19 November 2021

Travelling to Venice with
Leonard Cohen’s spirituality
as my essential reading

A priest’s hands raised for the blessing of the cohenim … a gravestone in the new Jewish cemetery on the Lido in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

What I pack as reading material when I am travelling is almost as – if not more – important that the clothes or the toiletries I bring with me too. After all, I have never arrived in a place that has no shops selling clothes, nor stayed in an hotel that does not provide soap and towels.

Essential reading materials include the day’s newspapers, that week’s edition of the Economist, and the latest editions of New Statesman and Private Eye, as well as a good guidebook or two.

One book I brought with me to Venice last week was Harry Freedman’s Leonard Cohen, The Mystical Roots of Genius (London: Bloomsbury, 2021). I never finished reading it in Venice, but I finished it on my bus journeys between Askeaton and Dublin yesterday.

Harry Freedman writes popular works about Jewish culture and history. But this is also a serious work of Jewish theology, spirituality and literary criticism. It is a book I would like to have written myself, and is a book I would like to have had available as resource some years ago when I was lecturing on Jewish spirituality.

Cohen’s poetry and songs are filled with images not only from the Jewish and Christian Bibles, but also from the Talmud and the Kaballah. The reader is introduced to Cohen’s very deep Jewish roots at the beginning, and the book concludes with a discussion of his self-understanding as a priest, a member of the Jewish cohenim, and his use of the priestly blessing:

‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his face to you and be gracious to you.’

Freedman reveals how the Irish writer and producer John McKenna persuaded Leonard Cohen to collaborate on producing a Requiem in the form of Mass based on the poems and songs of Leonard Cohen.

Five years ago, shortly before his death on 7 November 2016, Leonard Cohen approved John McKenna’s final draft of the Requiem. Its premiere in Carlow on 15 June 2017 was attended by President Michel D Higgins and the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers.

Freedman describes this as ‘the most ambitious liturgical use of Cohen’s work.’ But he points out that this is far from being the only one: ‘Who by Fire, the song based on the Day of Atonement liturgy, has been recited in many synagogues, either as an accompaniment to the Hebrew original or even in place of it.’

He goes on to write, ‘When the Reform synagogue movement decided to produce a new payer book for the Day of Atonement, they printed Who by Fire as a study text to accompany the Hebrew prayer. Some synagogues sing Hallelujah, Story of Isaac, or If It Be Your Will during services or dedicate shabbat study events to celebrations of Cohen’s music. Others set psalms and prayers to the tune of Hallelujah.’

The documentary film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on the Lido two months ago (2 September 2021).

The film explores Cohen’s life through the lens of Hallelujah, arguably his most famous work.

Cohen approved the development of the movie just before his 80th birthday in 2014. According to the producers, the film presents a ‘deep exploration’ of Hallelujah, from its origins and its poor initial reception to its resurrection and influence on other artists, who have helped it to become one of the most recognised and celebrated songs of all time.

Sony Pictures Classics announced last month it has acquired all worldwide rights to the film following its launch in Venice, and the film will receive a North American cinema release in 2022.

Shabbat Shalom

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
174, former Welsh chapels, Beaumaris

A converted chapel on Church Street in Beaumaris serves many secular uses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme on this prayer diary for the rest of this week is cathedrals and churches in Wales. As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this morning, my photographs today (19 November 2021) are from former Welsh Chapels in Beaumaris on the island of Anglesey.

Chapel Court on Church Street, Beaumaris … many Welsh chapels had separate entrances for men and women (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During this week in this prayer diary, I have been looking at Welsh churches and cathedrals. But, in the past, I have also wondered about Welsh Chapels, and whether the Welsh Chapel tradition is dying.

Everywhere one goes in Wales, in urban and rural areas alike, the streetscapes and the landscapes seem to be dominated by the Chapel. Large and small buildings dot the towns and the countryside, generally with two entrance doors, one for men and one for women.

They can be tiny barn-style buildings in the middle of fields filled with grazing sheep, or they can be towering, if not domineering buildings, like Bethesda, with its imposing classical fa├žade and that gives its name to the town in North Wales that grew up around it.

Indeed, travelling through North Wales in the past, I have wondered how many of the small town and villages I passed took their Biblical-sounding names from the chapels they grew up around: Bethesda, Bethel, Carmel, Golan, Nasareth (sic), Nebo …?

The Chapel tradition and Nonconformity have been a significant influence in Wales from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The Welsh Methodist revival in the 18th century was one of the most significant religious and social movements in the history of Wales. The revival began within the Church of England in Wales, partly as a reaction to the neglect many people in Wales felt because of absentee bishops and clergy.

From the 1730s on, for two generations or more, the leading lights in the Methodist revival, including Howell Harris (1714-1773), the Revd Daniel Rowland (1711-1790) and the Revd William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791), remained in the Church of England, albeit on the margins. But the revival in Wales was markedly different in tone from the Methodist revival in England. In Wales, the theological emphasis was Calvinist instead of Arminian, and these Calvinist Methodists gradually built their own chapels in Wales.

