone,
If I forget
My Babylon. 

I did not know
And I could not see
Who was waiting there,
Who was hunting me 

By the rivers dark,
Where it all goes on
By the rivers dark
In Babylon.