It’s time again for another Tuesday installment in the guest post series, “Listen, Learn and Listen Some More.” I’m so excited for you to know my new friend, Lynn Domina, who invites us to slow down and listen to those holy hallelujahs. Proceeds from today’s article will go toward Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center.
Lately I’ve been listening to different versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” My very favorite is a setting of Psalm 150 by cantor Azi Schwartz to Cohen’s music. Observant Jews pray Psalm 150 daily, and Schwartz created this piece for Cohen’s Jahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. I also listen to an extended version with strings but without vocals when I am writing (I’m listening to it now) because it’s both so beautiful and so contemplative.
Aside from the compelling yet puzzling lyrics, one of the features that draws me to this song is the softer approach to the title word, “Hallelujah.” I love many hymns that highlight “Hallelujah” or “Alleluia,” but those hymns often bring a lot of musical force to the word, emphasizing its purpose of praise. Cohen’s word is slower and softer, and so it encourages me to reconsider what I mean by praise.
When I slow down, I notice more. I see not just my front lawn but the acorn caps scattered under the oak tree and also among the hostas. These February days, I see not just the snow that needs to be shoveled but also the squirrel and rabbit tracks. Rabbits always lift my spirits—I’m not sure why, especially since they’re the creatures who require me to stake up a fence around the garden every spring, but they do. I see not just the bushes stooping under snow but also the three red berries the birds somehow ignored before they took flight. I see more than one shade of red ringing the berries, more than one shade of white shadowing the snow, more than one shade of gray climbing the brittle twigs. Slowing down, I’m able to praise God not just for snow but for thick fluffy flakes, for wet lake effect snow that falls until the lake freezes, for those tiny points of white that don’t even look like flakes.
Listening to “Hallelujah,” I notice my shoulders relaxing and my breath slowing. Actually, it’s not that I notice my breath slowing, but that I notice my breath at all. When I’m tense with all the things I think I need to do, I don’t notice my breath. When I’m tense with busyness, I notice my body only if it’s in pain. I’ll grimace from a dull headache or a stiff muscle, but I’m not aware that I’m breathing, a creature enlivened by the breath of God. There’s a reason Psalm 46 instructs us to “Be still” before it continues, “and know that I am God.”
So I slow down. I breathe. I listen.
Every time, I vow that I’ll make my whole life more contemplative. Every time, I fail. I’m filled with competing desires, to live more thoughtfully, more deliberately as Thoreau said, but also to do all those fun things life offers, attend concerts and visit museums, learn another language, visit a new city and another one, read more books, make another quilt. And what about all those things I’ve never even tried yet—scuba diving and zip lining, swimming with dolphins, seeing King Lear performed live, riding in a hot air balloon, playing a steel drum. There’s so much, but oddly, it’s only when I slow down that I become aware of how much the world provides and of how much I have. So I listen to Leonard Cohen’s slow song. And I say to myself, “Hallelujah.”
Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. She serves as Head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University and as Creative Writing Editor for The Other Journal. In addition to her degrees in literature and writing, she earned an M.Div. from the Earlham School of Religion, where she took courses in the ministry of writing.