Saturday, March 01, 2014

Crying alleluia at the edge of the desert

I'm standing in the desert these days, praying my way into two series of reflections on the desert fathers and mothers, praying my way through some days where every time I open my door (or email or phone) there's a sandstorm going on out there, blowing grit into my eyes, making it hard to see, hard to breathe, virtually impossible to see how to move forward.

Yet, somehow, Her Most Holy Wisdom keeps poking her head up over the dunes, crying, "look this way; see me; I am solace in the midst of woe, a drenching rain in the desert."  Alleluia.

This column from grew out of an earlier post here.  It appeared on 28 February 2014.  And if you are in need of soaking in some alleluias before the long silence, try this playlist.

“Let’s see how many alleluias we can get in before Lent begins,” suggests my pastor as he pages through the breviary to pick a hymn to open Morning Prayer. I know what he means; I’m never as mindful of all the ways alleluia plays in my life as I am on the brink of Lent.

 A single clear voice chants in the silence. Alleluia. Trumpets fly and organs resound. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. A gospel choir sways. Alleluia. A psalmist pulls at a harp in the desert 3,000 years ago. Alleluia. Praise the Lord, in Hebrew. We’ve been singing “alleluia” a long time.

My son Chris sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at his voice recital a few weeks ago. I had heard it before, but listening to him sing I was struck by the many ways I sing “alleluia,” from James Chepponis’ resoundingly majestic Festival Alleluia to the rusty-voiced response I make to the lector’s invocation at morning Mass.

Cohen wrote dozens of verses when he was composing the piece, trying to grapple with the many meanings he heard in the word “alleluia.” Was it holy, broken, cold, blazing with light? I wonder if this is how the psalmists felt, trying to figure out how to sing out their praise of God. Baffled. Overcome. Broken.

Last week in church, the little girl sitting near me was restless. She might have been all of 3 years old, her bright purple bow bobbing up and down as she climbed on and off the pew. As the first chord to the Gospel Acclamation from the Mass of Glory was struck, her mother bent over and whispered to her, “This is your song!” Suddenly she was quiet. The cantor sang it through once, and when she raised her arms, I heard from behind me in a clear and delightful soprano, “alleluia, al-le-luuu-ia!”

Her mother was so right. Alleluia is not only her daughter’s song, but all our song. Like Daniel’s three young men in the furnace, hearing the praise of the Lord resounding in all creation, and on the mouths of all the people of God, we are created to praise the Lord.

I am struck by the thought that if alleluia is truly our song, we might consider responding to everything that happens with that one word, “alleluia” — praise the Lord. Chanting it with passion. Humming it in the ordinary. Spitting it out through clenched teeth. Crying it aloud in joy. Howling it in our worst grief. Holding it in expectant silence through Lent’s desert. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

At the very end of the song, Cohen says he’ll “stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on [his] tongue but Hallelujah.” Could I stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but “hallelujah”? Then again, could I stand before God with anything on my tongue, but alleluia?


  1. Oh yes, "we are created to praise the Lord". And what a joy it is to sing praises to our Lord. I cannot imagine what it will be like to stand before the Lord - somehow I don't even think I will be able to speak for the tears of joy but our Lord will know that "alleluia" is written all over my heart. This is a very powerful reflection. Thank you.

  2. My daughter and I played all our alleluia/hallelujah songs in the car on the way to church yesterday in preparation for the "burial."

    I am struck by your penultimate paragraph. I was raised in a tradition that responded (or claimed to respond) to everything by saying "Praise the Lord," and I have struggled with that. Maybe it's time to revisit the concept.

    (I may link to you if I write about my drive to church.)

    1. You make a good point Wendy, and I'll admit I struggled a bit saying that, too, though not raised in such a tradition. I don't want it to be automatic, like "How are you?" or even "Amen."

  3. So much here. So many ways in. I'm in the desert (of SW Texas) and hear Leonard Cohens music in every bar and restaurant. And part of me wants to tap my glass with a spoon and hush the crowds. And I'm also struck by the many quotes attributed to him about cracks letting the light in, and I know that is a riff on a poem by Rumi. And the irony of this Canadian, quoting a Muslim, in the desert surrounded by people who want that wall... and I hear your voice...and I can see a glimmer of Sophia... alleluia.

  4. Always ❤️ your words.