dance me to the end of love...

On this celebration of the Christian Sabbath, Sunday, April 30, 2017, I continue to be taken by aesthetic of Leonard Cohen. Yesterday, at a small Anglophone bookstore in the neighborhood, I found a copy of Various Positions: a Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel. The text begins: "The enigma of Leonard Cohen: a well-tailored bohemian, an infamous lover who lives alone, a singer whose voice resides in the basement of song, a Jew who practices Zen."

When I posed a question the publisher insisted I ask: could this be called an authorized biography? Cohen paused and then thoughtfully said, "tolerated," adding an instant later, "benignly tolerated." Cohen has been called "part wolf and part angel" - "the grocer of despair" - the "poet lariat of pessimism" - and, more colloquially, the "prince of bummers."... The title of this book, Various Positions, originates in Cohen's favorite album, released in 1984, but it is also a philosophical statement, reflecting a dictum offered by Cohen's Zen master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi: "A Zen man has no attachments." To fix a position, to hold to a singular point of view for a lifetime, is antithetical to Zen because there are no absolutes... only reality.
Ironically, but not unexpectedly, Cohen's favorite album was never released in the US. Columbia Records sensed it was not commercially viable in 1984. It was the master's first recording in over five years and contains two of his best loved tunes - "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Hallelujah" - but these gems, as Frank Zappa was told ad nauseam, "had no commercial potential." Cohen once told the CBC that:

"Dance Me to the End Of Love"'s curious how songs begin because the origin of the song, every song, has a kind of grain or seed that somebody hands you or the world hands you and that's why the process is so mysterious about writing a song. But that came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the 
death camps, beside the crematoria...a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on...they would be playing classical while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin", meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song – it's not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.

Incredible the so-called "logic" of the market place, yes? There is genius in its creativity, to be sure, but also pure Philistine cruelty in denying tender hearts such soul satisfying beauty as "Dance Me." And don't even get me started on "Hallelujah!"

What, you might be wondering, does any of this have to do with Sunday? Or the connection between Cohen's art and my own complicated dance with faith and ministry?  Well, since you've asked, let me be clear: we have entered another moment in time when artists have been summoned by the Spirit - and the suffering of the whole Earth - to challenge the hegemony of the market with wild acts of beauty and political resistance. This must take place within the heart of Christianity as well as the public square because the ethos and aesthetics of our culture have become pathological. We are so addicted to a love of death that necrophilia is not an exaggeration.

Fr. Richard Rohr and others in the emerging church movement have insisted that the Church has historically emphasized binary thinking: we are either good or bad, the world is either safe or dangerous, a soul is either saved or damned, our hearts are either filled with the light of Christ or condemned to eternal darkness in Hell.

Dualistic thinking, or the “egoic operating system,” as my friend and colleague Cynthia Bourgeault calls it, is our way of reading reality from the position of our private and small self. “What’s in it for me?” “How will I look if I do this?” This is the ego’s preferred way of seeing reality. It is the ordinary “hardware” of almost all Western people, even those who think of themselves as Christians. The church has neglected its central work of teaching prayer and contemplation, allowing the language of institutional religion itself to remain dualistic and largely argumentative. We ended up confusing information with enlightenment, mind with soul, and thinking with experiencing—yet these are very different paths. The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience. Most of us settle for quick and easy answers instead of any deep perception, which we leave to poets, philosophers, and prophets. Yet depth and breadth of perception should be the primary arena for all authentic religion. How else could we possibly search for God?

As a practicing Zen Jew with a lover's soul and mystic's heart, Cohen has always modeled for me a way of living that nourishes hope.  His sadness never stays trapped in depression for it is born of compassion. His poetry refuses to ignore the pain of living while celebrating the ecstasy, too. I like the way biographer Nadel puts it: "Art hold a unity that history does not, and for Cohen, there is no separation between music and writing. This embodies the Judaic tradition of the unity of the Written Law with the Oral Law; they are inseparable, the Oral Law sometimes interpreted as the soul of the Written Law. Their revelations are contemporaneous." Jennifer Warnes, one of Cohen's musical soul mates and collaborators, said much the same thing more colorfully:  "Leonard speaks in complete sentences... he is the only person I know who in one breath can share Talmudic insights with you; and in the next recall a time of oral sex in the Chelsea Hotel." Now that is nondualistic thinking and living!  Fr. Rohr continues:

Nondual consciousness is about receiving and being present to the moment, to the now, without judgment, analysis, or critique, without your ego deciding whether you like it or not. Reality does not need you to like it in order to be reality. This is a much more holistic knowing, where your mind, heart, soul, and senses are open and receptive to the moment just as it is, which allows you to love things in themselves and as themselves. You learn not to divide the field of the moment or eliminate anything that threatens your ego, but to hold everything—both the attractive and the unpleasant—together in one accepting gaze. The nondual, contemplative mind is a whole new mind for most people! With it, you can stand back and compassionately observe the self or any event from an appropriately detached viewing platform. This is the most immediate and practical meaning of “dying to self” I can think of. As a general rule, if you cannot detach from something, you are far too attached to it! Eventually, you can laugh or weep over your little self-created dramas without being overly identified with them or needing to hate them. Frankly, few people fully enjoy this emotional freedom.

Part of the charism of this moment in my life is to do with my days what Brother Leonard did in his: dance me to the end of love.  I may be dancing with Jesus and many of his wounded and weary sisters and brothers as Cohen danced with rabbis, prophets and tzaddiks. It has different sounds and reference points, but is always the same dance. And if I recall correctly he even took Jesus on a dance or two under the protection of "our Lady of the Harbor."


Pax Et Bonum said…
Len was an acquaintance. I once recommended to a couple that dance me to the end of love be the song for their fist fance
RJ said…
sweet... thanks for stopping by

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