40 Years in the Wilderness: God’s Search for Bruce Cockburn (in 27 Songs) – Part 3

This is the third and final installment in a series on the music and spirituality of […]

Ben Self / 5.10.18

This is the third and final installment in a series on the music and spirituality of Bruce Cockburn. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here.

Act III: Uncertainty and Spiritual Drift (1987-1999)

In my mind, the first two “Acts” in this narrative arc of Cockburn’s career represent two different forms of certainty or assurance—the first, an assurance of religion, and the second of politics. Such assurance comes not merely from a certainty of beliefs, but from a certainty of purpose, a certainty in the core meaning that drives a person, which is as much felt as thought. And that certainty eventually falters. In fact, sometimes it must, for that is one way we continue to grow, one way God continues to speak to us and through us. We always have more to learn, and yet it’s only when we no longer feel quite so assured by our answers to life’s persistent questions that we can learn new ones, or learn the old ones more deeply. And I think that’s what makes this third “Act” in Cockburn’s career so important, even revelatory, if also at times discomforting and uneven.

Lyrically, the tracks on 1988’s Big Circumstance that most appeal to me are those less overtly focused on political matters and instead exemplify a newly introspective turn in Cockburn’s songwriting—namely “Pangs of Love”, “Don’t Feel Your Touch”, “Understanding Nothing”, “Shipwrecked at the Stable Door”, and “The Gift” (which happen to be, with the exception of “If a Tree Falls”, all the songs on that album written after March 1987). A number of curious lines show up in those songs that indicate the strange emotional space Cockburn was entering at the time. For example: “Pangs of love / Won’t let me go — / I came so far around the world / To hear the night say / I told you so.” Or: “Big Circumstance has brought me here — / Wish it would send me home / Never was clear where home is / But it’s nothing you can own.”

In those songs, we can begin to see a diminished triumphalism in Cockburn’s work and a new openness to the possibility of seeking something different. But this openness also feels like an absence, a dark night of the soul. There are a number of songs that emerge from this period (1987-1999) that suggest Cockburn is longing and searching for something that might give him the same thrill, the same assurance, the same kind of all-consuming zeal that he felt in earlier stages of his life and career. And perhaps the most important lesson for Cockburn, and for us, is that he doesn’t really find it. He seems more to drift—perhaps he even learns a kind of peace in drifting—becoming, as he puts it in his 1989 song, a “Child of the Wind”.

Early in this period, from mid-1988 to late-1989, Cockburn actually endured a prolonged bout of writer’s block. As one biographer put it, “The last breath of the 1980s saw Bruce flat against the wall with little to draw from for his writing.” “[A]ll I could think of was stuff I had already done,” Cockburn explained. “I didn’t know where to go next, so I took some time off.” When he did start writing again, he shifted back towards a simpler, folksier style in his music, while remaining on that introspective path lyrically-speaking that he’d returned to in 1987. He also cut way down on traveling and touring, ultimately spending seven years living on a horse farm.

It was also during this period that Cockburn went through a painful and probably destructive phase in his romantic life, one that no doubt informed some of his songs of longing and despair from the early 1990s. He opened up about the experience in an interview from 2014:

[In the early 90s] I fell in love with someone who was married. I was with a partner at the time. It was very inconvenient but deeply passionate… I was approaching 50 and somewhere around that point in your life the stuff you haven’t dealt with tends to surface and there’s a sense of a need to settle accounts with yourself, with your past. We had reciprocal feelings, although she not as deeply as I, and in the end we decided we wanted to stay with the people we were with so we parted company. But I found this whole process very de-stabilizing. It caused a major shakeup in many of my assumptions… I felt that she was the missing twin with the other half of the ring. She recognized that I was projecting all the stuff that I wanted to be true about myself onto her.

Midway through the 1990s, after releasing Nothing But a Burning Light (1991) and Dart to the Heart (1994), Cockburn changed his musical focus again, shifting from the stripped-down folk-roots style of the decade’s first two albums to a jazzier, more eclectic style in his other two major albums from the decade, The Charity Of Night (1996) and Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu (1999). Ultimately, this third “act” would be an experimental and artistically fruitful one for Cockburn, even if his music never had the same obsessive multi-album thematic foci that it had in the mid-1970s or mid-1980s. Perhaps it didn’t need to.

