A psalm a day helps you work, rest, and pray

Julian of Norwich and Leonard Cohen’s Window

For various reasons I have been reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love over the past month, or so. By chance a month ago I heard Leonard Cohen’s song The Window, and since then I have been left pondering whether he had Julian in mind when he wrote this song. For two reasons I held back from writing this post. Firstly, Cohen is notoriously difficult to pin down and no doubt this polyvalency is part of his enduring appeal. Secondly, poetry explained, too often becomes poetry dissected, and it is killed in the process. Despite such potential obstacles I cannot resist any longer.

Here I briefly explore how Cohen’s window might also be Julian’s. In asking this question I realise that Julian had two windows. Finally, I suggest that we all have two metaphorical windows that we would do well to ensure are as pellucid as Julian’s appear to have been. Cohen’s song opens:

Why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse
Cohen, The Window

Many have suggested that Christ is intimated in these words, and this might well be the case given the mention of a spear in the side, among other motifs and themes in the song. There is no reason while a poem might not both resonate with Christ’s person and with one who sought so intentionally to own Christ’s wounds. If the opening alludes to Julian, the window at this point is the window through which she could look into the church, from the room that anchored her to a permanent life by its side. Such a window offered sight of the altar, that in medieval thinking was a liminal portal to the cross that bore the suffering Christ. Through that unglazed window the heady perfume of fourteenth century worship would have wafted. Anchorites and anchoresses, like Julian, certainly bore the full and bountiful penitential remorse so redolent of their age. For the sceptic their goal of perfect contrition might have looked like pride, but is not such an ideal a thing of beauty even to us in our age of cheap grace?

Perhaps Cohen’s words echo the very moment of Julian’s life that she would dwell on for every further day she was given—that one perfect moment of peace as she beheld Christ in a moment of revelation that brought her from near death back to life. One moment lost in, and apparently to, sickness, and mercifully, in the next, experiencing a chosen-ness that was a frozen moment to be reflected upon as ongoing revelation of divine love:

Lost in the waves of a sickness
That loosens the high silver nerves
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul
Cohen, The Window

It might even be that Cohen gives us a clue as to the pertinence of Julian’s person and revelation for he names a contemporary work of fourteenth mysticism—The cloud of Unknowing:

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
And kiss the cheek of the moon
The New Jerusalem glowing
Why tarry all night in the ruin
And leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns
Cohen, The Window

Of course, Julian was not always silent for through the other window she was concerned with communion with passers-by. And if the testimony of Margery Kempe is anything to go by she was an invaluable spiritual guide and provider of wisdom:

And then she was commanded by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city who was called Dame Julian. And so she did, and told her about the grace, that God had put into her soul, of compunction, contrition, sweetness and devotion, compassion with holy meditation and high contemplation, and very many holy speeches and converse that our Lord spoke to her soul, and also many wonderful revelations, which she described the anchoress to find out if there were any deception in them, for the anchoress was expert in such things and could give good advice. [1]

The closing words of Cohen’s song are the least pellucid of his poem:

Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
Cohen, The Window

Might this reference to a rose and fire echo another text? It is no secret that T S Eliot’s Little Gidding with which his Four Quartets closes makes much of Julian’s extraordinarily concise recapitulation of the doctrine of providence as the ultimate wellness of all things. We see this, and mention of fire and rose, here in the Four Quartet’s final words:

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Perhaps Cohen had in mind Julian’s window or even both of her windows. Perhaps I am seeing through a glass darkly. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Julian lived out Jesus’ greatest two commandments, each through a different window. Through one she was able to love the Lord her God with all her heart and with all her soul and with all her mind. Through the other window she was able to love her neighbours. We might not be physically rooted to one spot, by Christ’s side, but to know the presence of Christ enables the echo of his incarnation though imperfectly:

Oh bless thee continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh
Cohen, The Window

Incarnation needs two windows. One that looks to the Lord, and one with a view to our many neighbours. As we see more clearly through the first, so our vision opens to the panorama and possibilities of compassion afforded by the other. As we fix our eyes on him who will make all things well, we can participate in the journey to wellness as we behold others. Such participation is frozen, or fixed, to its past foundation in Christ’s suffering and frozen in the future certainty of hope. Here and now, it is anything but frozen, but rather warm and fluid, for such vistas transform. Such transformation towards wellness is, of course, the dynamic groaning spirit-inspired purpose of this age as we live anchored between cross and consummation.

1. The Book of Margery Kempe, translated and edited by B. A. Windeatt, Penguin: 1985, p.45.

One response to “Julian of Norwich and Leonard Cohen’s Window”

  1. Was just talking about Julian with a friend. He wasn’t into the deep devotion dive she lived and left beauty for us to glean from. I kind of agreed but now you are making me consider.
    I sometimes think of Cohen as just smashing random ideas from his reading and other experiences.
    In Cohen herent is the pun I use for that kind of artist, but now you give an ear. I’m sure there’s more to spur us on in seeking than I’ve picked up.
    I’m just such a psalms and scripture only seeker and singer.
    Your steady flow of supplemental sources and obviously Spirit driven pursuits make me lift my head up from the Hebrew or notations.

    You know how pop songs smash random phrases? That is how I’ve viewed much modern poetry or song and I give up sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

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About Me

This blog’s central aim is to explore all aspects of how the Psalter (the biblical psalms) functions as Scripture today.

To this end it will also include book reviews on the Book of Psalms and related topics.

Some posts will reflect more broadly on biblical interpretation or hermeneutics.

If you like what you see here and want to arrange for me to give a lecture, run a teaching event or a short retreat based around The Psalms then contact me so we can discuss how this might work.

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