Out of this movement, the Revd Thomas Charles (1755-1814), a former Anglican priest, was a leading figure in the separation from the Church of England in 1811, when ministers were ordained in Bala, close to Frongoch, and in Llandeilo. The divisions were formalised when the Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Church of Wales was established in 1823.

But the 18th century revival also benefitted the older, non-conformist or dissenting churches, including the Baptists and the Congregationalists, who experienced fresh growth. As a result, Wales was a predominantly nonconformist country by the mid-19th century.

The 19th century was the golden age of Welsh nonconformity, and the villages and towns that grew up around the new chapels became citadels of dissent. A census in 1851 showed that 80% of those who attended a place of worship on Census Sunday in Wales were Nonconformists.

A second popular revival began in 1859, a spread mainly through the Welsh language. By the 1880s, the Welsh chapels were experiencing their golden age. Chapels were built in confident architectural styles, in sharp contrast to the severe and austere styles of earlier chapels.

By the 1880s, over 350,000 men and women were members of one of the four main Nonconformist denominations, with many more adherents who went to chapel on Sundays. There was yet another Welsh revival in 1904-1905 when at least 100,000 people declared they had become Christians.

As they grew in numbers and became more confident, the chapels were often heard as one voice as they spoke out against social conditions, despite their denominational differences.

The Calvinistic Methodists were the largest of the denominations in numerical terms, and their greatest strength was in rural Wales, including Anglesey. The Congregationalists, usually known in Wales as Independents, were especially strong in south Wale. The Baptists were more concentrated, primarily in Glamorgan and Carmarthenshire, but also in Pembrokeshire. The Wesleyan Methodists were not particularly strong in Wales and were found more often in English-speaking places.

But the ‘chapel’ label was applied in Wales to many other traditions too, including the Unitarians and even, at times, the Quakers.

By and large, the chapel tradition was a conservative dimension of Welsh life. Sabbatarianism was often extreme, so that public houses remained closed in many parts of Wales until very late in the last century. Women were often marginalised in the chapels and denied any positions of responsibility, rivalry was rife between neighbouring chapels, and many denominations suffered from internal divisions and schisms.

But the chapels also inspired choirs, choral festivals and community activities, developed schools and educational facilities, and played a significant role in the rise of the Liberal Party in Wales.

But recent decades have seen a gradual decline of Christianity throughout Wales. Walking through the streets of Beaumaris, Bangor and other parts of North Wales, I have wondered how severe is the decline in the Welsh Chapel tradition?

It is a tradition that I have an abiding affection for. As a 19-year-old with a fresh enthusiasm for my Christian faith, I spent a weekend in Chester on my way between Lichfield and Dublin, and on that Sunday morning, visiting a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel, I was taught the only three words in Welsh, the only phrase, I have ever learned in Welsh: Duw cariad yw, ‘God is love.’

In Beaumaris, on the one street, I have noticed how at least two former citadels from the Welsh Chapel tradition have been converted in recent years to serve non-religious functions.

Chapel Court, on the corner of Church Street and Margaret Street, was built in 1871-1876 as the English Presbyterian Church in Beaumaris. But the chapel closed in 1992, and the building was converted into flats and holiday apartments 20 years ago in 1996.

Further down Church Street, the Forum on 6 Church Street, opposite the George and Dragon, was once a chapel but has been converted into a number of commercial units, including the Triple 8 Coffee Shop, the Penny Farthing traditional sweet shop and Little Jack’s Gift Shop.

Nearby, the Capel Seion Welsh Congregational Church was built on the corner of Steeple Lane and Chapel Street in 1821. It replaced an earlier Capel Seion, which was built in 1784 and was the earliest non-conformist foundation in Beaumaris. But Capel Seion (Zion Chapel) closed some years ago too and it too has been converted into housing. But it was once a typical, almost classical Welsh Chapel, built in the Italianate style.

The round-headed central doorway has Tuscan pilasters with a moulded arch and keystone, and double fielded-panel doors with radial-glazed overlights. Inside, the entrance vestibule has plastered round arches on consoles to gallery stairs to the right and left, with moulded newel and plain balusters. The main chapel had a panelled plaster ceiling with ornate moulded ribs and ceiling roses. There was a three-sided gallery, a tall pulpit and cast-iron Corinthian columns.

The Welsh Chapel tradition has made rich contributions to the wider Church through its enthusiastic hymns and songs.

I would cringe to think that visitors to Ireland might judge the state of the health of the Church by looking at closed churches dotting the countryside or former churches in our towns and cities that have been converted into shops, garages, restaurants and showrooms. But if the Welsh Chapel Tradition is dying, it will be a loss to the whole wider church.

Chapel Court on Church Street, Beaumaris … built as the English Presbyterian Church but now divided in apartments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 19: 45-48 (NRSVA):

45 Then he [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, ‘It is written,

“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (19 November 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church in the Province of the West Indies, comprised of eight dioceses across the Caribbean.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The former Capel Seion was a Welsh Congregational Church but has been converted to housing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)