17. Don’t Feel Your Touch (1987)

In front of a newborn moon pushing up its glistening dome
I kiss these departing companions—take the next step alone
I just said goodnight to the closest thing I have to home
Oh—and the night grows sharp and hollow
As a junkie’s craving vein
And I don’t feel your touch, again.

To be held in the heart of a friend is to be a king
But the magic of a lover’s touch is what makes my spirit sing
When you’re caught up in this longing
all the beauties of the earth don’t mean a thing
Oh—and the night grows clear and empty
As a lake of acid rain
And I don’t feel your touch, again.

This 1987 song off Big Circumstance is as beautiful as any from Cockburn’s catalogue, and yet we can only assume it was written at a dark moment in his life. It’s a song of aching absence, of desperation, of longing for something that feels lost. For what, exactly? Hard to say. Presumably “a lover’s touch”, but presumably something deeper as well. As already alluded to, Cockburn was coming down from the high of several years of intense touring and international travel when he wrote this song. Perhaps he found himself both relationally and spiritually adrift back in Toronto. It certainly sounds like it. Sometimes we know God best by God’s absence, and this, to me, feels like a song about the pain and helplessness of that kind of absence, even as its narrator seemingly seeks to fill the void with anything else.

18. Understanding Nothing (1987)

Too many pictures
Momentum of civilizations
Threw me too far over this time-simple landscape

And I hang here
In this mountain light
A balloon blown full of darkness—
Got to let this ballast go
Got to float upward
Till I burst […]

Rhododendrons in bloom, sharp against
Spring snow
Remind me of another time
In Japanese temple—
There was a single orange blossom
At the wrong time of year—
Seemed like a sign—
When I looked again
It was gone

Weavers’ fingers flying on the loom
Patterns shift too fast to be discerned
All these years of thinking
Ended up like this:
In front of all this beauty
Understanding nothing

This peculiar 1987 song, inspired by another INGO fact-finding mission that Cockburn accompanied—this time to Nepal—employs a moody spoken-word style that was uncharacteristic in his career up to that point, but which he would use on a number of songs in the 1990s, including two on this list: “The Charity of Night” and “Isn’t That What Friends Are For?” Its lyrically free-flowing verses, made up of diverse images from his travels, offer a window into his songwriting process and his internal rumblings at the time. “My job,” he explained, “is to try and trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper…” Perhaps what the song does best is trap hints of Cockburn’s shifting psychic state. In particular, the lines bolded above suggest that the ideas and patterns that had sustained him up to that point were no longer affording him the same sense of assurance. After years of trying to explain his world—to capture it with beliefs and tidy philosophical or political dogmas—he is left here: “In front of all this beauty / Understanding nothing”. It’s a powerful admission, one that calls to mind something I heard in a recent sermon on the Transfiguration, about the difficulty of trying to explain it: “I want to understand. I want to disassemble it, and look at all the parts, and know how to put it back together. I don’t want to stand mute before it. But maybe standing mute is the posture I need.” Maybe uncertainty, even muteness—in the form of a year-long bout with writer’s block—was the posture Cockburn most needed at this juncture of his life.


19. Child of the Wind (1989)

There’s roads and there’s roads
And they call, can’t you hear it?
Roads of the earth
And roads of the spirit
The best roads of all
Are the ones that aren’t certain
One of those is where you’ll find me
Till they drop the big curtain […]

Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at
But even more it depends
On the way that you see

Hear the wind moan
In the bright diamond sky
These mountains are waiting
Brown-green and dry
I’m too old for the term
But I’ll use it anyway
I’ll be a child of the wind
Till the end of my days

As Cockburn’s first song following a more than year-long songwriting drought, “Child of the Wind” attempted to define the freer spirit he hoped to embody in his life and work moving forward, an aspiration perhaps born in part out of desperation. “It was very scary,” he later admitted. “It was sort of like, well okay, either I’ve got to think of some drastic thing to do or I’ve got to go and learn a new trade! So I decided to declare myself on sabbatical… And within a week of having started on my sabbatical I started writing [again].” We see him attempting to embrace a path of uncertainty: “The best roads of all / Are the ones that aren’t certain / One of those is where you’ll find me / Till they drop the big curtain.” At this point, it’s clear that Cockburn’s focus has officially turned back inward—he longs to be rid of mental and spiritual obscurations and return to some basic source. It’s a longing also captured by another song from the same album, a fantastic Blind Willie Johnson cover, which opens with the lines: “I’m going to ask the question / Please answer if you can / Is there anybody’s children can tell me / What is the soul of a man?”


