That's how the light gets in - A reflection on Leonard Cohen's Song "Anthem"
Mark 10:17-19 & 2 Cor 4:6-12
Today we come to reflect on a song by the Canadian artist Leonard Cohen. He is most well known for his song Hallelujah, but today I would like to reflect on a different song entitled Anthem which in a way is like an anthem or theme tune for his life. It contains that very insightful line that I have often heard quoted by a number of different people: “There’s a crack, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Unlike John Lennon’s song Imagine, in Leonard Cohen’s perspective, it will never be possible for this world to be perfected. He sees this world as somehow inherently flawed, “...the wars they will be fought again…”. And yet despite this, his experience is that light, and love and beauty and a deep sense of the sacred can still be found in this world, and that paradoxically it is often through the broken cracks of life that the light shines through.
Before we dive into the song itself, a little background might be helpful on Leonard Cohen himself. He was born in Canada in 1934 to his two very well-to-do and very well-connected Canadian Jewish parents.
At the age of 9, his father passed away which must have been devastating and destabilising for him as a little boy. Around this same time, he would have had a growing awareness of the horrors of world war two and the genocide of his own Jewish people in Germany. In addition, his relationship with his mother has been described as having been an ambivalent one. While on the one hand his mother encouraged his literary pursuits as a writer, she was not the most emotionally nurturing of mothers and could be quite emotionally distant.
Upon leaving school his hope was to become a professional writer and poet, but he only had rather mixed success. Inspired by Bob Dylan, he decided to use his poetic skills in a new way, as a singer/songwriter. And very quickly his musical career began to take off.
Leonard Cohen however had some of his own struggles in life, especially in his relationships with women. Although he craved female company and female attention, he found he could not commit himself in a relationship. Like his mother he was quite emotionally ambivalent in his relationships and could as a result be quite uncaring and even emotionally abusive at times.
Leonard Cohen also struggled with depression for a large part of his life and it seems it was only in his later years that this depression began to lift. He described depression as being a constant backdrop to his life and being like an ocean that he swam in on a daily basis.
Leonard Cohen also had a deeply religious side to himself. He never abandoned his Jewish faith, remaining a practising Jew for his whole life.
But he was also a religious seeker beyond the boundaries of Judaism. He had a deep appreciation for other faiths and especially Christianity as well as Zen Buddhism and the spiritual traditions of India. Regarding the person of Jesus, in an interview he once said:
"I'm very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this 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. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion.”
It is difficult to know if it was a mid or even a late-life crisis, but in the 1990’s, in his 60’s, Leonard Cohen became a Zen monk, and for almost 6 years lived in a Zen monastery. He took on the Japanese name Jikan, which means “Silent One” immersing himself in Zen Buddhist practice, which included silent meditation, mindfulness, and rigorous and disciplined daily routines and spiritual exercises.
He was clearly searching for something. Perhaps hoping to resolve his own inner conflicts and brokenness, perhaps aware of his own propensity for inflicting pain on the people he loved? Perhaps seeking a spiritual enlightenment experience to help himself escape from himself or at least the sea of depression in which he swam. But after almost 6 years of living a rigorous and disciplined life as a Zen monk, he left the monastery, coming to the conclusion that he had no gift for spiritual matters.
I get the sense that his leaving the monastery was in a sense a coming to terms with his own imperfection, an acceptance that he was imperfect and that he didn’t have the capacity within himself to change this. This is actually quite a profound insight. It takes enormous courage to admit one’s faults and imperfections to admit that we are not the people we would hope or aspire to be. It bring with it a greater sense of humility as well as a greater sense of softness and compassion towards other people’s frailties and imperfections.
And it would seem that somehow accepting life as it is with all its imperfections and perhaps accepting himself with his imperfections began to bring a change in him that enabled the depression in his life to begin to lift in the years that followed and for him to begin to experience a little more of the joy in life, a greater sense of a light and a love at the heart of life that was embracing him.
And that brings us back to the song Anthem which expresses in a very poetic way something of his own struggles of living as an imperfect person in an imperfect world and yet still finding in the midst of that imperfection a light and a beauty shining through:
Firstly the opening lines of the opening verse we see that this is a song of hope and redemption:
The birds, they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be…
Every day, every morning with the dawning of the sun and with first chirping of the birds we hear an invitation to start over, to make a new beginning.
Don’t dwell on what/has passed away or what is yet to be.
For many of us the past especially can weigh over us like a heavy burden: Things we should have done but didn’t do, things we did do, that we shouldn’t have done. And I guess that it is one of the gifts that people found in the presence of Christ in the Gospels. Those who encountered Jesus and who were aware of their own imperfections found in his presence a warmth and a light and a compassion in which they found an invitation and an opportunity to make a new start, a new beginning.
Secondly, in the song we read the opening line of the chorus: Ring the bells that still can ring. Despite living in an imperfect world of war, deceit and conflict, Leonard Cohen affirms that there is still beauty to be found. In the midst of the imperfection, he perceives that the sacredness of life still exists. And so we hear the invitation… ring the bells that still can ring.
We can live our lives cursing the darkness or we can light a candle. We can live our lives bemoaning the imperfection around us and in other people, in the government, in ourselves, or we can ring the bells that still can ring.
Thirdly, the line that follows: Forget your perfect offering. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect offering. None of us are capable of true perfection while living in this world. As Jesus said, there is only One who is Good... and that is God, the Most High, the Divine Mystery at the heart of life. And so we offer what we can to others, to God, to life. We do what we can, as best we can, and we leave the rest to God to that Higher Wisdom, that Higher Power, that Greater Love that is our Origin and Source.
Fourthly, “There’s a crack, there’s a crack, that’s where the light gets in…” When we can’t see or admit our faults, we become defensive at the first sign of criticism. But when we are able to admit our faults and imperfections, Divine grace is able to shine through us. We can laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves quite so seriously. We can catch ourselves as we are making our mistakes. We can quickly admit it and offer our apologies. We can deal more graciously with other people’s faults and imperfections. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 Paul writes that we each have the treasure of God’s life within us, but it is held in jars of clay. This jar of our earthly human life is imperfect and fragile, but still capable of allowing the treasure within to shine through.
And this reminds me of the Japanese art of kintsugi. It is the art of taking broken pieces of pottery and ceramics and putting them back together again. But in putting broken pottery and ceramics together again, kintsugi artists don’t try to hide or cover over the cracks. Instead, they accentuate the cracks. They make the cracks a feature of what becomes a new work of art. And the way they do that is to line the cracks with with gold plating. In the process, they take something that most people would discard, thrown away on the rubbish dump as seemingly worthless, and then transform it into an incredibly valuable, unique and beautiful work of art.
That I believe is the promise expressed in Leonard Cohen’s song. It is also the promise of the Divine Grace we encounter in Christ. When we bring our brokenness and allow the Divine Wisdom and Compassion to shine upon it, so we can become a new creation, a new piece of art. It is not that the cracks and the imperfections are erased and done away or carefully tucked away and hidden. Rather as we present them with openess as our imperfect offering, so God, the Goodness at the Heart of Life, through the working of great compassion within us, can line our broken places and our cracks with the gold of Divine love becoming places of unexpected beauty and where the Light and Grace of the Divine can now shine through. Amen.
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