16 January 2017

Waiting without hope and without love:
drawing parallels between Eliot and Cohen

‘So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing’ … evening lights in Wicklow Harbour last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

The students are back and the new academic semester begins in earnest for the full-time students this morning [16 January 2017].

But the new semester actually began on Friday evening, with the return of the students who are following the MTh programme through the part-time mode.

I finished teaching the part-time module on Anglicanism on Saturday morning with an exploration of ‘Anglican Culture,’ especially through the work of poets and writers such as TS Eliot, Samuel Johnson, Rose Macaulay and Julian of Norwich, and with references too to John Betjeman, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox, and even Philip Larkin, including ‘Church Going,’ and his grieving of the changing place of the Church in English life, and Carol Ann Duffy and her work with English cathedrals.

I read from a number of TS Eliot’s poems, including ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Hollow Men,’ ‘Ash Wednesday,’ ‘Journey of the Magi’ – well, we are still in the Season of Epiphany – and ‘Little Gidding.’

Perhaps the greatest challenge came from some lines in the third canto in ‘East Coker’:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

‘East Coker’ is the second poem of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. He finished this poem in February 1940, and it was published in March that year in the Easter edition of the New English Weekly.

The title refers to a small village that was Eliot’s ancestral home, and later his ashes were placed in Saint Michael’s Church, the local parish church, where a plaque reads partly: ‘In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.’

In this poem, Eliot discusses time and disorder within nature that is caused by humanity following only science and not God. The lines that some people found difficult to read are in this passage:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the
Almanach de Gotha
And the
Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

So often we wait on God but think we are waiting in hope when in fact we are waiting with a shopping list we have composed, confuse this with prayers, and confuse what we think are our prayers with hope.

Eliot’s concept of waiting without hope and waiting without love is a more open approach to God that reflects some of the concepts of prayer found in the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross.

But as I read those lines I was also dawn to compare Eliot’s ideas here with the deep ideas expressed by Leonard Cohen in the title track of his final album:

If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker – we kill the flame.
Magnified, sanctified is your holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came You want it darker –
Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.

Here Cohen is quoting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (‘magnified, sanctified …’). He addresses God directly as the God who has dealt Cohen out of the game, and who has ignored the ‘million candles’ lit in vain hopes of salvation.

It is dark, but those who reach into the dark depths that are met on the most intense journeys in spirituality know that this too is accepting the majesty of God and the inevitability of death.

The Hebrew word Hineni which Cohen repeats in this song literally means: ‘Here I am.’ When it is uttered by Abraham and repeated by other Biblical figures, it is an assertion of moral responsibility: Here I am. I am not running away. Here I stand.

The word Hineni is also the title of the Cantor’s Prayer on Yom Kippur, in which the cantor confesses to being unworthy to represent the congregation and stand before the Almighty. It is almost as if Cohen is making a similar confession. I may be a poet, a hero, and a star, but You know as well as I do that I am unworthy of all that. I am here before You – ready for You to take me.

The song is enriched by extensive Jewish collaboration. The track features background vocals from Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, along with the Shaar Hashomayim choir.

The Shaar cantor and choir also contribute to another song on the album, ‘It Seemed the Better Way.’

This was an 82-year-old poet at the end of a long and deeply spiritual life. It is not surprising, therefore, that this song echoes the language and rhythm of the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners that reaffirms faith in God.

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honoured,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

Of course, in ‘Little Gidding’ Eliot ends the Four Quartets with the well-known affirmation by Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


Unknown said...

Thank you. Such an unlikely pairing. Delightful. Thank you.

The Naku Blog said...

…what then us prayer?

Anonymous said...

Leonard Cohen was a serious student of Zen, Buddhism, having started with Joshu Sasaki Roshi for over 40 years. I suspect that the Kaddish what is a metaphor for death of self, that allows a waiting without awaiting for anything in particular (Heidegger - Conversations on a Country Path, 1962).