The Spirituality of Warren Zevon's Carmelita

Our loving and compassionate God stands by us when we suffer dark moments.

Warren Zevon portrait

Difficult times have their dark moments. Very difficult times have very dark ones.

Warren Zevon’s Carmelita is about a man who’s navigating the darkness of heroin addiction. He has few options left:

Well, I'm sitting here playing solitaire
with my pearl-handled deck.
The county won't give me no more methadone
and they cut off your welfare check.

Out of money and considering suicide, he pawns his typewriter to buy drugs. We get the sense it’s his last and most valuable possession. (This song has been covered many times, and sometimes “Smith Corona,” a brand of typewriter, is replaced with “Smith and Wesson,” a brand of firearm. Smith Corona is the original lyric and gives the sense heroin has taken everything important from him.)

With nothing left he calls out to his girlfriend, Carmelita, for comfort:

Carmelita hold me tighter,
I think I'm sinking down.
And I'm all strung out on heroin
on the outskirts of town.

The song leaves us with little hope that he’ll get help before it’s too late. Neither we nor he see bottom.

Zevon wrote Carmelita in the early 1970s when heroin was the tip of the drug-abuse iceberg. It’s not the tip anymore, and there’s no doubt that many more people and their families can today identify with Zevon’s portrait of heroin addiction.

Addiction is not the only difficulty that can give us a sense that we’re “sinking down.” The death of a loved one, a job loss, emotional disorders, financial difficulties, a bad diagnosis, the end of a relationship, difficulties in school – they can all do it. It doesn’t take a lot to feel we're losing our most valuable possessions to some force we cannot control.

So where is God? Does he abandon us to the whim of nature or our own devices? Why does he let bad things happen to good people? Doesn’t he see that suffering’s wreckage can bring a second wave for the people who pick up the pieces? Does he know how much things can suck?

There’s no satisfying answer to why we suffer. If someone close to you has died and you’re looking for meaning in their death, you will find it elusive. It’s true that bad situations can later uncover a silver lining in the follow-through (I lost my job and found a better one), but even so, the moment of sinking down can hurt bad. Life can be cruel that way.

So why does God let suffering happen? Ask theologians, your friendly priest, minister, rabbi -- even the saints -- and you’ll see people tormented by the same question. We can call it a mystery, and it is. But like all divine mysteries, some understanding is within our reach even if full understanding is not.

For insight, we can look to how Jesus reacted to everyday suffering. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus cries when confronted with the death of his friend, Lazarus. But why should Jesus cry? He goes on to raise the man from the dead.

We may not come to grips with the whys of suffering. But we can find consolation in God who shares our anguish. Jesus loved and lost just like we do – the death of Lazarus hurt Jesus badly. God does not impose suffering on us (to be sure, he didn't impose suffering on Jesus), but he does weep when we weep. God stands by us when we are sinking down.

In Carmelita, we can see a woman who responds with kindness as her love suffers. I see Carmelita acting as an agent of God’s compassion, and I like to imagine her as Jesus’s mother, Mary, who suffered the death of her son:

Mother Mary, hold me tighter,
I think I'm sinking down.
And I'm all strung out on heroin
on the outskirts of town.

Catholic tradition looks to Mary as the model of holiness and spiritual motherhood. We can see it personified in Michelangelo’s Pieta. The sculpture’s name means “pity” and it shows Mary cradling her dead son on Golgotha. Her face projects both the sadness she feels for losing her son and her compassion for the suffering he endured.

Pietà by Michelangelo

Mary isn’t the only person who can fit this song. You can imagine an angel or God himself holding you as you feel yourself sinking down. All work because our loving and compassionate God stands by us when we suffer the dark moments of our lives.