 20. All the Ways I Want You (1991)

The hills are full of secrets
Owls watch by night
Down in town the bars are full
And the drunks are picking fights
These are things I know
But the facts are filtered through
All the ways I want you

2:19 freight train
Moaning somewhere near
I see you in the distance
But I can’t get there from here
Hard to believe it’s happening
But my whole world’s shrunken to
All the ways I want you

Cockburn’s reckless longing for something to fill the void is once again on display in this 1991 song off of 1994’s Dart to the Heart, which he called the first album he’d “ever done… as focused as this one on the issue of the human heart.” Asked whether this song was “addressed to an earthly romantic partner, or a divine presence”, Cockburn responded: “When I’m writing the song, I’m entirely aware of which it is. To me [songs like this one] are pretty carnal. But sometimes when you’re expressing longing for a person, deeper things creep into it.” 

21. Burden of the Angel / Beast (1992)

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well […]

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

Could be the famine, could be the feast
Could be the pusher, could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

A Los Angeles Times review of 1994’s Dart to the Heart described this song “about how humans tend to operate like animals in their worst moments, then show godly potential in their best” as being at the “philosophic core” of the album. Although focused on matters of the heart, most of the album’s songs tend to be, like this one, somewhat less than optimistic. Asked whether he thought “the angelic or the beastly occupies the greater part of human nature”, Cockburn replied: “Today, I tend to think it’s the latter… I think we’re just stuck with who we are, and (human nature) is always going to have both sides… I think we are redeemed spiritually… But in terms of our earthly existence, (that beastly potential) is always there.” The song’s flawed attempt to capture the struggle of human nature—the contradictions of human longing—evokes for me this memorable passage from the Commencement Address given at my college graduation:

[H]uman history is characterized by ill-fated attempts to transcend the anxiety and insecurity associated with our simultaneous creature-yet-more-than-creature status… Humans have unlimited and limited knowledge, we are strong and we are weak, we are free and we are bound, we are aware and we are unaware, we are blind but we are also farseeing; and all this and more while standing at the juncture of nature and spirit, involved in freedom and necessity.

As in other songs from this period, Cockburn was clearly wrestling here with this “burden” of our unresolvably conflicted, contradictory nature—perhaps most of all with the sheer extent of our limitations—offering, over the course of the decade, a healthy, if somewhat uneven, corrective for some of the moral triumphalism in his music of the previous decade.


22. The Whole Night Sky (1994)

They turned their backs
I made it too hard
Every place they touched me
Is a laceration now […]

Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high wire
By the tatters of my faith

Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere
And knocks you off your feet
And look, see my tears
They fill the whole night sky
The whole night sky

This beautifully somber song, one of the first written for his 1996 album The Charity of Night, is another of those that illustrate the spiritual depths to which Cockburn descended at certain points during this period in his life. Here we find him—light-years in tone from all of those songs he wrote in the mid-1980s railing against the world—now brought to his knees, riven by despair, “Hanging from this high wire / By the tatters of my faith”. 

23. The Charity of Night (1994)

Slow revolution—1985—crosswise in a hammock
In the hot volcanic hills
It’s 3AM the night after the air raid
From the ridge she watched A37s, like ugly gulls,
Make a dozen swooping passes over some luckless town
Maybe ten kliks beyond the border—
In the distance the Pacific glimmered silver

Now lascivious laughter floats on the darkness
From the police post next door—
Male voices—and a woman’s—
Little clouds of desire painted around the edges with rum
In the muddy street a pig suddenly screams […]

Tongue slides over soft skin
Love pounds in veins brains buzzing balls of lust
Fingers twine in wet hair
Limbs twist and roll
On the dresser wax drips in slow motion down the long side
Of a black candle
Ecstatic halo of flame and pheromone—

Wave on wave of life
Like the great wide ocean’s roll
Haunting hands of memory
Pluck silver strands of soul
The damage and the dying done
The clarity of light
Gentle bows and glasses raised
To the charity of night

