Leonard Cohen: A Thank You to a Spiritual Giant


It is Thanksgiving Day and I have set aside some meditation time to be with the late Leonard Cohen who died seventeen days ago at the age of 82, leaving us one last gift, an album called 'You Want It Darker' which came out last month. I received this album in the mail from my sister-in-law who, with the support of my brother, has endured years of physical darkness in the form of severe fibromyalgia which leaves her bedridden for most of the day. With her surprise gift of the CD was a brief note, "A gift for you: No words...I am just so sad...sending you his last songs to us. Much Love, Jean." Jean was a deep fan of Lenny Cohen as was I, and as are many.

Cohen's last words for us offer a substantive closure to the other songs he gifted us over the decades. I heard my first Leonard Cohen song in the summer of 1969 when I was walking on the beach in Biarritz, France with a friend who was on a break from studying theology in Germany. I was in the south of France renting a room on a Basque farm, where I was committed to writing the first draft of my doctoral thesis. It was dusk and we were approaching a pier that jutted out into the waters of Biarritz beach; surfers had packed up their surfboards (I learned to surf on that beach one sunny afternoon) and my friend sang Lenny's song "Suzanna" for me. I had no idea what all the lyrics meant--mystery was built into Lenny's poetry--but I felt more than I understood and I was particularly struck by the lines about Jesus walking on the waters as a sailor. Living near the ocean for the six months I was in the Pays Basque and visiting the sea daily, I just felt spoken to by Cohen's words and imagery. And this deep resonance has been part and parcel of every encounter I have had since with Cohen's poetry and song.

A few years ago Lenny Cohen drove me to do something I have never done in my life. I was booked for a flight from my town of Oakland, California to Phoenix for a family reunion, but at the last minute I heard Lenny was in Las Vegas for a concert. I canceled my straight flight to Phoenix and boarded a plane for one night in Las Vegas just to hear Lenny in concert, then went on the next day to join my family. Though my cheap seats were way up at the top of the large concert hall, I was profoundly moved--"a religious experience" I told a friend later. 

Lenny had that kind of effect on a lot of people--Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics. He spoke to so many of us. How? Why? What did he bring to the spiritual search of our time?

First of all, he was a man on a search. He often plugged in to his Jewish roots whether by lyrics (David's poetry and the psalms and other Jewish stories recovered in "Hallelujah" are prime examples) or by actions (blessing the crowd in a concert in Israel, where first he praised the peace-makers of both Palestine and Israel and then ended the evening with a Jewish priestly blessing--after all he was a "Cohen" and of the Jewish priestly lineage as well as son in law of a rabbi). He also went out of his way to undergo Buddhist teachings and practices, living as he did for several fruitful years as a serious monk in a Buddhist monastery at Mount Baldy, California. He attributed a lull in his battle with depression to his Buddhist practice.

But he also invokes Jesus on many occasions including in this, his final album, when he refers to how "it seemed the better way/when first I heard him speak/But now it's much too late/To turn the other cheek." After complaining that "I wonder what it meant/At first he touched on love/But then he touched on death," he ends his poem with a Eucharistic symbol: a call to "lift this glass of blood/Try to say the grace" ("It Seemed the Better Way"). Or, in the same collection, Lenny confesses to having seen him "change the water into wine" and back again; and he calls for a treaty "between your love and mine" and how "we were broken then, but now we're borderline."
So the first observation I make about Cohen is that he is a deep ecumenist. That is, he draws on at least three major spiritual traditions: the Jewish into which he was born; the Buddhist which he studied and practiced seriously; and the Christ path. His religious sources are of a post-modern kind, he belongs to many communities at once and is learning from them and incorporating them all in an interfaith offering right up to the end, right up to his last album.

But a second dimension to Cohen's music is his raw honesty. Whether he is talking about human love and/or sexual experience, or the struggles of faith and survival and aging he is blunt and direct. In his ode to Janis Joplin, with whom he interacted while living in the Chelsea Hotel, he is both respectful of her life decisions and her death induced by drugs and her bravery and the "sweet little sound" of her music but he is also blunt about the sex they shared on his unmade bed. There is nothing hidden about the revelations of life experience from Cohen--he names it for what it is and unapologetically so. Life experiences for him open doors of revelation.

His raw honesty is true of his struggles with belief as well and here Lenny speaks to so many believers or wanna-be believers today--his is a very humble and uncertain faith. Part agnostic, part yearning, part feeling, part drawing on sources of tradition, part not--like so many others walking the earth today. For example, in his song "It Seemed the Better Way," he tells us about Jesus' teaching that it "sounded like the truth/seemed the better way/sounded like the truth/But it's not the truth today." How history and culture and life itself have resisted Jesus' teaching or set it in a context that renders it less than truthful or has seemed to move beyond it. He speaks of having "given up/ On the me and you" and how he is not alone but has traveled with others who are in the same boat (Traveling Light).

