Skip to main content
Question of the Week

Leonard Cohen—Reverend Canon Martha Tatarnic

Ring the bells that still can ring.

 Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything. 

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen jokingly admitted later in life that song-writing was an odd choice for trying to find a bit of financial stability in the arts.  Prior to his turn into music, Leonard Cohen was an acclaimed, but mostly broke, poet.  He had grown up in Montreal, part of the well-established Jewish Cohen family.  The name Cohen actually means priest.  The work of the priest is to lift up and give thanks.  We lift up so that we can see more clearly the presence of God.  We give thanks so that we can receive God’s presence as a gift. 

In Cohen’s music, there is no division between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the secular, the wounds and the beauty, worldly love and divine love.  He is famous for writing songs of love, full of sensual detail and the particularities of actual lived experience, and then weaving into those same songs piercing religious insight and timeless wisdom.  Leonard Cohen’s music has been regularly criticized for being too dark and heavy and depressing.  Those criticisms say little about Leonard Cohen’s music and much about the people who clearly haven’t really listened to his music before lobbing their complaints.

His music teems with dry wit, laugh out loud humour, and a masterful ability to name the absurd, the random and the ironic in life, to name all of that in himself too.  That is part of Cohen’s priestly offering too.  To lift up the strange and foolish and illogical in ourselves and in the world, to invite us to sing and to laugh together rather than to be sunk by confusion and despair.

That being said, Leonard Cohen’s struggle with mental illness is well documented. He suffered from extreme anxiety, which was often exacerbated by having to perform for a living.  He self medicated for years with various combinations of womanizing.  He chased all of the usual highs, the ones that promise us relief, numbness, escape or ecstasy and that mostly turn out to offer nothing to heal the things that are actually hurting us, nothing to feed the emptiness that might be masked but doesn’t go away.

Although Leonard Cohen was raised in a faithful Jewish family, his nanny was a Roman Catholic.  You can certainly hear a Christian influence in his song-writing too, leading many to assume that he was, in fact, Christian.  For many years, he lived in a Buddhist monastery, completely withdrawn from the circles of fame and fortune that he had travelled in, although he made it clear to any who were listening that he saw his Buddhist meditation practices as a complement to his Jewish faith, not a replacement for it.  He credits age and meditation and just pure grace as eventually lifting the weight of depression and anxiety that had so long plagued him.

Before all of that, in 1984, he shared a new album with his label, Various Positions.  It was  almost never released because the executives believed it to be a commercial disaster.  It contained Hallelujah which is now one of the best known songs of our time, covered by almost every major artist that has recorded over the past few decades.  There are a bunch of versions because Leonard Cohen wrote approximately 80 verses.  Some of the verses are rich in Biblical Imagery, some describe sexual love and all of the verses articulate the broken lines that run across our human relationships with one another and our human  relationship with God.  The song’s over-use also can’t take away its masterful  articulation of everything that Leonard Cohen offered so consistently across his life and his work. 

The  word Hallelujah simply means “Praise God.”  Or “Praise God joyously.”  If you are listening, you can hear in Cohen’s earliest songs, all the way to his final masterpiece, You Want It Darker—when he was living with chronic and debilitating physical pain—that final word of praise.  In all that is dark and difficult, painful and wounded, broken and yet holy about our lives, we have the capacity, the gift, of saying our Hallelujah, of surrendering to the mystery, looking for the light and healing, praying and hoping that the God of healing is at work even here, suspecting that love does win out after all.

I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch

I tell the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.

And even if it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song.With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah