The elusive freedom of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2005. By Simon Jacquier from Vernayaz (near Martigny, Valais), Switzerland.

“If this doesn’t make you free, it doesn’t mean you’re tied,” sang Chris Cornell on the title track from Superunknown, Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album. I have been listening to Soundgarden pretty constantly in the wake of Cornell’s apparent suicide two weeks ago. Superunknown is lyrically stream-of-consciousness, like James Joyce and Jackson Pollock had a musical baby. Yet listening to it again now, after many years of having it up on the shelf, it is clear to me that there is an emergent theme. These are songs about freedom. Or, to be more precise, these are songs about a longing for freedom that seems impossible to fulfill.

After a suicide, it is easy to read into everything someone ever did as a sign. This is particularly tempting with Superunknown, given the dark melancholy in much of the lyrics. The album ends with the song Like Suicide which is hard not to hear now as chillingly prescient. But this was an album that came out more than twenty years ago. It was neither Soundgarden’s first nor last record, and I would argue that it was not even their best. I did not know Cornell and I cannot even begin to understand what was going on inside of him on the night that he died. I certainly do not think I will discover the answer by reading the tea leaves of his discography.

Nevertheless, listening again to Superunknown has been its own reward. It hangs together as a whole surprisingly well, despite being a collection of disparate songs. It is reminiscent in some ways of the Beatles’ White Album. Like much of Soundgarden’s work, the songs on Superunknown have the intense energy and guitar work of hard rock and metal but with a deeply pleasing melodic core. Soundgarden spent the eighties pioneering the Seattle based sound that would later be referred to as grunge, and Superunknown displays that genre at its best.

“Let it go,” Cornell sings over and over again on the album’s opening song, Drown Me. “Won’t you let it drown me in you.” Over and over again, the album expresses this same elusive desire, to be released, unchained, allowed simply to be. My Wave, for instance, is about people feeling whatever they need to feel and doing whatever they have to do in order to get through the day, so long as they do not hold anyone else back in the process. It is a vision of libertarian individualism that is worthy of the postmodern world we live in.

Yet even as Cornell cries out for freedom, he is deeply vulnerable and realistic about the costs. In The Day I Tried to Live, he follows the advice of the voice in his head that tells him to “seize the day, pull the trigger, and watch the rolling blades,” but it does not give him the sense of strength or happiness he expects. “Words you say never seem to live up to the ones inside your head,” he sings. “The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead.”

The tension that so much of Cornell’s music describes is not a new one. It is the human experience ever since the fall. We sense that we are not free, that there is an unseen force in this world that holds us captive. We rebel against it, hoping to shatter the chains and find the peace in our own skin that we have never been able to find. But then we discover that the real enemy oppressing us is not outside of us at all. It is our own brokenness, driving us both to long for deep union with others and simultaneously to push others away. Our own suffering hearts enslave us in patterns of self absorption and abuse that we cannot escape, no matter how many external threats to our freedom we eliminate.

The answer to this is found in Christ, but not in a glib way. I do not for a second think that Cornell’s life would have been all flowers and rainbows if he had followed Jesus (and if I did think that, I would be as guilty of self-deception and self-righteousness as the Christian interlocutor that Cornell describes in the song Jesus Christ Pose). For all I know, Cornell may have been a Christian. In most interviews, he said that he was a “spiritual free thinker” and refused to be pinned down, but he did become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church when he married his wife in 2004.

There are moments of deep spiritual insight in many of the songs that Cornell wrote over the years. The hound of heaven was certainly on his heels, and it seems that at least on some level he knew that. Cornell told Mark Maron in 2014 that he had no idea what Soundgarden’s major hit Black Hole Sun is really about, but it is hard for me to believe that all the snakes and masks that show up in that song, only to be thwarted by the coming of the dawn, are there at random. “Heaven send hell away / no one sings like you anymore.”

The freedom that so many of us long for, not only from external threats to our liberty but from the interior tyranny of our own hearts, is a freedom that can only be found in the cross. What Jesus offers the world is a hard sell. It is not freedom from suffering. It is, rather, freedom in and through suffering, or more precisely it is freedom that gives suffering a meaning and a purpose. What Jesus takes into His own body on the cross is not merely our rule-breaking but the very substance of our broken hearts. In a godless world, suffering would be meaningless and random, but in a world in which God has become man and died and risen, our own suffering becomes the means by which we enter into the mystery of God’s grace. As we allow our suffering to be united with Christ’s on the cross, it is transformed. No longer does it define us or contain us. Thanks to the miracle of Easter, even death itself becomes a doorway to the infinite rather than a looming curse.

Suicide is a very serious sin in as much as it is a rejection of God’s love, but more often than not it is motivated not by a conscious choice but by issues of mental health, addiction, depression, or any of a host of other factors beyond our control. I wish that Chris Cornell had not killed himself, both because I lament the loss of his musical genius and because I am sad for the loss to his family. Suicide is never the answer. It does not stop the pain. But I pray that God will be merciful to him and to those who love and miss him.

I am thankful for Superunknown and for all the other beautifully sad works of art that Chris Cornell put out into the world. Despite the temptation to hear everything he did now through the lens of his suicide, I still feel a giddy roar of life in these songs. The words are cryptic and often conflicted, but the music shimmers with the energy of new life and creative hope. And that is Easter too, that a suffering song can make you want to get up and dance, that an introspective and confessional lament can be turned outward and become the very stuff of love.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).