Despite its strange spoken-word accounts of bizarre sexually-charged encounters from Cockburn’s past, this song is fundamentally about grace—the grace a person can experience in the midst of darkness, of confusion, of falling hopelessly short of the mark. Cockburn picked it as the title track for his 1996 album because it was an album he said was “devoted to the night”. As he explained, “almost everything that happens in the songs, happens at night… [The title track itself] is really about reconciliation with the things that happen to you. Both the good and the bad things, and being able to remember it all and somehow live with it.” It’s a song composed of seemingly unrelated memories—the first from 1964, the second from 1985, the third from then-present-day—that Cockburn felt compelled to share as a kind of soul-offering, conceived of here almost like testimony at an AA meeting:

[T]hese images were there, these memories that wanted to be shared… What’s the point of exposing [them]? Well, it’s a way to help carry the baggage… I mean from a selfish point of view, it’s a way to get it off my chest and put it out there, hand it to someone else. And, from an unselfish point of view… it offers anybody who’s got baggage of their own to carry—and we all do—a way of saying: Okay, I’m not the only one who has to carry this stuff. And that to me is what the whole ‘charity’ thing—that’s what I mean by the ‘charity of night’ in a way.

Yet beyond the grace that comes from such vulnerability, it’s also clear from this song and others from the period—including the next two on this list—that Cockburn felt something else comforting, even healing, in “darkness” itself. Most people tend to think that “sort of ugly things happen at night,” he once said, but “[n]ight’s also a time of reflection, it’s a time of mystery, it’s a time when darkness around you allows your imagination to operate in ways that it doesn’t when you can actually see what’s out there.” He later elaborated: “[W]hen we’re thinking of spiritual things we’re encouraged to think of light as where God is and dark as where the devil is. Over time I’ve come to feel that it isn’t like that. God… exists in the dark, just as God is in the light.” For Cockburn, the night can be “stunningly beautiful”, a place of “refuge—whether it’s the refuge of concealment or… of rest and peace.” Our paths do “lead through dark places… [But] sometimes the darkness is comforting and protective… It need not be seen as a source of fear.” 

24. Pacing the Cage (1995)

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
Powers chatter in high places
Stir up eddies in the dust of rage
Set me to pacing the cage […]

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage

If I had to pick a favorite song from Cockburn’s catalogue, this would probably be it. It’s a song that builds on the theme from The Charity of Night of darkness as a sometimes comforting companion, while capturing the perfect metaphor—that of an animal “pacing the cage”—for modern restlessness and anxiety. It is, as one commentator put it, “a perfectly crafted evocation of those times when one feels confined by the life one has created.” For Cockburn, it was indeed a time, as he described it, when “there was a lot about the way I was living… that just wasn’t working.” It felt, he continued, like “more of a trap than a rut… finding yourself in a place that you’ve willingly waltzed into. Suddenly, you realize it’s not such a good place to be, and it’s hard to find your way out, hard to know where the next step is supposed to go.” Nevertheless, all doesn’t seem quite lost—the “simple beauty of the [song’s] melody and music suggests transcendent hope… [despite] what might otherwise seem a bleak message.”

 25. Strange Waters (1995)

I’ve seen a high cairn kissed by holy winds
Seen a mirror pool cut by golden fins
Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities
The mad whose blessing you must accept without pity […]

Across the concrete fields of man
Sun ray like a camera pans
Some will run and some will stand
Everything is bullshit but the open hand

You’ve been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?

The chorus of this grungy rock rumination is clearly meant to evoke Psalm 23, but with a twist: these are “strange waters”, not still ones, with no green pastures in sight. Once again, as Jacob wrestled the angel of God through the night, we can see Cockburn wrestling here with what is real and true amidst the darkness of the world, in search of a faith that encompasses rather than ignores or shuns it. His response when asked in an interview about the line, “Seen alleys where they hide the truth of cities”, is especially telling:

[W]hen I lived in Boston in the sixties… I was sleepless, as I have been much of my life, or at least disinclined to go to sleep, let’s say. And every night before I went to bed I’d go for a long walk, and the alleys were always the most interesting part of the city to walk in at that hour. You know, people’s garbage… they don’t clean those up the way they do the sidewalks, so you kind of see the other side of things, and I suppose in a way that the need to see the other side of things has been one of the driving forces of my entire life.

