Broken Hallelujahs

Broken Hallelujahs May 14, 2016

Ruin of St. Peter's Church, North Burlingham, image courtesy of Geograph
Ruin of St. Peter’s Church, North Burlingham, image courtesy of Geograph

Beginning with a lover’s wish to woo his beloved with the music that the biblical King David played to please the Lord, the song “Hallelujah” is a testament to the existence of a natural yearning to seek spiritual fulfillment through romantic relationships.  Filled with Judeo-Christian religious imagery, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has described “Hallelujah” as an attempt to secularize a term commonly translated to “praise the Lord.”

“It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value,” Cohen has stated. He ironically later suggested the once obscure song is now overplayed and over-covered as “too many people sing it.”

After his haunting interpretation entered into the popular consciousness singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley received more widespread acclaim than he ever experienced in his brief lifetime. Inspiring a host of imitators, it remains the standard by which all subsequent versions are judged. Only 2014′ s international hit “Take Me To Church” by Hozier has risen to challenge the status of “Hallelujah” as a secular hymn. Both resonate by powerfully proclaiming a desire for a love which transcends ourselves, but in failing to reconcile spirituality and sensuality these songs reflect the brokenness of the modern romantic vision.

Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides a remedy for disillusionment by fully integrating human sexuality with Divine Purpose. In Ephesians 5:25-30, Paul the Apostle describes marital love as a reflection of Jesus Christ’s self-sacrificial love:

Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the Church…In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of his Body.

JPII performs an exegesis of this scripture passage in his book Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, arguing that a marriage is realized through a couple’s reciprocal self-gift. With Christ serving as a model for this mutual submission, the conjugal union becomes a visible sign of the mystery of God’s eternal love for humanity (TOB 474-7).

The former pontiff also interprets the biblical Song of Songs, a book traditionally attributed to King Solomon which describes the romantic relationship between a husband and wife, as the archetypal self-sacrificial love expressed through the body. Through the freedom of the mutual gift of each other, he explains, eros is transformed into authentic love (572).

With its beauty and its incorporation of universal human longings, “Hallelujah” is a modern day version of this ancient love poem. Both songs can be interpreted as viewing a lover’s embrace as analogous to the relationship between humanity and the divine, but theological distinctions produce strikingly different outlooks.

The desolation experienced after the loss of the spiritual and physical bond between lovers that characterizes “Hallelujah” is best conveyed in the following lyrics sung by a heartbroken Buckley:

Well there was a time when you let me know/What’s really going on below/But now you never show that to me do ya/But remember when I moved in you/And the holy dove was moving too/And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

The spouses in the Song of Songs are joyful, however, because their lifetime union is made through a love that is both sensual and spiritual- one that is part of God’s design.“Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm,” sings the bride, “For love is strong as Death, passion as relentless as Sheol. The flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of Yahweh himself.”

Unlike the lovers of the Song of Songs, the narrator of “Hallelujah” professes agnosticism:

Maybe there’s a God above/But all I’ve ever learned from love/Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya/And it’s not a cry that you hear at night/It’s not somebody who’s seen the light/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

If they fail to grasp the divine intention of their union like the spouses in the Song of Songs, the intense initial bond between lovers becomes as weak as their own mortal flesh. The uncertainty that a natural desire for the transcendent can ever be fulfilled only leads to the despair and alienation so often conveyed in modern music.

While “Hallelujah” leaves room for the possibility of a supernatural salvation, “Take Me To Church” goes one step further by denying it entirely. Asserting in a 2014 interview that faith is an “absurd thing” and the universe provides no answers, Hozier attempts to replace the religious impulse with the sexual impulse.

Hozier has described “Take Me To Church” as being about opposing institutions he views as repressing sexual expression by “asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love.” With the lyrics, “My church offers no absolutes/She tells me,‘Worship in the bedroom’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to/Is when I’m alone with you,” this new evangelist is calling on the listener to worship at the altar of sexual liberation.

Proclaiming a message of total freedom, one would think Hozier would sing with joy at having found the key to human happiness. Instead, he sounds even more tortured than the plaintive Buckley in “Hallelujah.” What Hozier and Buckley reveal through their haunting vocals is the profound effects spiritual deprivation can produce in the human soul. As Jeff Buckley himself once said in an interview, “Your voice is your essence. Ask any singer, it’s the most revealing thing you could possibly do.”

In his song, Hozier describes himself as a “pagan” giving himself up as a sacrificial offering by asking his “goddess” to “Take me to church/I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies/I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife.” With a howlingly melancholy voice, he sounds more enslaved to his passions than liberated.

While Hozier rightly recognizes that self-sacrifice is the essence of love, elevating the other person to the status of a deity is disordered. In his book Love and Responsibility, JPII argues if the primary motive in a relationship is only or mainly desire, a mutual self-gift can never be realized. Lacking genuine reciprocity, the couple’s superficial union lasts only as “they remain a source of pleasure or profit for each other” (86-8).

JPII asserts that the “only escape from this egoism is by recognizing beyond any purely subjective good, i.e. beyond pleasure, an objective good, which can unite persons” (38). He concludes that recognizing an objective end of the sexual urge, as a form of participation in the work of creation, allows us to understand our role in relation to the Creator (62).

Though the profound melancholy vocalized in his most famous song is an indication he has not achieved the personal fulfillment he seeks, Hozier ironically offers a resolution to the central spiritual plight in both “Take Me to Church” and “Hallelujah.” In an interview with the Irish Times, Hozier described falling in love as a “death-and-rebirth” experience. “I found the experience of falling in love or being in love was a death, a death of everything. You kind of watch yourself die in a wonderful way, and you experience for the briefest moment – if you see yourself for a moment through their eyes – everything you believed about yourself gone,” the Irish singer-songwriter told the newspaper in 2013.

This vision is reflected in the final line of the chorus to “Take Me to Church,” where Hozier sings:

“Offer me that deathless death/Good God, let me give you my life”Within the context of the song, Hozier appears to be submitting himself entirely to his lover. However, if one reads this line as being directed at the loving God of the Song of Songs, his pledge is entirely consistent with the vision of humanity’s proper relationship with the divine presented by the Theology of the Body.

In his 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI wrote that the purpose of marriage is to allow a husband and wife to “realize to the full their calling and bear witness as becomes them, to Christ before the world.”

“For the Lord has entrusted to them the task of making visible to men and women the holiness and joy of the law which united inseparably their love for one another and the cooperation they give to God’s love, God who is the Author of human life,” stated the pontiff.

Based on the eternal rather than the temporal, the love between the spouses in the Song of Songs is a profound way of realizing the deathless death we all are called to seek. As traditional Catholic teaching proposes a harmonization of sexuality and spirituality, we can sing hallelujah in the truest sense of the word when we take ourselves into His Church.


Barillas,Mariana Portrait






Mariana Barillas is a journalist based in Washington DC. Seeking a classical liberal arts education without the debt, she completed the four-year Great Books Discussions program while supplementing her studies at Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint. She graduated from Thomas Edison State University in March 2016. 

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