Or in his poem "Steer your way" found in the same CD, he begins by acknowledging how vapid have become religious archetypes and stories: "Steer your way through the ruins/of the Altar and the Mall/ Steer your way through the fables/ of Creation and The Fall." He warns us that the truth of our fathers may have gone stale, not only are the altars in ruins but also: "Steer your heart past the Truth/you believed in yesterday/Such as Fundamental Goodness/and the Wisdom of the Way" and he admits that atheism is an option: "Steer your way through the pain....that has blinded every View/ And please don't make me go there, /tho' there be a God or not." He does not want to argue about God's existence. The pain of the world that has "smashed the Cosmic Model" renders the argument of atheism more valid. Surely he is responding to the Holocaust (among other evils) in making this point. And just as he mocks the malls in the start of this poem, so he elaborates on the religion of consumerism when he pronounces that "As he died to make men holy,/ let us die to make things cheap." But he offers a remedy as well: to "say the Mea Culpa which/you've probably forgot...." 

Cohen wrestles with the ambiguity of faith in still another poem where he sings of leaving a younger lover. The strength it takes to let go is a spiritual trial, so much so that "They ought to give my heart a medal/For letting go of you/ When I turned my back on the devil/Turned my back on the angel too." Devils and angels play together in Cohen's mind and imagination and choosing--as in all of ours. 

Another theme that Cohen is blunt about is his growing old and his preparing to exit this life. His health was not good in his last years as he battled with cancer and his back was acting up so badly that his son had to help him finish this last album of songs. Lenny profusely praised his son, who became the producer of his last album. 

But the album is in many ways a leave-taking. The theme is everywhere: "I'm leaving the table/I'm out of the game....Little by little/We're cutting the cord" (Leaving the Table). And again, "I'm traveling light/ It's au revoir/ My once so bright/My fallen star/....Goodnight goodnight/My fallen star/....I'm running late/ They'll close the bar/ I used to play/ one mean guitar." Memories arising around his guitar remind him of his past even as his life is moving on. 

And he speaks of immense darkness, the leave taking of loved ones on a cosmic scale. His depiction of the Dark Night of the Soul is for real. "If the sun would lose its light/ And we lived an endless night.... If no leaves were on the tree/ And no water in the sea/ And the break of day/ Had nothing to reveal....That's how broken I would be/ What my life would seem to me/ If I didn't have your love/ To make it real" (If I Didn't Have Your Love). Whose love is he talking about? A friend? A lover? God? All of the above? He lays the dark night at the feet of God, it seems built in to things. "There's a lullaby for suffering/ And a paradox to blame/ But it's written in the scriptures/ And it's not some idle claim/ You want it darker/ We kill the flame." Human history seems to prefer the dark. "Magnified and sanctified Be Thy Holy Name/ Vilified and crucified/ In the human frame/ A million candles burning/ For the love that never came/ You want it darker/ We kill the flame." And of course there is a particular prominence to this message since this song is the title song of the album (You Want It Darker).

As a spiritual theologian I am completely taken by Cohen's honest and searing search for truth, for healing, for right action, for justice, for beauty, for wisdom to be derived from a variety of spiritual traditions. And I am moved by his commitment to work on himself and his honest striving. It is the very humility of his findings that speaks, I think, to the spiritual struggle of our time when in this post-modern world we are at a loss for words to express the depths of the darkness and the light that breaks through sometimes. How busy we are, consciously or unconsciously, to find a new meaning to faith and our lives, and a new faith to create building on the truths of the past and adapting them to our bitter times. We search for community.

It is not just the passing of Leonard Cohen that touches our hearts but the timing of it. He died the day before the presidential election of 2016 that plunged many into a soul-searching and a dark night and a need to hear again the voices of the poor, the outcast, the dark corners of the souls of those who feel so unlistened-to that they clapped and cheered for a man who spoke ultimately to the resentment embedded in hearts and minds left behind by an economic system that works for only a few. 

"You Want It Darker" speaks to the darkness of our times--as did so much of Cohen's work. His words do not cover up the truth--they lay it bare; they are not the least bit sentimental or sugar-coated. They speak to the utter depths of many. They offer no instant satisfaction or redemption. They are the words and songs of a genuine seeker, a man on a hunt, who is "traveling light." A mystic and prophet of the first order. 

May his travels continue for all of us to whom he spoke so directly and deeply yet so often mysteriously. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for the gift you leave with us. And your last words, "Here I am, I'm ready Lord," spoken three times in response to the coming darkness. Your message is one of Hope. Not cheap hope; not fast-food hope. Something more real and more pressing than that. His friend and fellow artist Judy Collins wrote that he offered us "songs for the spirit when our spirits were strained to the breaking point." 

Yes, he was an honest troubadour about the very real via negativa. But he never abandoned the beauty of life either--"there is perfume everywhere," he sang. He is after all the author of the tribute to broken, cold, imperfect but ever present "Hallelujah's" and he praises love making as being a moment of the "Holy Dove" being present in every breath. He reached always for an authentic via positiva and he invited us into the same arena.

The great psychologist Otto Rank defined the artist as someone who wants to leave behind a gift. Lenny Cohen's gifts he leaves behind are generous and multiple and will continue to feed the spiritually hungry for generations to come. 

Thank you, Lenny, on this Thanksgiving 2016.