The last song on The Charity of Night, “Strange Waters” is gloomy and frustrated and yet also seems to conclude on a hopeful note. The question Cockburn poses to himself at the end of the chorus may be as penetrating as any of his career: “If I loose my grip, will I take flight?”


26. Isn’t That What Friends Are For? (1999)

Nothing is sure
Nothing is pure
And no matter who we think we are
Everyone gets his chance to be nothing […]

You’re as loved as you were
Before the strangeness swept through
Our bodies, our houses, our streets—
When we could speak without codes
And light swirled around like
Wind-blown petals at our feet

I’ve been scraping little shavings off my ration of light
And I’ve formed it into a ball, and each time I pack a bit more onto it
I make a bowl of my hands and I scoop it from its secret cache
Under a loose board in the floor
And I blow across it and I send it to you
Against those moments when
The darkness blows under your door

Isn’t that what friends are for?
Isn’t that what friends are for?

This beautiful spoken-word track off 1999’s Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu, backed only by Cockburn’s subdued acoustic guitar, is ostensibly based on his long-distance friendship with a fellow musician. But it also seems to signal—along with the album itself—Cockburn’s emergence from the spiritual trials of the decade with a measure of peace and a “mature, seasoned outlook on life.” As he explained, “The Charity of Night… was about the search for light in the dark. The new album is about healing.” Elsewhere, Cockburn added: “This album has a lot more light in it—or at least sunlight, even if it’s coming through a sandstorm.” In this song, Cockburn speaks tenderly of “scraping little shavings off my ration of light” to blow them across to his friend, “Against those moments when / The darkness blows under your door.” It’s a passage that suggests perhaps a deepened sense on his part of what Yeats once described as this simple yet vital realization: “That I was blessed and could bless.”

In this last album of the decade, we can begin to see the return in Cockburn’s music of a thematic buoyancy he identifies as “sunlight”, prominent in his work from the 1970s. It’s as if a weight has been lifted, leaving him free to focus on what matters most, amid a perhaps growing awareness that “[e]veryone gets his chance to be nothing.” It’s an awareness and urgency also echoed in the album’s final song, “Use Me While You Can”, a 7-minute spoken-word prayer of sorts in the face of Cockburn’s own transience. Reflecting back upon decades of wandering—as in lines like, “I’ve had breakfast in New Orleans / Dinner in Timbuktu / I’ve lived as a stranger in my own house, too”—Cockburn remains grounded in the desire to be true to the deepest longings of his heart: “Bird inside the rib cage is beating to be free / Use me while you can.”

Epilogue: A Little Closer to Home

In the 2000s, Cockburn continued to tour periodically and release new music every 3-4 years. In 2011, at age 66, his second child Iona was born, 35 years after his first. Shortly thereafter he also married for the second time—now to his longtime girlfriend M.J. Hannett. In 2014, after several years of concentrated effort while also investing in his young family, Cockburn released his memoir, aptly titled Rumours of Glory. As one reviewer summarized it: “[A] major theme in [the book] is Cockburn’s lifelong quest to overcome the ‘flatlining of emotional content that was the unstated rule in my childhood home.’ The other, of course, is his need to understand and express what he calls, over and over in these pages, his ‘relationship with the Divine.’”

At the time Cockburn published the memoir—decades after he’d stopped regularly attending church—he no longer quite identified as Christian, though he didn’t “disown it either.” As he had alluded to in interviews going back at least to the 1990s, Cockburn’s beliefs about Jesus had evolved over time to the point of being, to put it mildly, unconventional. In one passage from the book, he wrote: “I’m inclined to think of Jesus as a collective animus figure, an archetypal image God has used to make real the possibility of being in a personal relationship with him. Jesus the revolutionary leader of the poor, Jesus the Son of God—both or neither. The point is not who or what Jesus exactly was, or whether he even was, but how we embrace what is offered.” While that kind of talk might be quite a bit too mushy for some, as it is for me, it would also prove not to be the last word on Cockburn’s involvement with Christianity.

By 2013, Cockburn had settled with his family in San Francisco. Around Christmas of that year, tragedy struck when a close family friend died in a house fire. In response, Cockburn’s wife started seeking “solace in San Francisco’s Lighthouse Community Church,” and before long began asking Cockburn to accompany her. After several months, he finally gave in, and began attending church again as a regular congregant for the first time in over three decades. “I was completely captivated,” he explained. “I stepped through the door and there was this wall of love and great music, a small congregation with no pretenses. Everyone that goes there goes because they want to be there.” This rekindling of connection to “that particular approach to spirituality” soon became a renewed source of inspiration for Cockburn, both in his life and work.

