How Leonard Cohen’s life, poetry and song make him a prophet of love in a particularly dark midwinter

How Leonard Cohen’s life, poetry and song make him a prophet of love in a particularly dark midwinter

Leonard Cohen is hardly the first name that comes to mind as a spokesperson for “the true meaning of the holidays.”

As a religious studies scholar specializing in the history of earliest Christianity, and a Cohen fan from a Christian background, I recognize that “festivity” is simply not a word that sits with Cohen — who was always more slyly depressing than holly jolly.

But the beloved and late Jewish poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter from Montréal does talk about light, and profoundly so. His words bring a certain bitter-sweetness to the shortest, darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere, days which coincide with religious festivals involving light.

Exterior, interior darkness

Despite wide differences in their celebrations and what they commemorate, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule and earlier in the year, Diwali all feature candles and twinkling lights.

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Whether or not these festivals were made for this purpose, they help people cope with short days, exterior darkness and even increased interior darkness accompanying seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other stresses as the nights get longer headed towards winter solstice.

This year feels gloomier

However, while violence never ceases, this year feels even gloomier, with a sharp rise in hate crimes, polarizing disinformation — some spread by “Christian” nationalists who deny democracy while seeking to remake North American society in their image — and with war. (Now we’re starting to sound more like Cohen.)

In reaction to the Israel-Hamas war and its global effects, instead of embracing festivals of light, some are choosing to downplay them. The city of Moncton, New Brunswick decided not to display their traditional menorah and nativity scene. But the decision provoked a strong negative response across Canada and globally, occasioning a speedy reversal.

Cohen’s frequent mentions of failure, regret, suffering, violence and mortality make him far more blue, than Christmas. But I can identify at least four ways Cohen’s life and poetry make him a prophet of love who illuminates these dark times, based on my recent research on religious imagery in his poetry and music.

An older man with silver hair looks attentive.
Leonard Cohen attends a listening party for his album Popular Problems in 2014 in New York.
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

1. Cohen wasn’t afraid to lean into the fact that, worldwide, people are religious, and religious symbols have power. Remove religious allusions from Cohen’s writing and you’d lose most of his work. His book titles, from the first Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) to final The Flame (2018), show just how aware of the near universal symbolic currency of religion Cohen was.

Religion was a handy way for Cohen to talk about sex. But equally true is that sex offered a device for him to talk about religion. For him, these insights were entwined with the sense that each person reflects the Divine. He observed, “I think that everybody leads a spiritual life… in touch… with their own deep pools of divine activity.”

2. Cohen never caricatured religious traditions. He pointed to the richness of many faiths while stating his own positionality. Cohen knew that understanding others starts with understanding oneself. “I would never say anything else but that I am a Jew,” he repeatedly insisted. Cohen’s maternal grandfather was a noted scriptural scholar and his paternal great-grandfather helped found Montréal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. Yet as deeply rooted as he was in Judaism, Cohen’s knowledge of other faiths was both profound and wide-ranging.

A woman with candles on steps.
A woman places a candle at the home of Leonard Cohen Nov. 10, 2016 in Montréal, following his passing at the age of 82.

In my research I show how important Jesus was to Cohen, without making the mistake of claiming he was Christian. I explore the profound impact of Catholicism on his childhood. I also note how interwoven through Cohen’s corpus is his decades-long practice of Zen Buddhism, his readings in Sufi mysticism and his study of Hinduism.

Jewish tales from the Mishnah and Talmud, kabbalistic philosophy, ancient Christian legends, poetry from Federico Garcia Lorca and Rumi, and Zen reflections on longing, attachment and nothingness all combine in his work.

As a poet, writer and thinker Cohen abhorred cliché, while leaning into religious complexity and diversity.

3. Cohen respected faith and spirituality but called out religious hypocrisy. In 1984 he remarked: “There’s always the possibility of mystification and manipulation …. There are evil forces in the world ready to imperialize religion but I’m confident the forces of good are stronger.”

These words seem optimistic for the man who also wrote:

“Give me Stalin and St. Paul / I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder” (“The Future,” from Stranger Music).

Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Future.’

Cohen himself was not immune to abusing the power that comes with being revered. He was fortunate in successfully transforming his seemingly misogynist relations with women into lyrics rather than litigation, partly by the complicated and disarming ways he wrote about regret, apology and forgiveness, and partly through age and death.

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4. Most importantly, Cohen used religious stories and images to find common cause with and give courage to others in dark times. His most famous lines are perhaps from his song Anthem:

“Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

Harry Freedman, in Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius finds multiple Jewish religious references behind Anthem. I’ve discovered even more. Cohen took on the mantle (importantly, for him a biblical mantle) of recognizing and lifting up the light that can be discovered in, despite, and through human suffering. As I have written elsewhere, “A crack in everything means especially a crack in human beings.”

In his last years Cohen lived into his name of cohen (priest). Friends and colleagues of mine who attended his final concerts, some religious, but many “spiritual but not religious,” described them as sacred spaces.

Cohen’s lyrics dwell on human failure, regret and violence. Yet according to his musical collaborator Sharon Robinson, touring became “a type of meditation” for Cohen, and his final concerts ended with him blessing the crowd. Typically for Cohen, who never let a line have only one meaning, the title of the album You Want It Darker refers to both his fans and his God. There is both a challenge to the Divine, and acceptance of an end, in it.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker.’

Cohen’s ominous passing, ongoing relevance

Cohen’s 2016 death on the eve of a sharp turn toward hate politics when Donald Trump was elected seems doubly ominous seven years after the passing of the poet of brokenness.

Knowledgeable of many faiths, but observant above all of the human condition; daring the Divine to answer humanity’s sorrows: this is what makes Cohen an unlikely but fitting spokesperson for another dark midwinter season.

My own vote for a Cohen holiday favourite might be Come Healing. It’s why Cohen, a man about whom surely no Hallmark festive movie will ever be made, just might be this year’s answer to the darkness:

“And let the heavens falter / Let the earth proclaim / Come healing of the altar /
Come healing of the name.”

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