Leonard Cohen performs in 2008 in Benicàssim, Spain. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Mr. Cohen, it was a privilege knowing you

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • November 16, 2016

MONTREAL – There was a universally catholic intensity to Leonard Cohen’s work. It was found in his “Song of Bernadette,” which Jennifer Warnes recorded, in his song “Suzanne” when he referenced Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel (“the sun shines down like honey on our Lady of the Harbour”), in his novel Beautiful Losers about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and in his astonishing spiritual, Book of Mercy.

I wonder how many people who belt out the Montreal native’s “Halleluljah” are aware that the lyrics refer to the story of David and Bathsheba, which sets up the context for the Miserere, the penitential 51st psalm?

“Blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

As a philosopher, wordsmith, singer and a teacher, Cohen, who died at age 82 in his Los Angeles home on Nov. 7, seems to have discovered “the secret chord that David played which pleased the Lord.”

I first met Cohen in a radio studio in Calgary in 1984. He was on a tour promoting the Book of Mercy when I engaged him in a discussion about his religious references. I asked him whether, in what was becoming an increasingly secular and godless society, he thought any of his fans remotely understood his themes.

He agreed that many wouldn’t understand and lamented the loss of religious culture.

“Scripture is our common reservoir — books that were written during a great age of language and literature,” he said. “It takes a courageous person to speak with a language that already exists when no one wants to listen. Or believe. It is important for me to tap into that common reservoir.”

Shortly after that I received a note from him, printed in black block letters (I don’t think he ever wrote) thanking me for raising the question. It was the first of several notes and faxes I received from him over the years.

He personally invested me over a glass of wine into an order he created, The Order of The Unified Heart. The lapel pin features the Star of David reworked into a design of two hearts. When he pinned it on my lapel, he wryly commented that the award was “beyond all meaning and significance.”

Although I had his phone number and ran into him socially from time to time, we were by no means friends. Still, I felt privileged to be in his orbit and thought I had a special relationship with him until I learned after his death that he touched almost everyone he met with similar and unforgettable gestures of kindness.

A mutual friend spoke of being rescued during a snowstorm by Cohen who was driving up St. Lawrence Boulevard. Another spoke of Cohen giving her a sweater which she had admired. He was patient with autograph seekers.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, James Adams nailed it when he wrote of Cohen’s gift for intimacy: “If he could get you on his wavelength, one-on-one, it was a wonderful place to be.”

In that respect he was a disciple. Which kind of makes sense when you learn that the name “Cohen” is associated with the Jewish priestly class and has certain privileges in a synagogue. The grandson of a rabbi, Cohen admired Jesus but of course did not accept Christ’s divinity.

As he famously remarked, Jesus had to be the “most beautiful guy who ever walked the face of the Earth.”

“Any guy who says blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness. A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. He was a man of inhuman generosity, a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced. The compassion of the man has touched me.”

Rereading some of his work following his death, I discovered that Cohen perhaps managed to articulate better than anyone since St. Paul the definition of a saint.

“What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility,” he wrote.

“It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order.”

Leonard Cohen died a Jew and was buried a Jew. But his search for God, his years as a Buddhist monk and his appreciation of the mystery of faith, were undiminished. As he once proclaimed: “Many stones were rolled, but God would not be down. God is alive! Magic is alive!”

(Hustak is a writer in Montreal.)

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