By the time he released his acclaimed 2017 album Bone on Bone—his first studio album in six years—it was clear that his latest encounter with church had reawakened in Cockburn at least the joy of gospel, if not the gospel, and a renewed affinity for belonging in a religious community. Members from the church’s choir, dubbed the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus, feature prominently on the record, which includes numerous songs of “gospel tinge—not preachy, but traditional.” Of course, given Cockburn’s career-long propensity to overtly channel his experiences into his music, this should not be surprising. Songwriting has always been, for him, “an organic, almost biological urge, that comes regularly to the surface.” Only now, he finds himself urged to revisit old themes in new ways. As he recently said of the album: “I had just hit a point in my life where [religion] had become a dominant theme again, so it’s a dominant theme in the songs.” At least for the present, Cockburn’s restless longings seem to have led him home again, but now with a deepened appreciation for it—a development reminiscent of that extraordinary passage from “Little Gidding”, one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Cockburn always needed to burn through the great strivings of his early career and his religious and political awakenings, and then endure itinerant darkness awhile, before he could really come to the place where he’d begun, “And know [it] for the first time.”

27. 40 Years in the Wilderness (2016)

Forty years in the wilderness getting to know the beasts
Projected and reflected on the greatest and the least
Forty years of days and nights—angels hovering near
Kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear
And they said
Take up your load, run south to the road
Turn to the setting sun
Sun going down, got to cover some ground
Before everything comes undone
Comes undone

Forty years in the wilderness dancing with the flies
Dazzled by the visions rolling out before my eyes
Angel-made graffiti, demons in disguise
You could trade away your birthright for another day’s supplies
Or you could
Take up your load, run south to the road
Turn to the setting sun
Sun going down, got to cover some ground
Before everything comes undone
Comes undone

Rising with the height of land, falling with the crowd
Spirits in the scouring wind called my name out loud
Said you could go to heaven, you could go to hell
You could hang out in between in the place you know so well
Or you could
Take up your load, run south to the road
Turn to the setting sun
Sun going down, got to cover some ground
Before everything comes undone
Comes undone

In this gorgeous final tune, taken from his new album, Cockburn reflects on his forty-year-long search for God—or God’s search for him—between the time of his conversion in 1974 and his return to church in 2014. As he explains, the idea for the song came after hearing a sermon “about Jesus being baptized, which is when he really figures out who he is. He’s shocked, and he runs out into the desert to figure it out. That struck me.” Cockburn continues:

[Jesus] spends 40 days in the desert and… he’s tempted by and being offered all sorts of great worldly things, which he rejects. This [sermon] happened right about the time… [it had been] 40 years since [I first became] a churchgoer… I’m hearing this, and I’m thinking, well… a large part of me not being a churchgoer was learning about the world. It hit me at the end of the ’70s… that if I was going to love my neighbor as myself I’d better find out who my neighbor was… And over time… I pretty much fell away from going to church.

And yet, Cockburn marvels, “here I was, 40 years later, back in church. And I’m living in San Francisco now, with my wife and child. I never would have imagined myself living on the West Coast. But it was an answer. I went with it.” The song is thus, in its essence, Cockburn reflects, “not about going to heaven or hell. And it’s not just about making the best of things in-between in this purgatory we call earth. It’s about following the wind of the spirit. It’s about being open to ‘the thrust of grace’.” And in that sense, it offers a perfect coda to his career—though I have no doubt Cockburn will continue making music.

“There have been so many times in my life,”  Cockburn recently mused, “when an invitation has come from somewhere… the cosmos… the divine…” And yet, if his spiritual journey is any indication, these “invitations” may well lead into as many valleys of confusion and discomfort as peaks of clarity and exaltation. Perhaps, as he put it in a 1992 song, the paradox of the spiritual journey is often thus: “Another step deeper into darkness / Closer to the light”. And yet through it all, this same strange and holy longing endures, again in Cockburn’s own words: “Let me be a little of Your breath / Moving over the face of the deep — / I want to be a particle of Your light / Flowing over the hills of morning”. Oh Lord of the starfields, for all of us, may it be so. Amen.