leonard cohen continues...

There are two songs by Leonard Cohen that are currently giving me pause: "If It Be Your Will" and "Heart with No Companion" from the Various Positions collection. Poetically, structurally, melodically and theologically these songs ring true to me in ways I could never have anticipated. As the world came to realize in the closing decade of his life, Cohen was not the prince of pessimism. Rather, Cohen was a careful contemplative who "took a long, loving look at what is real" and honored the whole truth.

He neither turns away from our suffering nor exaggerates its effects or consequences. Like Bonhoeffer before him, who also refused to let simple-minded piety diminish the anguish of our days, Cohen clearly names our pain while uncovering our beauty. "God does not love some ideal person," Bonhoeffer wrote in a meditation on the Cross from Nazi Germany, "but rather (God loves) human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."  Cohen articulates how an adult person of faith, one come of age to continue the Bonhoeffer connection, might honestly engage the world with sacrificial tenderness. "There is a crack, a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

These two songs close his 1984 masterpiece, Various Positions. It should be noted that upon completion, Columbia Records USA decided not to issue this record. "We know you are important, Leonard" they told him, "we just don't know if you are good." This was the year of Prince, Michael Jackson, Springsteen and Madonna and nothing on Various Positions sounded like a dance club/stadium hit. The album soared in sales throughout Europe and a year later was on released in the US by a small, indie label. Today it is recognized as one of Cohen's most insightful recordings including both "Hallelujah" and "Dance Me to the End of Love."

"Heart with No Companion" has often been performed live by Cohen as an upbeat country song.  In his early days in Montreal, he loved the music of Nashville and first went public as a performer at McGill University with the Buckskin Boys. Later, while living on the island of Hydra in Greece and writing his second novel, Beautiful Losers, he endlessly listened to Hank Williams as well as Ray Charles. The sound of the original recording, while still flavored with a soft-country groove, is less ironic than later recordings. Here the lyrics alone evoke the paradox of contemplative living - trusting the reality of God's grace beyond all evidence - much like St. Paul taught in I Corinthians:  now I see as through a glass darkly, then I shall see face to face.  In two penetrating verses, Cohen gives shape and form to both the joy and the anguish of adult faith:

I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything 


Singing from experience rather than doctrine, Cohen testifies that there is life beyond sorrow and despair - what he calls love.  Not sentimental feelings or the sloppy agape of untested piety, however, but an intimacy with one another and the Divine that is beyond both comprehension and brokenness.  In my tradition, this sounds like "the wisdom of the Cross" where even tragedy is not the end of our encounter with the Holy. And just as Cohen proclaims the blessing he has experienced, each couplet extends the promise:  to the captain, to the mother, to the heart and soul and prima ballerina. None have yet tasted the fruit of renewal, all are parched and waiting, so Cohen sings words of assurance in the darkness.

Verse two describes the ethics of living into and through our personal and social brokenness:

Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Tho' your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless


Sr. Joan Chittister, Benedictine teacher extradinaire, once said that she lives in this world as one who "sees the eagle within the egg." She, like Cohen, know that the alternative is nihilism. This is loving for the long obedience.  Small wonder that Cohen reworked his tune into a foot stomping country barroom bash: living for love and integrity beyond what is seen is a wildass experience - and the core of true spirituality.

(The next installment will consider "If It Be Your Will" Cohen's reworking of the traditional Jewish Sabbath prayer.)

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